After a tumultuous off-season period that saw Donar declare bankruptcy, be disallowed from competing, and then be given the license to challenge in the new basketball season, the first match of the campaign is finally here.
On Saturday, the new entity known as Donar Groningen B.V. will face off against Heroes Den Bosch at the Martini Plaza, where fans of the most supported team in the country will watch them in competitive action for the first time from their home stadium in the Martini Plaza.
“On paper, they look really good. A strong team, an experienced team, quite a physical team,” Drago Pašalić, the technical director of Donar, told The Northern Times. Pašalić is tasked with building the team, a massive challenge considering the rollercoaster ride that was Donar’s summer in which the club had debt exceeding €2 million.
“I believe that [Den Bosch] is a main contender for the championship this year,” admitted Pašalić. “It is very interesting for us to see where we are. On the other hand, we are playing in Groningen. This is our home. The only task for us is to come out and give it all.”
The opening season matchup tips off at 19:30 tomorrow in what will be a long road towards reaching the dizzying heights of success Donar is accustomed to.
Late-season collapse bleeds into the summer
For die-hard supporters of one of the Netherlands’ most successful basketball clubs, last season could not have been more difficult to endure, both on and off the court.
“Very, very challenging year. I would say that you can summarise it as three seasons in one,” said Pašalić, who won two Dutch titles with Donar as a player. With expectations high as always for the seven-time Dutch league champions, the start to last year was described by Pašalić as “one of the worst starts of the season, maybe ever.”
A few player changes, including replacing head coach Matthew Otten for assistant Andrej Štimac, and Donar found themselves pushing up the standings. They would squeeze into Elite Gold with the remaining best five teams in the country to fight for the title.
They would eventually make it all the way to the Dutch national finals against ZZ Leiden. A thrilling best-of-five game series was played out, with the title on the line heading into Game 5 in Leiden.
“We lost the championship in the last game of the finals in the last five seconds,” said Pašalić. By a score of 82 to 81, ZZ Leiden won their 5th Dutch title. What looked like an encouraging season for Donar ended with them trophyless.
“It was heartbreaking,” admitted Pašalić.
Considering the financial chaos that was about to bestow upon Donar, losing the championship by a single point is much less drastic than losing the team as a whole. With so much uncertainty in the air, one could not blame Donar’s leadership positions for jumping ship or simply giving up.
For Pašalić, that was never in question.
Drago Pašalić saw the light
“It was a really difficult summer,” laments Pašalić. “I kept my hope. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
His decision to stay and try to save the club is one that fans are surely to appreciate, especially considering how uncertain the whole situation became.
“The most difficult part of my job and coach’s job was not knowing ourselves, what is going to be in the future, and trying to have verbal agreements with the players and offer them our word because we didn’t have anything else to offer.”
From last season’s runner-up squad, only two players were retained. The rest were all new additions spearheaded by Pašalić’s vision to build a team that resembles the identity of Donar basketball: a hard-working team that never gives up until the final whistle.
“Our slogan is: Together. Nobody’s bigger than the club and we have to all look in one direction and be humble, have a working and fighting spirit, and always try to achieve the best out of ourselves.”
When asked if the new team, who have barely spent a whole month together, let alone played much basketball as a unit, resembles this never-give-up attitude of the club, he replied:
A young team tempers expectations
Although Donar will always have lofty ambitions given its history of winning, Pašalić is aware that fans should lower expectations for the newly formed Donar. Not a single player is over the age of 30 but that is exactly the strategy that Pašalić followed for this new chapter.
“We chose them all as they are young, but they are also talented. Each of them still has room to improve and grow.”
Pašalić also believes that fans have indeed lowered expectations for the upcoming season, especially since most of them did not even expect Groningen to field a basketball team, let alone one that is expected to compete for titles.
“I think everybody was pretty much informed well enough, with how summer was going. In the beginning, we’ll have not the biggest expectations, but happy that we are continuing,” said Pašalić.
Unfortunately for Pašalić, there is nothing more fickle than pre-season expectations from loyal fans.
“Being a fan, it’s always tricky,” admits Pašalić. “If we suddenly have some nice wins, those expectations grow in no time. I would expect as a young team, as a new team, that we will go up and down from some excellent games to some really poor games.”
The future of Donar
As the season is set to tip-off, the success of Donar this year will not be measured by the number of trophies they are hosting at the end of the year but rather by how many steps the team has taken after having to start all over again.
For Pašalić, a successful season represents growth. It represents that the young team that has been trusted to perform has taken incremental steps in their development from game to game.
“I think the main thing is to filtrate some of the players for a year and hope to see growth in the young players but especially the Dutch young players. That will be great to see because Dutch players are the heart and soul of the team.”
With Pašalić at the helm, who called his position of technical director for Donar “my dream job,” and loyal fans who are simply happy that their beloved Donar was saved, it is only a matter of time before the Donar of old is back competing for glory.
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