“Grow a beard like Harden? No, it’s too much” – Zeljko Sakic says

“Grow a beard like Harden? No, it’s too much” – Zeljko Sakic says

The Croatian forward Zeljko Sakic is one of the Avtodor’s leaders this season and last week he extended the agreement with the club until 2022.

In the interview Sakic talked about why he likes playing in Russia, a fun tradition on the Croatian National team, memorable trips to Rio de Janeiro and Las Vegas, why he doesn’t spend a lot of time in social media, who his favorite player in the NBA is, and about must-see places in Croatia.

– More than halfway through the season, Avtodor is at 8th place and has a good chance to make it to the playoffs. How do you assess your team’s record?
– Before the start of the season, if someone had said we would be in the top-8, I would have been happy for sure and said it was a good result. But in February and March we won only once, also there were two games that we should have won, but lost in the end. Nevertheless, even despite the recent setbacks, we’re happy with our result and happy to keep fighting for the playoffs. I’m sure it’s a significant event for the club, because Avtodor hasn’t played in the spring stage of the championship since 2018.

– Avtodor is the first team since 2013 where you will play for at least two seasons. Why have you decided to extend the contract with the club before the end of the current championship?
– Yes, before coming to Saratov I’ve really changed 7 teams in 7 years. Each of the previous clubs wanted to keep me, but when the summer came, there was always another club that was ahead of the contract of my previous team and made me a better offer. Avtodor made me a new offer pretty quickly and I am very happy that I can continue to represent the team – I know the team, the city, and how much they love basketball here. I think I made the right step.

– What is the main difference between Avtodor and other teams you’ve played for?
– Avtodor is in one of the three best leagues in Europe. And I really like to play at the highest level and against the strongest basketball players of the continent. Avtodor gives me that opportunity, that’s why I’m very happy to play for Saratov and to be here next season as well.

– Do you have a feeling that this is “covid” season? Or is it not that much different from the ordinary season?
– If we’re talking only about the United VTB League and Russia, I wouldn’t say there are that many differences. Yes, roads are more difficult and there are daily tests, but we got used to that pretty quickly. But it’s much more difficult for the teams from Europe, because there are still a lot of closed areas. But I hope that soon all the countries will return to their normal lives.

– Many people say that Russia and Croatia are similar – people, mentality, language. What can you say about that?
– I really feel very comfortable in Russia, after 6-7 months I already speak Russian quite well, although I still can’t write in Russian. All of us – Russians, Croats and other people from the eastern part of Europe – are Slavs, so it’s easier for us to learn and understand each other, to get used to the local cuisine. And although now it’s -20 outside, it doesn’t bother me, because it is quite sunny out there.

– What words in Russian did you learn first?
– As it usually happens, not the best ones! But from the first days I ask everyone “How are you?”, I say “Hello! The rest of the words and phrases I learn gradually. Sometimes you go into a restaurant, you hear what they are talking about at the next table, and the next time you go there you try to repeat what you learned: “I’m waiting for my friend, he came to the restaurant!”

– You are 32 years old, but you still play for the Croatian National team. Can you describe your performances for the national team in three words?
– The first one is passion, that’s for sure. Second – perseverance. And, of course, love. It’s hard for me to describe the emotions when you play in the National team uniform. It’s an incredible feeling to represent your country on the international stage.

– You probably have a lot of funny stories from the National team. Can you share one of them?
– There’s an interesting rule in the National team – if someone is late for dinner or an event where all the basketball players are supposed to attend, then the late player must sing a song in front of everyone at the next meeting. It’s a lot of fun!

– Have you ever had to sing a song?
– No, I’ve never been late for lunch, dinner or an important meeting. But I always keep an eye on the clock and guess who’s going to sing a song. Of those who were late and sang lately, I can remember Marin Maric and Antonio Vrankovic. The last, by the way, is the son of the president of our Croatian Basketball Federation.

– Together with the Croatian team you went to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. What was memorable about those trips?
– First of all, it’s worth remembering that before Rio we were qualifying in Turin and didn’t have much of a chance to go to Brazil. The Italians played at home and assembled a very strong roster. They were the favorites and made it to the final. And we reached the final. And we beat Italy in overtime! Then I realized that my dream to take part in the Olympics would come true. Everything happened very quickly – first place in qualification, a few days of rest and here we were in Brazil, surrounded by the most famous athletes in the world. It was incredible. Everything was filled with the atmosphere of the Olympics! I saw Usain Bolt and the U.S. basketball team, famous soccer and volleyball players, swimmers and track and field athletes. Then it seemed like the world had stopped to hold the Olympics.

As for Las Vegas, I wasn’t originally on the list of players to go there. But when they had to look for a replacement, the coach called me. Asked me: “Will you come?” I said, “Sure, what questions could there be?” For me it wasn’t that important where the National team was going, to Las Vegas or not. The fact that I can play for the National team is important to me, because the National team comes first. There was an experimental Croatian team in Vegas, made up mostly of young players. I remember that no one believed in our team. Everyone said we were going to lose by 30-40 points. The reason is quite obvious. Players who are going to the Summer League want to make it to the NBA, they are motivated and try to play their best basketball in front of their coaches and scouts. But in the end we didn’t lose any of our games by a landslide. Yes, we lost 5 times in 5 games, but we kept fighting in each game. Even though we weren’t used to the fast pace of American basketball and the size of the local courts.

