Getting to Know: CSKA Moscow

Thursday’s preseason game against CSKA Moscow will be the first time the organization faces an international opponent, and in terms of popularity, it’s landed one of the most recognizable teams outside of the NBA.

CSKA Moscow is like the New York Yankees of Russian sports.

Thunder Pro Scout David Vanterpool knows CSKA as well as anyone.

Vanterpool joined the Thunder this season after spending the last five years as a player and then assistant coach for CSKA. Vanterpool helped lead CSKA to the Russian Championship and Russian Cup in both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons and was a member of the 2006 Euroleague championship team.

We caught up with Vanterpool earlier this week to get his perspective on CSKA Moscow and what fans can expect Thursday night. CSKA is in the States for three exhibition games this week against NBA teams. It lost to Miami, 96-85, on Tuesday.

What is CSKA comparable to from a brand standpoint?
“In Russia, for sure, it’s comparable to Nike, as far as a brand goes. The symbol has a meaning of its own. It’s not strictly for the basketball team, per se. They also have a soccer team that’s in the Champions League and hockey is probably the number one sport there. It stands for a number of things but the brand is very strong and recognizable all over the country and it’s something that I think the people really look to as a symbol of excellence.”

Are they like the Lakers or Yankees of Russia in terms of what they bring to the court?
“Well, you would probably think more so along the lines of the Yankees. The perception is that the budget is the highest of a lot of the teams in Europe, even though that’s not always necessarily the case. Again, the level of excellence that’s been consistent over the years with just the organization in general and winning championships in Russia has been something I guess we would compare to something like the Yankees. A lot of times people look at the Yankees organization where they get all the best players. Same type of perception, same type of attitude especially from people on the outside looking in.”

So when they win those championships, they’re celebrated pretty well?
“It’s always a pretty big deal. It’s always something that we expected. I know at CSKA we expected to at least compete for a championship every single season. But the bottom line is nothing is ever guaranteed. Every time you get on that journey as far as reaching a goal at the end of the season, it’s always a different journey. It really doesn’t matter how many you win. The fact that it becomes routine, like going to eight Final Fours in a row, it’s still just as important and looked at and viewed as just as special because each journey is totally different.”

What were some of the highlights from your playing career?
“The highlights, of course, obviously winning the Euroleague was something unparalleled to me. But at the same time my whole experience with them was probably the greatest I’ve had as a player and a coach. Again, the strength and the way that they treated the people within the organization endeared me to the people that were responsible for that and it’s probably the main reason why I keep in such close contact with them to this day. They touched down in Miami (on Sunday) and the president of the team called me, Andrey Vatutin, and his assistant called me as well to say that they were in the states and they couldn’t wait to see me and of course the sentiment was the same. The treatment is the way it should be, but the thing that sticks out is that’s not the way it always is and when it is that way I look at it as special.”

What are some of the biggest differences between the Russian League and the NBA?
“Well the Russian League went through a lot of turmoil the last couple of years, especially last season they had a bit of a referee scandal. They had their little brush with that and have had to kind of restructure the whole league, and in doing so they felt like the league would become stronger by keeping only the top few teams involved in it and build it from there. They set things up more structured with a better base and this will be the first season for that new league (The Professional Basketball League). What CSKA does to offset some of that is they also started the VTB United League. Basically it’s a couple of teams from Russia, Lithuania and Poland and it’s another league to get better competition for teams in eastern Europe so they don’t have to spend as much time beating up on lesser opponents. They try to create a situation where the top teams have a chance to compete at the highest level if they weren’t in the Euroleague.”

When they come to town on Thursday, who are some of the players that Thunder fans should be aware of?
“Ramunas Siskauskas is one who actually, three years ago, was the MVP of the Euroleague Final when Panathinaikos won with him. The year after that he came to CSKA and won another Euroleague with CSKA ‘A’ and he’s a very crafty small forward with a lot of offensive ability. He also plays on the Lithuanian national team and is one of their top players as well. Trajon Langdon is a name that a lot of NBA fans may be familiar with in some form or fashion. I know that people will remember him from his Duke days. Trajon is still over there, playing very well and is in great shape. He continues to be one of the top players in Europe as well, especially one of the top shooters. Along with being a great person he’s definitely a great player and understands the game and how to pick his spots and find a situation he can take advantage of. They also have Viktor Khryapa. He’s probably one of the most active players that I’ve ever had a chance to coach and play against as well. He plays at a high level on offense and defense. He’s a big guy, a small forward who can shoot from the outside but his defense is really top notch. He’s also somebody who’s played in the NBA who I’m sure some of the fans will be familiar with. As far as young players, Alexey Shved, who’s regarded as one of the top young players two or three years ago as far as NBA people were concerned. He’s kind of gone up and down the last couple of years but he’s immensely talented and he has NBA athleticism. Those are a few of the players that the people in OKC should be looking for.”

How would you describe CSKA Moscow’s style of play?
“Well they have a new coach (Dusko Vujosevic) this year and he was the coach of Partizan (Belgrade) the past few seasons and this will be their first season under that coach. So their style of play will probably be somewhat erratic. It’s not necessarily defined right now. I’m sure they’re still searching for what style it may be. But they do have a lot of talent, they do have a lot of guys that can get up and down the court. They have young guys like Sasha Kaun, who played at the University of Kansas and is their starting center. They have Jamont Gordon, who’s also a great young player from the States and is a good, young point guard who can play. They’ll definitely be looking to run. But defensively I think their mentality will be to get after people defensively and try to make you turn the ball over.”

And another thing fans might be aware of is that the new New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov used to own CSKA Moscow. What was your experience like with him?
“He was owner of the team the whole time I played and the season I coached was when the transition kind of happened. He takes interest in the team. He loves basketball. He’s actually a basketball fan. I didn’t even really look at him as being an owner. He was more so just a basketball fan and the type of owner that owns the team but hire people to do their jobs and let them do just that.”

Contact Chris Silva