TEHRAN (Olympics) - Rajco Toroman is the coach of Iran's national basketball team. Though Iranian basketball began to show signs of life long before he arrived in the country to coach the national team, it was his diagnosis of the players weaknesses and strength that gave the national team zest for life. His quick fix has sent Iran's basketball, after half a century, to the Beijing Olympic Games. FIBA's Houman Bagheri talked to him to find out the ingredients of his remedy.
Could you tell us about your coaching career?
I have been coaching basketball teams for almost 20 years. I have worked in Serbia, Greece, Belgium, Holland, Poland, China, Cyprus, and many other countries. In ex-Yugoslavia, I was the assistant-coach of the national team, when we won the European Championships twice, once in 1991 in Rome, and then in Athens in 1995. I was also the coach of U-22 national team when our team won third place in Istanbul. Working in a lot of different countries has given me lots of handy experience.
How did you first hear about Iran and the coaching vacancy here?
I was the head-coach in a big international camp in Serbia when the Iranian national team was there in a preparation camp. I already had a lot of info about Iran's basketball. I was there when the Iranian national team was playing for the last night and that was my first close contact with the Iranian national team.
You are the one who has finally succeeded in taking the Iranian basketball team to the Olympics after half a century. What was your remedy?
First of all I tried to understand Iranian basketball. I realized that Iranian players were very athletic, very physical and with lots of basketball skills. The problem was embedded in the lack of discipline, both on and off court. I began my training with them only 4 months before the Asian Championship Games in Japan and my working style was very hard for everybody to digest immediately. I have to say that no one has ever worked like us for those games. I started with two things on my agenda. I tried very hard to bring discipline to the team, and I tried very hard to improve the games tactically. Those were the areas we concentrated on. We sent two DVDs of our games in the finals with Qatar and Lebanon to NBA to see if Iran could play in NBA Summer League. They predicted Iran would lose all games because the outside players were not as strong as those in the Summer League. But they were extremely satisfied and surprised with the discipline and tactical game Iranians showed in Japan. That's a big success and I think it is a great achievement for us that big NBA coaches praised our work. So, the basic things are discipline, hard work and tactical improvements. I think we played well but our players have not yet reached their full potentials. I think we must work on that and improve our games both offensively and defensively in transitions.
Does this mean that previous local coaches were incapable to do this?
I did not say that, because I was not here before. But that was the conclusion I arrived at for the team. I have put very strong rules on the team and they will get even tougher as we get closer to the Beijing Games. We are newcomers and little known in the world of basketball but people are now beginning to notice us. What can make us competitive is hard work and even more discipline that what we already have. If any player shows weakness, he won't be in the Olympics. We need warriors, players with characters, and we need those who fight hard. I told the players in Japan that being nice with others is for the end of the game. If they beat us, we will show them respect, but before the game we must be ready to fight. These guys will play in the Olympics against teams like Argentina which have 5 NBA players. Most of our players haven't even seen those players on TV and now they have to step in the court and play against them. And this requires a strong character, to be able to keep tough for a big battle.
So, they shouldn't get scared of the big names?
Yes, that's exactly what I want from the players; not to get scared to fight, and no niceties before the games. Last season, I was new here and I set up a new national team with a few novice players. Now, everyone knows that if he doesn't try hard, he'll be out.
Qualifying for the Olympics has made every Iranian happy. In fact, you have made a long-awaited dream come true. What was your own impression when Iran beat Lebanon in the finals and cleared its way to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games?
In the first instance I was very tired and emotionally worn out. I could not even attend the celebrations after the game. This was due to the heavy pressure I was under during those days. But after 10 minutes, I felt really proud of the Iranian players. That was the main point and I think we had an excellent emotional interaction there after. I was respecting them, and they were respecting me which made us get closer than ever before. We had a very difficult period of time before that victory. Mehdi Kamrani who was away because of injury joined the national team again after an absence of three and a half months just seven days before we flew to Japan. Hamed Afagh had a personal problem, so he had not practiced for the last 8 days.
