Malta international KURT CASSAR left the comfort of the island at the age of 14 to play basketball in Italy. Now heading into the Serie B play-offs with Janus Fabriano, Cassar is setting career-highs in a season which he hopes can shape the years to come. The Malta center spoke to Kurt Aquilina about the season so far…
Janus Fabriano may have come out of a month of COVID-19 quarantine and a marathon of games to make up for lost time and finish the regular season as the top seed, but Cassar is proving he was the perfect signing after setting his career-high in scoring two games in a row against Cividale with 18, and Rucker San Vendemiano with 19 points in one week.
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The Malta center recalled how getting the call that his coach had tested positive in April while on an eight-game winning streak was tough.
“We hadn’t been playing well but we fixed things and started playing very well so when the coach told us he was positive and most of us got it after tests that weekend, it was tough,” Cassar told the Times of Malta.
“We trained with the physical trainer on Zoom everyday but it wasn’t easy – you miss the ball, the dribbling and shooting, your team-mates whom you train with every day. Also, we’d have six games in three weeks before the playoffs which would be an indication of whether we were in shape for the playoffs.
“You usually need at least two or three weeks to get in shape but as a club, coach and players we’re professionals. So, we have to try and return to how we were a month or so ago.”
One significant drawback for Janus Fabriano was the fact that the COVID-19 cases coincided with this season’s Coppa Italia weekend. While the club had urged the association to possibly move the cup weekend further ahead in the year, Cassar explained that because the cup consists of 16 teams and only two teams had problems, the event was not postponed.
“There have already been many postponed games due to COVID-19, the play-offs are also starting later than usual so to find a weekend with no games until the end of the season was difficult. Obviously, the club tried its best but with only two clubs who had a problem, they weren’t going to change anything else,” Cassar said.
“It was tough for me to see another team who had been nearly fourth in the league take our place and when you see the results of the tournament, I thought we could have been there and won too.
“Already last year, the club did not play in the Coppa Italia because of the start of the pandemic. This year we were unlucky because we had COVID-19 at the same time but we have a strong team which can now concentrate on the playoffs and be one of the top teams to make it to Serie A2 by winning the league.”
The 22-year-old, who was featured as one of the top 100 young players in Europe by Eurospects Ratings in November, believes his level of play is that of Serie A2.
However, despite starting the season with Orzinuovi basket in that same division, his minutes on court were short and by December, Cassar was looking at different options to up his playing time.
“It was difficult to have playing minutes so after December, I started looking at options and mid-January I had various offers from Serie B and one was from Janus Fabriano – a team looking to win the league and play A2 so I thought that was the best option.”
Citing the main reason for acquiring Cassar during the winter break, the club had said they were banking on his talents to lead them towards promotion.
Asked about how this felt, Cassar said it gave him the boost to do whatever he could to train and earn his minutes.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t easy – I only played four minutes in my first game, then eight, and the next two games I played well, so they put me into the starting five,” Cassar said.
“The club wanted someone younger because the center we have is 39-years-old and can’t withstand a lot of minutes on court. So, they ask him to give them a few quality minutes and the rest is up to me.
“I look further than this season when I think about my career – it’s my job so I have to plan ahead for the coming years.
“But to be able to do that, you have to play well in the previous year so I think it was a great move for me considering that with Torino I didn’t have as much minutes, Orzinuovi neither. So to regain the minutes I used to have before, I had to go to Serie B and improve to go back in A2 and stay there.
“My level is A2 in terms of physique and as a player. I can see the difference but to say this, you must play well and win so that (the teams) can see this. After all, Serie A2 or B, it’s still the same job.
“For me personally, I’ve never won anything in Italy so to go to the playoffs and win is something very important for me – not just to go back to A2 in less than a year’s time but I want to win as well obviously.”
With the Olympics taking place this summer, one could only dream that Malta were to someday make it to the event. However, Cassar admits it may be an unrealistic target.
“You try to believe and dream but not even Italy has made it in the last few years, let alone (Malta) – a small country where basketball is not entirely professional,” he said.
“I do imagine we can play the qualifiers for the FIBA Europe cup however – playing teams like Albania and Andorra and if we qualify, play the real thing.
“Those are teams we play against and we are much better than them so that would be my main goal because it’s easy to say that we spend a week with the team in summer, but why not play those few qualifiers to see where your level is at. This is certainly one thing I’d like to see.”
Asked about this summer’s FIBA Championships in Ireland – if given the go-ahead this week – Cassar said it is still one of the best weeks of the year for him.
“Obviously, I hope it takes place. I’ve spoken to people who told me it’s supposed to be happening but who knows,” he said.
“Our expectations, going there as champions and with nearly the same players, would be to win. It’s not easy but with the team we have, we can do it. Even playing makes me happy, let alone winning.
“I try not to put on any pressure because we have a lot of great players and looking at those who weren’t there last time around and seeing them do well makes you think they can help us.
“Obviously, we’re not going to have Roderick as our playmaker because of his retirement but the young players playing as a team help with the pressure.”