The climax is coming in Russian and European basketball. On Friday, May 28, the Euroleague Final Four kicks off, and shortly after it ends, the VTB United League Final kicks off. CSKA Moscow will fight for victory in both tournaments. And on Thursday, Sergey Kushchenko, one of the most successful sports managers in Russia, a man who stood at the origins of the army club in its current form, celebrates his 60th birthday. Incredibly, since his arrival at CSKA in 2002, the “red-blues” have not lost a single series in all the tournaments in which they participated, missing the Final Four only once and never the United League final. We talked about the secret of such stability and many other things with the birthday man himself, who now holds the post of President of the United League.
Was the moment when Alexander Yakovlevich Gomelsky invited you from Ural Great Perm to CSKA, was it a landmark in your career or as a worker?
Sergey Kushchenko: Significant, of course. On the one hand, in Perm it was already clear that it was impossible to jump higher. Budgets began to grow and a regional club like Ural Great had a very hard time. On the other hand, I myself grew up on CSKA, on the comments of Yakovlevich.
Correct us, but since your arrival at CSKA, the army team has not lost a single series in all the tournaments in which they played. And it’s not even about the players, who have passed through the team, but the system. What is her secret?
Sergey Kushchenko: Actually, that’s a good question. Let’s rewind a little time to 2002. Half of Ural Great’s office moves to Moscow. We work 24/7. People fainted. That, probably, then this story was laid. When we entered the office, there was nothing there, everything was torn out. 1971 Cup: Someone smoked and threw a cigarette butt into it. We got “zero”. There are no fans, no team. Dusan Ivkovic (head coach of CSKA in 2002-2005 – approx. “RG”) has not yet been persuaded to come to us. At that moment it was important to understand that philosophy in Moscow should be different than in Perm. In Perm, apart from contracts, we gave something more. The conditions were created for the players that they understood: this club is more than a contract for me. When the players call our women who worked in the locker room and ask for help. When we treat close relatives of basketball players. This is family. A family! And this philosophy has taken root in Perm.
What was CSKA’s philosophy based on? And what of the Permian experience did not take root in Moscow?
Sergey Kushchenko: Coordination between the management of the club and the team itself, the dressing room. When we defended the budget, I was asked what is most important. I answer: the most important thing is to repair the locker room. You can forget about my office, but do the dressing room. Then Ivkovich came and got all the powers that he asked for. My task was to create a convenient management model between all these links.
Ivkovic opened European doors for me. He understood how management should take place. He dealt with everything to the smallest detail, for example, who lives with whom at the departure of the hotel. Duda opened my eyes to things that I did not understand in Perm. Second point. In Perm, getting people to play basketball is not a problem. He gave me entertainment, played a bicycle for tickets – a full hall. Moscow is a completely different story. In Moscow, the main thing is to have victories. There are victories and the audience accepts all your ideas. In the regions, ideas can work without victories, but in the capital they cannot. Beat Panathinaikos – full house. Beat Olympiacos – sold out all the tickets. And only then comes the show that we did in Perm. And then, it required adjustment. The audience here is spoiled. There are stadiums, theaters. And these are direct rivals. If you choose basketball, you have to get something in return. If in the office, in the locker room, the family turned out pretty quickly, then it turned out to be more difficult with the fans.
There is also such a moment that we were people from Ural Great. First we won against CSKA, and then they came to manage the club. The lapping was not so fast. When I left, Andrei Vatutin (the current president of CSKA – RG commentary) preserved this philosophy. He builds not only contractual relationships, but also personal ones. He had very difficult moments when the future of the club was really in question. And what about the 2010/2011 season, when CSKA didn’t even make it to the Euroleague playoffs? All this was passed, because the built system did not allow the club to sink.
When you went to biathlon, did you have to forget about basketball?
Sergey Kushchenko: Never! I couldn’t have done it without basketball. I lacked basketball communication, and Andrey Vatutin helped me in this. In addition, at the same time, the Brooklyn Nets appeared in my life, which was bought by Mikhail Prokhorov in 2010 and I joined the board of directors of which. With great pleasure I flew to New York to work.
Has anyone from the biathlon world managed to infect basketball?
Sergey Kushchenko: There was a reverse example. I managed to drag Scottie Pippen to the Biathlon World Cup. It was a show. We met with Pippen in Brooklyn, watched basketball, and I had to go to the biathlon in a town near Boston. And Scotty is with me, they say, “I’m with you wherever.” And Pippen in the States is a real superstar. And so, “Eurosport” broadcasts the race, and there no one is watching biathlon, all the attention is on Scotty. The whole biathlon world then discussed the arrival of Pippen. Then there was another party to close the stage, in the basketball hall. And the presenter says: here Sergey plays basketball, and next to him is the NBA legend Scotty Pippen. They throw a ball at us, they say, show your skills. Scotty winces. “I haven’t picked up the ball for a long time.” “And I’m trained,” I say. And I hit six out of six. In a jacket, in uncomfortable shoes. Pippen only hit twice (laughs).
Biathlon is an individual sport. A completely different story compared to basketball …
Sergey Kushchenko: I thought about it for a long time, got used to it for a long time. I did better with men. I knew how to talk to them. Basketball could always be discussed. In general, we were lucky: we had talents like Anton Shipulin, Zhenya Garanichev, Ivan Tcherezov, Maxim Chudov. The Olympics were held with them in Vancouver and Sochi.
What did the appointment of the President of the United League mean to you?
Sergey Kushchenko: Life is back. I remember the first press conference when I got up and said to Sergei Borisovich Ivanov: thank you for bringing me back to my favorite sport.
What is the fundamental difference between running a club and an entire league?
Sergey Kushchenko: These are other tasks. But the experience of running a club helps. You know how everything works in a leading club, how everything works in a small club, you understand the problems of all clubs and you try to create a strategy that will help the weaker ones keep the intrigue in the championship.
Hosting the United League All-Star Game – was that your idea?
Sergey Kushchenko: When Sergei Borisovich invited me to take the presidency, I immediately said that the All-Star Game is the very story that will move the project to a completely different level. The pilot all-star match in Sochi turned out very well. Everything went well in St. Petersburg. And our performance started working.
If it’s not a secret, how are the powers distributed between you and the general director of the league, Ilona Korstin?
Sergey Kushchenko: Presidential history is all the same strategy, politics, building relationships with large organizations, sponsorship negotiations. And Ilona is in charge. She is a great fellow. To date, I can say that she has added exactly in communication. It’s hard to become a manager from a player. She may not have done it right away, but it worked out, and with high quality.
Does this season stand out for you?
Sergey Kushchenko: Apart. Moreover, a good mansion. Outbreaks of coronavirus, injuries, unusual situations in clubs gave us almost the best season in history. Outsiders bit everyone: Kalev, Parma, Zielona Gora. Or another moment: two teams of the Euroleague playoffs played in the United League semifinals! Spanish clubs are on the sidelines.
Do you think we are really in second place among the European leagues after the Spaniards?
Sergey Kushchenko: No one has ever said by what criteria it is determined. That would be they, then another matter. But in terms of interest, the United League is definitely in the top three. In addition, all the clubs participating in European cups have reached the decisive stages in their tournaments. I would say that we are more likely to share first or second places with Spain.
Sergey Valentinovich, celebrating his 60th anniversary, can you say that you are full of energy?
Sergey Kushchenko: Basketball keeps us on our toes. We play further.