Basketball / Euroleague playoffs/A Most Peculiar Man

Maccabi Tel Aviv faces a tough coach in Dusko Ivanovic of Caja Laboral Vitoria, maybe too tough for his own good

Dusko Ivanovic, the coach of Caja Laboral Vitoria, does not have a lot of love lost for Maccabi Tel Aviv, his team's Euroleague opponent tomorrow. Pini Gershon's 2005 edition disposed of his Tau Vitoria 90-78 in that year's European championship final, and the Maccabi of David Blatt in 2002 blew out Vitoria 94-65 to advance to the Final Four.

Then again, the 53-year-old Montenegrin doesn't seem to care about being loved. Players and journalists say he has a dictatorial style. "A strange man, too serious, one who almost never smiles," says Jose Hueget, the basketball desk editor of El Mundo Deportivo in Spain. "Many players finish Ivanovic's practices exhausted. He never showed consideration for a player returning from injury. Whether you're healthy a day or two months he expects the same level of preparedness." He says the media received complaints from fans, who said players told them it was a mistake to play for him.

Hueget says he thinks Lior Eliyahu, who played under Ivanovic in Vitoria last year, returned to Maccabi in part because of the coach, not just because he missed Israel. He says other players heard about his grueling practices and refused to sign with the team.

Ivanovic the coach is a continuation of Ivanovic the player, a star with Jugoplastika Split in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was always the first to practice - serious, determined and demanding. But his problematic traits as coach overshadows his success at times, including turning Luis Scola and Tiago Splitter into legitimate NBA players. He won the Spanish Cup for Barcelona during his tenure there between 2005 and 2008, but was ousted after losing in the 2008 quarterfinal to Bilbao.

Scola called Ivanovic an outstanding coach, serious and dedicated, one who is always open with his players about what he demands of them.

Stanko Barac, Malaga's Croatian center, has improved tremendously but was also in shock when he first met Ivanovic, says Hueget: "You have to be totally dedicated to basketball with him," says Hueget, "and not every player is built for that."

The team has struggled this season in the league to reach a 16-10 record. The fans have been a lot less happy with him since returning from Barcelona because of that record, Hueget notes. "In Vitoria basketball is the only thing," he says. "The team is the pride of the city, and they're not used to this many losses to second-rate teams in Spain or in the Euroleague."

This Euroleague season Vitoria beat Maccabi at home 94-78 and lost 81-70 in Tel Aviv, but made life hard for itself otherwise. Ivanovic told Haaretz this weekend that Vitoria plays too inconsistently: "We have enough talent to fix the mistakes, but against the best teams we're liable to pay too high a price."

He plays down Vitoria's home-court advantage in its series with Maccabi, explaining: "It's nice to play in front of your fans, but the moment you lose the first game, the home-court advantage turns into a pressure cooker. It's very important to win that first game and then move on, knowing you can make up for it if you have a meltdown. In a relatively long series, both Maccabi and we are capable of winning away from home. The little things will determine this series."

Ivanovic says Maccabi is a tough opponent for anyone because it is a conglomeration of talent that has gelled into an elite unit this season. "It's a well-coached team that plays with lots of intensity based on pressure defense and steals," he says. "It's the best team in Europe in several categories. I saw games where they were nearly perfect."

The coach says he would have loved to have kept Eliyahu, but fate decreed otherwise. "Now we have to manage with the tools we've got, and we have tools to win - good, talented players. As for Maccabi, he says the entire team is dangerous, not just one or two players. [Chuck] Eidson is intelligent, [Sofoklis] Schortsanitis is perhaps the most powerful player in Europe.

"The guards are quick and athletic," he says. "In short, Maccabi has several players at all positions who are highly talented, and that's what we have to deal with. We have to be fearless but thoughtful. The easy win we had at home at the beginning of the season is the past. That's not a realistic expectation considering the current balance of forces."