Zastal Enea Zielona Gora sent shock waves throughout European basketball by beating CSKA Moscow in the VTB league. The victory was even more impressive as Zastal were without their Head coach Zan Tabak leaving his assistant Felix Alonso in charge.
Félix Alonso (1973) is a Spanish coach with extensive experience both nationally and internationally. He started training in León, his birth city, and at age 26 signed as an assistant coach for New Mexico Lobos in the NCAA. The following year, he returned to Spain in Zamora (Liga EBA), to later sign as Paco Olmos’ assistant in Los Barrios (LEB Oro), where he later became head coach. After that experience, he trained at Melilla (LEB Gold) and at Joventut Alaior, first at LEB Bronze and later promoted to LEB Plata. Years later he would continue his career abroad: two years in the Portuguese Basketball League, with the first of these years in Sampaense Basket (2014/2015) and the second in Ovarense Basquetebol (2015/2016). In 2016 he signed for KFUM Nassjo Basket of the Basketligan league (Swedish league), but in December he returned to Spain to take charge of Iberojet Palma, which he saved from relegation and elevated them to be promoted to ACB the following season. Alonso now holds the position of Assistant coach for Zan Tabak in Enea Zastal Zielona Gora.
Read below as Lipe Cristóbal Galindo of Future Stars speaks to Alonso in afternoon after training as his team prepare of a fixture in the Polish league that evening.
Thank you for speaking with us, how is your training going?
Well, as it’s the morning before a game, a bit of shooting, reviewing some plays of the rival and little else, it is not very intense. At around 40% intensity after the victory of the other day.
What led you to change your team this season, changing Palma for Poland and going from being head coach to assistant coach?
The pandemic has directly affected everyone’s lives and in my case it was no exception. According to how we understood it, the project in Palma ended with this situation and as you can see, it is now very different from what we started two seasons ago. The feeling I had was that I had a job to do but that the cycle was over.
I had long valued the option of being an assistant coach again, to see another way of understanding basketball, to try to continue learning, to retrain myself and this opportunity arose. Zan (Tabak) called me one day and explained his philosophy. He explained to me the impact that he wanted me to have in the day-to-day life of the team and what my participation and my role would be, the truth is that attracted me. The possibility of working with someone like him with the experience he has as a coach and what he has been as a player appealed to me. I believed that it was a very good opportunity to learn and I was also encouraged by the possibility of playing in a competition like VTB.
Without a doubt, training with someone like Zan Tabak should be a source of continuous learning. You are already a consolidated and experienced coach, do you keep learning day by day? What do you think of the need for coaches to continuously learn?
I consider continuous training as something fundamental, something basic. The coach who does not evolve is lost. I keep learning day by day. To some extent, in recent years I have only been learning from my mistakes and my successes, I have had very limited opportunities to learn from others, since the last time I was an assistant coach was 14 years ago. With Tabak I am learning a lot. He has been an assistant coach for great coaches like Joan Plaza, who is a very methodical coach and has great knowledge; he has also been assistant coach of Pablo Laso; and then he has all that experience that he got when he was a player. He is a very intelligent guy who has very clear ideas and who also gives great importance to his coaching staff and makes us participate a lot, therefore, he makes you feel comfortable. Besides learning, he lets you develop.
You have held the role of both Head and Assistant coach, What do you think the true role of an assistant coach is and what should Head coaches expect from their assistant?
An assistant coach has to be a coach, not a mere chaperone who just says yes to what the head coach wants to hear. He has to have initiative. Logically, the first coach is the one who will make the final decision, but the assistant has to be capable to put his point across with a logical argument if he refutes the actions of the Head coach. I think he has to be proactive and not reactive, take the initiative whilst knowing the position he occupies within the coaching staff and the team. In fact, when Zan called me he was looking for a first coach, which was a great motivation for me because I understood that the role he was going to give me within the team was going to be important. From the beginning, he asked me to give him my opinion on everything that I don’t like or that I would change as if I had that responsibility. I have tried to do this, at first, perhaps I was a little more restrained, trying to know him better, learning how to approach and tell him things. Now that little by little we are gaining trust in each other and getting to know each other, of course our communication is much more fluid and work is much easier.
Did you know Zan personally before signing as his assistant?
We had met once in Mallorca many years ago when he was training in Girona. Through his assistant Dejan Kamenjasevic, who is a mutual friend. That was the only contact I had had with him. With the amount of people he knows, he probably didn’t even remember me.