The biggest downside for us has been the tragic and premature death of Aidin Bahrami. If he were with us, we would have had a different team and a totally different situation now. The problem of replacing someone in his position is still lingering. I told his brother, Samad, to stay stronger than ever, both for the sake of Aidin's spirit and for the sake of the national team. I believe that if all the negative load was not on the team at that time we could have even played with a more competitive force. However, I was satisfied with the results and with the players' behavior. They sacrificed everything for the team.
What is your idea about Asian and Iran's basketball in particular?
Before I came here, I had a relatively good knowledge of the teams. I had a very good friend who was coaching a team in Qatar for 15 years. He passed on a lot of information about Asian basketball. I also had a good contact in China who gave me some useful tips. The main point with most Asian teams is that though they have the physical power and basketball skills, tactically they are far behind European teams.
You mean in teamwork?
Yes, I remember the words of a famous NBA coach who said the only way to be successful in Beijing is to send the best players to Europe to pick up tactical skills for a better tactical game. If you look at the first five teams, 4 of them have European coaches. Even in China where sending players to Europe was against their rules and regulations, a European coach was hired for the national team. I have had a long conversation on this issue with my friend, who is the Serbian coach of Iran's national volleyball team. He said the only way to improve performance is to go to Turkey with three of the Iranian national team players. There they can pick European experience from the best European teams. That's how they can jump to a higher level.
And do you believe that we have the potential among Iranian players to play in good foreign teams?
Yes, I do. We agreed for Hamed Haddadi to play with one of the best European teams, Partizan Belgrade. But unfortunately the deal was not finalized because Hamed turned it down. If he had played one season in Partizan, it would have projected a different mentality here in Iran. Partizan's coach has so far sent three players to NBA. This team has over 70 very difficult games each season, and Hamed could have opened the door for other Iranian players too. For the moment, I think Samad Bahrami and Mehdi Kamrani are ready to play in Europe. These three are the tops. They can play even in ULEB and the Euro League. I believe they have the potential.
Why did Hamed turn down the offer?
Though it is still unclear to me, Hamed decided not to go for personal reasons. I asked the president of the basketball federation to talk to Hamed. But he still refused to go. It could be because he was a bit afraid of the competitive nature of the European league and the hard work it took. One thing I am sure is that it was not the money, because Partizan offered him a good salary. Also, this is not the issue during the first year as what happens over the next 5 years is much more important. I told Hamed, "You have to choose! Stay here and continue the current pattern of life or go there, fight for your position and earn more. It's your choice. Do what you want."
So, he didn't choose the big challenge?
No, he didn't and I am not sure why, but he did not take the offer.
How much, if any, do you believe foreign players in Iran have helped to improve Iranian basketball?
Of course they have. There are lots of good players who are helping the teams, moreover good teams are choosing better imports. Through their experience, the imports can help Iranian players produce a higher standard competition. Making the right choice is also very important. For example, Kaveh signed on with good players last season. Omar Sneed was my player in Belgium and Mike Jones is a good player too. I believe they could have helped Kaveh tremendously. Kaveh could have reached the finals if the team had been a bit stronger and luckier. Overall, it was very good for Kaveh.
Did you have any offers from other countries at the same time you were contacted from Iran? And what was your motivation to work here?
First of all, I was free when Mr. Zoran Radovic from FIBA called me and asked me if I wanted to take the offer. I said I had to see the whole situation first, and gather some information. I called a Serbian coach who was in Iran, then Bosnjak, and they both told me the potential here is really good. I thought I could do something and so I accepted the offer and arrived here during the play-offs in 2006-07 season. I watched a couple of games like Mahram-Saba and Saba-Petrochimi and I saw some really good and promising players. So, for me it was easy to decide to come here.
What image did you have in mind before coming to Iran?
I didn't expect much but I found a lot of potential in every field, even in the shape of the town. I never expected Tehran to look like this due to the vast amount of negative propaganda in the news. I did not expect to see a nice city with nice people as I have. And I did not expect to see players at this level. As I said earlier, three of them can play in good European teams. I can say Iran has started to have a respectable basketball and it has reached one of its goals which was playing in the Olympics. But our goal must now shift to the 2010 World Championships in Turley because we have a young team with high potentials. We should have a long-term plan for basketball in Iran.
