A home win against Radnicki Kragujevac has allowed Spartak St. Petersburg to rejoin the race to reach the Last 32 in difficult, competitive Group H. Spartak downed Radnicki 81-68 behind 20 points, his new Eurocup career-high, from versatile forward Yaroslav Korolev . He added 7 rebounds and 3 assists off the bench and has averages of 10.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in eight games until now.
Korolev has a fascinating story, too, having grown up in Costa Rica and started to play basketball in that country. From a basketball family — his parents and sister were also players — Korolev won the 2005 International Junior Tournament with CSKA as one of the best players on the team. After several stops in Russia, the United States and Spain, Korolev joined Spartak late last season and is slowly but steadily improving his numbers. At age 26, his best basketball is still ahead of him, and Korolev wants to prove it by taking Spartak to the Eurocup Last 32, as he told us in this Eurocupbasketball.com interview. "Of course, in the second stage it is going to be harder. This is the stage that we have to reach. If we don't, it can be considered as a failure, in my opinion," Korolev told Eurocupbasketball.com. "The next stage will be harder and this is where we want to be."
Hello, Yaroslav. Congratulations for the win against Radnicki. Spartak had its back against the wall but reacted well. How much pressure was there and how did the team handle it so well?
"Well, to be honest, there was some pressure because we were on a losing streak of several games. It is a tough situation for us right now. We have to win every game and expect other teams to lose so that we can get to the second round. We played at home and had to win the game, so there was pressure, but we somehow managed it. When you get to the game and start playing, you kind of forget about this pressure, you being nervous. You start playing and if you get a couple of good actions or a couple of positive moments in the game, you just get a good feeling and start playing well."
Spartak is 3-5 and is one win away from Radnicki, which ranks third. The team will most likely need to win both games and wait for other results. How difficult is that situation?
"We have to start playing right away, be aggressive and be aware of what is happening because these are the teams (Bisons Loimaa and Neptunas Klaipeda) that we have to beat. We play against Bisons at home and Neptunas on the road, but we played against them already and know what to expect. Neptunas is going to be a completely different team at home but we have a new player and a new feeling in the team. I hope everything is going to work out well. We just have to come out aggressive and forget about the losses that we had before."
It was your best scoring night in your four Eurocup seasons, too. You are playing some of the best basketball of your professional career. How comfortable do you feel in this team?
"I feel pretty comfortable, and this comfort comes especially from our coaches, who are letting me play all these minutes. They trust me and are helping me when I am on the court. I just feel comfortable and have good teammates. It feels good and I am in Russia, in my country. Everything is working out well for me right now."
How important is seeing a lot of playing time, either starting or coming off the bench, for your continuity?
"It is very important for me. I think that we have a lot of players who can play very good offense. Coach bringing me from the bench does not offend me, in any case. It is totally fine with me — I am not that kind of person that thinks that after I scored 20 points I have to be in the starting five. I don't care at all because what matters in the end is the minutes that you play and the results that you give. I understand it and I think that it should depend on your game. If you play well, then you deserve to play more minutes and help the team. I feel very comfortable coming off the bench and helping the team, being like the second wind that comes out with fresh energy onto the court. I like that feeling, actually."
Like I said before, this is your fourth Eurocup season. How do you find the competition, in terms of competitiveness and playing level?
"I think that the first stage that we are in now, even when there are 48 teams, the competition is good. There are a lot of young teams that play aggressive and run. Of course, in the second stage it is going to be harder. This is the stage that we have to reach. If we don't, it can be considered as a failure, in my opinion. The next stage will be harder and this is where we want to be. The competitiveness is good."
You were part of one of the most successful junior teams in many years with CSKA Moscow, which won the ITJ in 2005. What do you remember about that experience and about winning the title in Moscow?
"It was a long time ago, I would say. Those were great times in terms of fun. My young age, fun, playing basketball, enjoying life and having big dreams for the future. That's how I look at it and it was great. I am very happy that it was that way; that I was in CSKA and everything that came after it. That's the way I remember it — young age, big expectations, big dreams and having fun playing basketball. Some of the best players in that team have played for Spartak. The club is always interested in young talents; that's how they put their name out. They want to develop Russian players."
Your parents were basketball players and your sister also played in the first division. How important is basketball to your family?
"Well, it's everything! Basketball is everything for our family because everybody played, like you said. It was always the main theme in our family, the main theme to talk about and work for. I think it helped me a lot to look differently at basketball, not just as work. A lot of people look at basketball as their work: they come to practice, work and get their money. I don't. That's why sometimes in my life, I took decisions in which I put basketball in front of money, going to lower teams or playing in the D-League. Spartak does not have such a big budget, but I knew I would have playing time and enjoy playing basketball in a club where I can develop."
You also spend some years as a kid in Costa Rica, where your father was a college coach. Did you start to play basketball there? How did you like growing up in Costa Rica?
"I started to play basketball in Costa Rica when I was six years old and yes, my dad was coaching a college team in there. I was there running on the baselines and doing drills. I liked it in Costa Rica and I like that in my life I had a chance to grow up in a totally different part of the world, in Central America, very far from Russia, understanding a different type of life, travelling around world... That made me very communicative as a person and very understanding. I can understand the mentalities of different people in different parts of the world. It was fun! It was a great experience for me as a person."
Your next two games will be against Bisons Loimaa and Neptunas Klaipeda. What did you learn about these two teams that can help you this time around?
"Well, we just have to play some good, solid defense against them, especially in some moments. Bisons played very good pick-and-roll game against us over there. They run pretty good and are good shooters. That's the main key for them. They are not big and strong, but very confident, shooting well and running. As for Neptunas, like I said, they are a very different team at home. Their crowd help them a lot because some of their players are from that city. They are a totally different team at home — and very tough, too."
At age 26, you have played for many different teams in different countries. Do you feel that your best basketball years have yet to arrive?
"Yes, definitely. And I hope so, yes."