Unfortunately, Tabak could not be in the last two games for personal reasons. You had to lead the team in those two games, both victories, one a very important win against CSKA. It is often said that managing the team as an assistant coach is difficult as players tend to relax by not feeling pressure from the Head coach. In your case this clearly did not happen. How have you approached these games and training sessions in the role of Head coach?
My approach to the players was very simple: I asked for their help. I have always been of the opinion that the coaches without the players are absolutely nothing. Although I have been a first coach for many years, my role in the team is defined, therefore you need the collaboration of all of them. The other day I was talking to Zan and I was telling him that we have a very easy team to manage in matches as they are well trained. To his credit, since the preseason the rules have been very defined and clear. Prior to a game there is no room for improvisation, so my role was fundamentally to review the rules we have, make a decision, especially in the aspect of defending the pick and roll and ensure the team is mentally prepared. Relaxation can come due to the absence of the head coach, but this group is exceptional, as has been demonstrated since the start of the season. They are very professional and they showed it in both games.
You played against CSKA, then against Hydro Truck Radom, then in very quick succession there are games against Spojnia Stagard and Nizhny Novgorod in the VTB League. How do you manage the preparation of matches in such a tight schedule? What aspects of the game do you focus on in the previous training sessions?
In defense we do not invent anything. We maintain our rules that are very defined from the first day of preseason. Obviously, there are aspects that we must improve, but you do not have the same capacity as when you train a team that plays only once a week, when you can make adjustments to different situations. We focus a lot on ourselves, on improving our performance in those aspects that we have to improve; we never work on rival systems, only concepts. Offensively is where we usually introduce different things for upcoming games and the different points of the season.
But as I told you, with the little time we have to train, the work that has been done in the preseason is basic, consolidating those concepts and that the players know at all times what they have to hold on to.
After so many different leagues and places where you’ve trained, how do you think your basketball has evolved? What do you think is the biggest difference between the Coach Felix who trained in León or in the NCAA and the one who is now in Poland?
Probably now I question myself more. Before, I was so daring that I believed I knew everything and now I realize that at that time I knew little. I still have a lot to learn. That I think this is my greatest evolution, having many things clear, but also many others that I question every day, which helps me improve. It also helps that I have acquired experience over so many years, competing in different leagues and in different countries. Being able to discover the way they play and train in those countries has made me the coach that I am today.
I read in an interview that in your second year in Palma you had to change your way of training, simplifying it because what you were proposing was too complicated.
Yes, that has probably been my greatest learning in these years, both the second and third year of Palma. I was trying to propose a game in which the players were capable of making their own decisions, but with a certain complexity, taking into account: the defense, if the defense does this, we do that; but in the end I realized that this is very difficult to work. In the two seasons I had to change it. In the first one, we changed it on time and we reached the final. In the second, I did not learn enough from the first and I tried again, and we changed it just two weeks before the pandemic, and the team reacted again and played well with clearer offensive rules and without much freedom for the players. The players at the beginning are very happy with freedom, and the ability to make decisions, but with time they were the ones who demanded me to play in a stricter way.
You have young players in the team like Kacper Porada (2001), Kacper Traczyk (1998), Dawid Derezinski (2002) and Nikodem Klocek (1999). How do you develop and trust these young players? What is the youth training program like?
Unfortunately, we work little with them due to the training time we have. In these five months of competition we have covered 80,000 kilometers, which means more than two laps around the world. Between December and January we have played 20 games, which means one game every three days, with trips to Russia, Belarus and Estonia, together with those in Poland, which are five or six hours by bus each time we travel. That means that we do not have enough time to train and improve as a team and unfortunately we don’t have time to work on the individual improvement of our young players. We know it is a problem, but we literally do not have the time to dedicate it to young players.
At London United Academy we have players who can be great prospects and have a promising development. When a player of that style goes up to train from the youth team to a team with older people, with more experience, what do you advise them? What must a young player who goes up to train with these professional players to accept and trust them during training sessions?
First, the coach has to be able to show them confidence. When a player comes to train with the first team and they see people with a lot of experience and quality, it is essential that the coach shows them confidence in order to develop his talent. The type of team you have is also very important to be able to integrate these players in the best way and help them, in the same way that those players in their initial stage in professional basketball were helped by other veteran players. Apart from all this, the ability to work is fundamental and the talent they have. They should try, through that work, to develop their talents in the best possible way.
In addition, in today’s basketball, speed in decision-making is essential. It is something very difficult to work with, but it what ends up making the difference between some players and others.
Thank you very much, we wish you the best in your upcoming matches and for the rest of the season.
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