2017 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four is now days away. Before the first tip-off, Final Four’s ever-present side CSKA Moscow’s star guard Aaron Jackson spoke to TrendBasket on subjects such as his season with CSKA, Final Four encounters against Olympiacos and a possible Fenerbahçe matchup in the Final.
Five seasons and five Final Four appearances with CSKA… How do you feel about being a part of this success?
Grateful. I’m very thankful that I got the opportunity to play for a club like CSKA. We’re all at the same page, working hard. We all had the goal to get to the Final Four. I gotta say this will be my fifth Final Four in a row; I’m very grateful but I’m still determined to do the best.
This season is one of your better seasons in your career and you’ve been in form since the very beginning. How did you keep your performance at a certain – high – level?
I had a tough off-season. Last season was tough for me personally. I broke my face and can’t play to the best of my ability. But coaching staff and my teammates made my job easier. In the beginning of the season, I started off good. I just kept the same routine, which was shooting at the practice and working on thing that might happen to me in the game; so I can get ready.
In Play-off, Baskonia came back from double digit leads in all 3 games and for several years now, we have seen a lot of comfortable leads falling apart by the end of the game. Is this a tactical issue or a mental issue?
It’s definitely something I know what it is. I think we get very comfortable. We have a lot of good players, a lot of talent. When you get a certain lead, some players get comfortable and want to play for their stats, play for themselves. It kind of hurts the team as you’re seeing other teams come back. I think we learned a lot from the past two years about having comfortable leads. We respect every team, we play our best. They do come back but as long as we got the win, we’re more than happy.
The team was off to a brilliant start to the season but couldn’t reach that level for the rest of the season. Given that and the struggles against Baskonia, are you all concerned about this right before Final Four?
No. Like I said, we have a really good team, really good coaching staff that put tons of efforts on how to make a game easier for us. We had a really good start but we had ups and downs, injuries, players out of rhythm, players out of sync. I think right now everyone is playing good basketball. Even though Baskonia were a lower seed than us and they didn’t have home court advantage, that was a team that should have the home court advantage. They should’ve finished third or fourth place. It was a rough test for the Final Four.
You went through 2013 and 2015 semi finals losses against Olympiacos. How do you remember those games?
In my first one, I was overanxious. I think our team was overanxious. It was a new team. It was (Ettore) Messina’s first year. We just kind of jumped the gun and we put too much pressure on ourselves because we wanted to win one with Messina coming back.
In the second one, we played a great game. We beat them in every tactical game. You just got to give it to Olympiacos. (Vassilis) Spanoulis made a few big plays. (Kostas) Sloukas made a big play at the end and we just didn’t make the plays to execute that game. If there is a tight game in this Final Four, I think we’re going to change it this time.
Do you think about those games to prepare yourself mentally?
No. We just think about what we did last year. Mostly I think about what I did last year. That’s the feeling that I want again. If it’s Olympiacos, if it’s Fenerbahçe… Doesn’t matter; we want to win.
You mentioned last year’s Final. It was one for the ages for both sides. Are you guys dreaming about a possible Fenerbahçe matchup in the Final?
I would like to play with Fenerbahçe. First of all, it’s because they beat us twice this year. They’re saying we stole a championship from them. Fans are saying this. It would be great to come here and have that matchup again; hopefully with the same outcome.
Now it’s play-off time in VTB. What are your thoughts about VTB’s toughness in terms of getting prepared for EuroLeague?
First round of the playoffs was like every first round every top team has in their domestic leagues. In the second round we got Lokomotiv. (Kuban) In the first round they played against UNICS [Kazan], a EuroLeague team. Zenit and Khimki are also tough teams. Don’t get me wrong but there are some teams where we can rest players, we can use as a practice. Every team that we played in VTB treats us like the final game. We can’t come out there slack.
For instance, Olimpia Milano suffered from that. Italian League is kind of weak – and VTB is not that strong – that hurt them in the [EuroLeague] regular season because they don’t get challenged. Do you feel the same way about CSKA?
No, I think coaches are doing a very good job of making us feel like every game is a EuroLeague game. We’re motivated. Even when we play against a Chinese team in a scrimmage game in the preseason, those guys put the pressure on us to make us ready for the opponent.
Your first professional team was also in Turkey. (Antalya Büyükşehir Belediye) Starting your career in a difficult league like Turkish League… How did it contribute to you?
I had a lot of fun there. It was tough because the league was very good like it is now. But I had a coach that really believed in me. He was on my case a lot. He really wanted to see me become a good player. I remember him saying against teams like Efes, Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş etc. ‘These are the games that are going to make you break your career. Do you want to become someone big in Europe?’ I was 23 years old and he was telling us like, ‘I see potential on you’. I took it very personally when he told me these things and I had fun to play against top teams in Turkey.
You’re one of the names that stand out when we’re talking about “changing location.” Is your mindset still the same? Or has it changed a little?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m here, grateful to be here. I love İstanbul. I said it over times that İstanbul is one of my favorite cities. Unfortunately, my family is not here. Several other teammates’ families are not here. Everyone wants to focus on their game, not worry about their families out in Turkey. My safety, teams’ safety, every other individual’s safety… I think that’s the destiny of God. I’m not saying Turkey is a bad place. I’m not saying negative things about Turkey. I’m here for the Final Four and my job is basketball.