“Personally, I have had two shitty years, but we keep winning titles, and that’s what is important. What matters here is the team”; Sergio Llull, point guard for Real Madrid while the squad celebrated the recent Liga ACB title.
“Wow, you’ve just had an amazing quarter!”, side-line reporter says to Anthony Randolph during halftime after he’d scored 13 points with no misses in eight minutes. “We’re down by one, I am not happy at all”, Randolph answers looking indeed angry.
“I miss Real Madrid a lot, what we had was special”; Luka Doncic, NBA’s rookie of the year.
At this point you probably imagine where I’m going with this. Real Madrid’s basketball section has become an amazing example of what this club always stood for, and a reference for every single club section – yes, that includes the football one – to follow.
What this group of players and their coach have built since 2011 goes beyond the usual positive dynamics of a well-oiled team that wins more often than not. They’ve taken selflessness and team spirit to a whole different level.
Take Llull’s opening quote, for instance. Two years ago he was on fire, and had been leading the team and riding an amazing sequence of clutch shots for the best of eighteen months. Then he turned down an offer from the Houston Rockets because he loved Madrid a bit too much, and suffered some injuries that have made him look strangely human, a bit too error-prone for a player that scored too many of these shots to think it was a coincidence.
His teammates have covered for his scoring struggles and diminishing minutes, and the team keeps winning, which as he said, it’s all that matters. Similar to Randolph’s quote, you have to hear Llull saying that. While he speaks, you can tell he’s not frustrated or downbeat, but ecstatic because histeam just won. His display of humbleness should ring a bell for anyone who’s enjoyed the pleasure of playing in a group that got business done no matter who got the applause in the end.
The main point that makes me root for these guys to such an extent that I watch their matches standing for 90% of the playing time is how they compete. It’s hard to think of another group of players that have been so consistent in every single tournament, regardless of its importance. They simply never take a day off.
Since coach Laso took over in 2011, the team has won 17 titles, but let me elaborate a bit about each competition:
a) Spanish League: five titles and three finals;
b) Spanish Cup: five titles and one final;
c) Euroleague: two titles, two finals and another two Final Fours.
If you don’t know much about Spanish / European basketball and believe that Real Madrid always dominated every competition, let me tell you that they had last won the league in 2007, the Copa in 1993 (!) and the Euroleague in 1995. Under his command, they have also broken the record of consecutive wins in all competitions with 31.
What Laso has done with this team in terms of will to compete and win is nothing short of mindboggling. And, incidentally, this is what draw me to root for this club when I was a kid, on top of other family-related reasons: the team spirit that sets the target in competing as hard as possible to win, not picking one trophy over another.
It looks like too much success, right? You may even be thinking that Florentino, tired after years of failing at hoops, threw tons of cash to build an amazing side like some of his predecessors had done – Arvidas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic did play for the club in the past. Not really. In a rare exercise of delegation, all signings and firings depend on Laso, who’s not really keen on big names. After his debut season, during which Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez arrived from NBA teams, the following seasons have seen an influx of extremely dependable, hard-working players that have gelled into the side with amazing ease.
It’s more and more evident that Laso is not only signing raw talent, but specific profiles of players who value the atmosphere Doncic misses over other elements of the sport they play. If I told you the name of the US-born players in the squad I’d be shocked if you could guess the college of any of them – for instance the team’s best shooter, Carroll, played for Utah State and went undrafted after he graduated, while the most complete of them, the aforementioned Randolph, can do things like this but after a few decent seasons in disjointed NBA teams had to try his luck in Europe.
With this coach you don’t see B-sides playing the Copa del Rey or starters taking days off in a league match to rest for an upcoming Euroleague contest. Rotations exist, indeed, and probably his biggest merit has been to build a competitive squad in which at least ten players believe they can start at any given point.
Their motivation, the way they compete, the fact that they never give up on any given match regardless of how poor they may be playing has made this team addictive, a must watch every single week. And I really believe that this type of mindset is what Zidane implemented during the 2016-17 season and what he missed while he analysed the squad before he decided to resign in the summer of 2018. His comeback in the last months of the season that just finished has given him even more reasons for concern.
The football section, so successful in Europe in the last few seasons, needs that level of consistency across tournaments. We’re not a club that picks their matches, but one in which competing every day is a sign of our identity and of our respect for our opponents. As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, our performance in domestic tournaments in the last decade is simply laughable and that needs to change. Thankfully, Zidane knows that well and has a great example to use for his players right next door.