– Have you had any offers from NBA teams since Las Vegas?
– I told my agent, Misko Raznatovic, that I wanted to be like Pero Antic. He signed a contract with an NBA team at the age of 30 and we also look very similar. But unfortunately, there were no serious offers. I don’t feel bad, because I feel comfortable in Europe and I know that the numbers don’t lie – at least in the Summer League I was pretty good.

– There are 3 Croatian players in the NBA right now – Dario Saric, Bojan Bogdanovic and Luka Samanic. Do you keep in touch with them?
– I am in touch with Dario and Bojan all the time! I heard about Luka, but he`s a different generation, I don`t know him personally and we don`t communicate. But I am very happy for all the guys from Croatia! Bogdanovic had a great season in Utah, which is the best team in the NBA right now, and Phoenix got Saric back, who is extremely smart and tough. On the other hand, there is something not so positive about that – if Utah and Phoenix are successful in the playoffs, then Bojan and Darijo won’t help us in terms of qualification for the Olympics. But I love the guys and I wish them all the best, they always know they can call me and I can call them. We are good friends!

– NBA has changed a lot in recent years. Do you have any favorite players there today? And who was your idol as a kid?
– I think almost everyone born in the 80s and 90s would say their favorite player was Michael Jordan. Regardless of the position the player had. I followed the Chicago Bulls since 1994 and Michael Jordan seemed like God to me. Although we had a lot of legendary players in Croatia as well – Kukoc, Radja, Petrovic, Vrankovic and others. But every time we threw a ball as kids, everyone shouted only “Jordan!” He’s also unique in that he went off to another sport, and when he came back and won three championship rings with Bulls, that’s fantastic. And all this in an era of great big men – Olajuwon, O’Neal, Ewing, Duncan, Robinson, Malone, a little later there was Stromile Swift.

As for the NBA today, I like to follow different basketball players. For example, Nikola Jokic. Who thought he would play at this level? I remember his body and skills and now he’s probably the best center in the league. Luka Doncic is also great. Really like Chris Paul, he has an incredible basketball IQ. By the way, I met Vince Carter in Las Vegas, another great athlete and person. But if I have to single out one basketball player, I would still name LeBron James.

– You don’t have Twitter, Instagram, not even a profile picture on WhatsApp. You don’t like social media?
– The older I get, the more I want to live a real life, not a virtual one. I prefer real communication, so I don’t use Instagram or Twitter.

– What do you do in your spare time?
– I like to eat good food, talk to friends and watch movies. The life of an athlete is not to everyone’s liking, but I love it very much.

– What is your favorite Russian dish?
– Borsch doesn’t count, does it? I know, it’s a Ukrainian dish. Then I’ll choose pancakes. I especially like pancakes with cheese! Although, frankly speaking, there are not so many restaurants with Russian cuisine in Saratov, but there are Uzbek, Georgian and European cuisines.

– You’re certainly one of the most cheerful players in the VTB League. How do you stay in a good mood all the time?
– A few years ago, I decided for myself that I needed to smile more often. I want everyone to smile and be remembered as a person who always laughs and smiles. After all, it helps to set a positive mood, especially in difficult times.

– Can you name a character similar to you?
– I don’t know if there is such a character who constantly moves from one place to another. I like interacting with different people and traveling. The other side of me is Joker!

– Do you have a favorite comedian?
– Dave Chappelle! He’s very good, I watch a lot of shows with him. I also like Balkan comedians. They have a different kind of humor, but I like it. I love “dumb humor,” where everyone reacts to a joke with silence and I laugh.

– When did you realize you wanted to grow a beard?
– When I started going bald! When the first signs of not having any hair on my head appeared, I immediately started growing facial hair.

– Do you want a beard like Harden’s?
– No, that’s too much. Too much!

– Does the beard help you cope with the Russian cold?
– I think it does. But I feel comfortable both in cold and in heat. Anywhere in the world, me and my beard would feel fine.

– Nevertheless, you like to rest in Croatia. Can you recommend places to relax in your native country?
– We have a great capital city Zagreb. We also have Split, Dubrovnik, Zadar, Sibenik and Istria, which is on the peninsula. We have thousands of incredible islands and beaches, 300 days of sunshine a year, and the sea is incredibly clear. I think this is the reason why many people go on vacation to Croatia.

– Do you desire to visit all the countries of the world after you retire?
– If I was asked this question 2-3 years ago, I would have surely answered “Yes”. Now that I have to travel 10 months a year, I would answer no, sometimes I just want to come home and rest. But maybe the answer to that question will change again after my retirement. However, I am not planning to finish it yet, so we will definitely talk again in 5-6 years!