Dragan Raca is back at the helm of the Lebanese National Team. Having lost to Iran in the final of the FIBA Asia Championship two years ago in Tokushima - thus according to many experts "blowing away Lebanon's best possible chance to qualify for the Olympics" - one would have expected Dragan Raca to come up with words like “revenge, vengeance etc.” But the 38-year-old was as equanimous as ever while assessing Lebanon's chances at the 25th FIBA Asia Championship, scheduled to be held in Tianjin (China) from Aug 6-16. FIBA's reporter S. Mageshwaran spoke with the Greek-Cypriot coach in an exclusive interview who named a ticket to the 2010 FIBA World Championship as his primary goal for Tianjin.
FIBA: Lebanon have finished second on three occasions at the FIBA Asia Championship, but you have never won the title. How do you plan to break this jinx?
RACA: We prepare our team to play good basketball. True, we haven't been able to transform that into winning a FIBA Asia Championship, but then we have lost to very good teams in the final on all the three occasions. From a personal experience, I can you tell that when we lost to Iran in the Tokushima final two years ago, we were defeated by a very inspired team that was running very high on energy and enthusiasm. Our target in Tianjin is to qualify for the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey. That is the main focus right now. If things go well, we will look at the next step.
FIBA: Lebanon have recently naturalized (former New Orleans Hornets power forward) Jackson Vroman. Is this a move to fill the gap left by Joseph Vogel? Is Jackson the right replacement? What are your thoughts?
RACA: First of all, let's recognize what Joe did for Lebanese Basketball. On the face of it, he added size. But, then his presence also added overall solidity to the team on the court. So, overall his contribution was to shift the basketball to a higher level and helped Lebanon in qualifying for two FIBA World Championships. As for Vroman, this player has good skill, is a very hard working player and is a very good character. I am expecting that he is going to help the team a lot. But, there is no comparison between Joe and Vroman, because they are two entirely different players - not to forget there are a lot of expectations on Vroman, which I'm sure he is capable of delivering.
FIBA: Can you tell us more about the Lebanese players from the US, who will play in China?
RACA: We haven't decided on who will make the cut. Yes, we have sounded out a couple of players, because we want to take the strongest possible Lebanese team to Tianjin. But as for who exactly will make the team is not finalized yet.
FIBA: What exactly is Fadi El Khatib's role in the team now? What is his impact on the team?
RACA: Fadi, like Joe, is one of the players with great influence on basketball in Lebanon itself. He is the captain of the team and the leader as well. I expect him to lead from the front in our plans. More importantly, I expect him to set an example for the young players who have joined the NT this year.
FIBA: Who do you think are the major challengers to your campaign at Tianjin?
RACA: You can't really pick like that in a Championship like this. All the teams that enter the final eight will be as good as the other capable of beating each other on their day. The competition will be so close that only on the game day, you can have some expectations.
FIBA: Finally, what do you think of the draw? What do you think of the new format for the Championship?
RACA: I guess it's OK. All we have to do is to play ball. More games means less risk and better chance for better teams to win.