What about Iranian people?
Well, I have a lot of friends here and that's very important for me. I enjoy staying here and I am really satisfied and feel very comfortable.
And what about your daily life here?
I have tried to organize my life as good as I can. There are some other Serbian coaches in Iran and I spend part of my time with them. I feel quite at ease living out of my own country. If you start thinking about home, you will get homesick. In any country I have worked so far, I have been able to find friends and hobbies.
So, you are quite sociable?
Yes! If you are not and if you just stay at home, it will become very rough and very difficult. I go home twice a year to visit my family including my grandson and I am happy with this arrangement.
Is your family comfortable with the type of job you have?
My life is basketball, and basketball is everything for me. My son plays basketball in Belgium and my daughter is also living there. Everything that happens around me is linked to basketball. Usually my wife is with me, but now she has to take care of our grandson. But she often comes over to visit me in Iran and like me she feels at home here too.
Has anything ever shocked you here?
Before I came over and from what I was fed by the media I was expecting bad times here. But it has not been so and I was able to adjust myself easily.
What do you think about Iranian spectators?
It's a pity that in Tehran there aren't a lot of spectators. I think this is the biggest problem in the capital.
Why is that so?
Somebody said that the gym is too far, but I do not believe this theory. I think the clubs must work on their fans very hard. The federation should take basketball to schools, and organize competitions between them, so that young people get more interested in basketball. It's a pity that in some games there are just 50 or 100 people in the gym. But if you go to the other cities, such as Gorgan, Babol, or Sirjan you'll see an amazing atmosphere, because over 5,000 fans come to support their teams and that's really exciting. I can not prescribe anything to overcome this problem, but I think a good advertising campaign will work. Also, if we can arrange big tournaments here, I think that would help find more fans to support the sport. Well, they say the gym in Tehran is too far from the city center, but at the same time you see over 100,000 people present in the same stadium to cheer a football match between the leading Iranian soccer teams. The clubs must work very hard to gain dedicated fans. They should work on their websites, press contacts and give away gifts to their fans. The basketball federation must exert more support for them too.
We have several sports newspapers in Iran, but when it comes to basketball, little is covered by them. What do you think of their coverage of basketball especially about the team qualifying for the Olympics after half a century?
Our biggest success was not only qualifying for the Olympics. Our biggest success was that the name of Iran's basketball appeared on the first page of the most famous world sports newspapers for 10 days when we won the championship in Japan last year. So we can push aside football. Therefore, I can say that basketball coverage is not enough at all. We need the daily newspapers to cover and expose basketball to the people. They should cover all games, print names and statistics and photos of the players.
Despite the success, our basketball is suffering from poor international liaison. There are lots of people overseas who are very interested about Iranian basketball. What measures do you think the federation should take in this regard?
One thing is to organize high-level clinics here in Iran and invite high-level coaches to come. We should not think we know everything. Last season, the federation received invitations from a few low-level or mid-level teams, but this season the invitations are from famous countries in basketball such as Slovenia, Australia, Italy, and many others. We have to grab this opportunity to improve the level of Iranian basketball. I think if we play with good teams here in Iran during which we can also organize some clinics it would help our players a lot.
Have you ever encountered any communication gaps with players or other people?
No, I speak English, and sometimes when someone doesn't understand my assistant translates my words.
What have you learned about the Iranian culture?
I have tried to visit the historical places. I was very impressed by different sites I visited in Isfahan. I was staying in a hotel with a traditional architectural design. The trip was a boost to my peace of mind.
How much can sports bring countries with conflicts together?
A lot. We should not think about politics but only friendship in sports.
Will you consider staying in Iran after the Olympics?
I like it here, but I do not know about my decision after the Olympics. I should see what is best for me and what is best for the federation.
Good Luck Rajco and I hope Iran plays well in Beijing.
Thanks and I hope for the same, too.
FIBA Official Correspondent in Iran