Written by Stuart Hodge

What a first season it’s been for head coach Miguel Ángel Ortega in charge of the Caledonia Gladiators!

The experienced Spaniard, who has a CV which trumps just about any other in the British basketball scene, was recognised with the Betty Codona Molten WBBL Coach of the Year award for his outstanding first season in charge of the team.

Ortega led the Caledonia Gladiators (17-5) to a second-placed finish in the WBBL standings, as well as a historic victory over the London Lions at the Copperbox Arena which brought to an end a 52-game unbeaten domestic run for the defending champions.

That game made everyone sit up and take notice of what the 60-year-old is building with Caledonia but it should come as no surprise, this is a man that spearheaded a historic run of success in the Spanish top flight with Perfumería Avenidas Salamanca.

Ortega won three league titles as well as seven domestic cups – including a domestic clean sweep in 2017 – and also won three coach of the year awards at the top level, as well as taking the team to the latter stages of the EuroLeague and EuroCup, so the Gladiators progress in year one under his stewardship promises much for the future.

After being crowned coach of the year in a foreign country for the first time, Ortega and Gladiators commentator Stuart Hodge (@Hodgeythehack) sat down for an exclusive chat with the coach in his native tongue, to learn more about the mastermind behind the Gladiators success…

SH: Before we talk about anything else, I must offer a sincere congratulations on being awarded the WBBL Coach of the Year award. It’s a fantastic achievement and richly deserved!

MAO: Thank you very much! I am very grateful to everyone who selected me for the award and, of course, more than anyone else, to my players and staff. Without them, nothing we have achieve this season would’ve been possible.

SH: I might be a little late with this but welcome to Scotland, Miguel Ángel! How have you found life in our country so far?

MAO: Scotland is gorgeous, some of the scenery is truly spectacular. It’s a nice country to work in, with good people, and it’s a pleasant place to live. I have always had the sense that people here were well-educated and a noble people. It’s always been a country I’ve really liked and found very attractive from afar. Now that I live here, I like it even better!

SH: But is it not a culture shock, work-wise, coming from a country where basketball is so loved, to a country where it is still developing as a sport?

MAO: Basketball is not a main sport here, that much is true, but this is a professional club and a professional project and part of what we’re trying to do here, at the Gladiators, is take it from being a sport on a lower level in Scotland, to a sport which is on a high level.

We need to put in all of the mechanisms to improve the sport here. With time and effort, we can build a professional club which operates at a high level and increases the level of basketball across the whole country.

SH: In your long and storied career, spanning four decades no less, you’ve never worked at a club abroad so why did you choose this particular job for the next step in your career?

MAO: It’s true that I wanted to work abroad at some point in my career, and I’ve had offers from Italy and Russia, amongst others, and various international teams… but for one reason or another, the timing wasn’t quite right with family, COVID and a few different things.

When this project was presented to me and I could see that the people behind it were very serious and it offers me the chance to do something truly exceptional. I’m in the latter stages of my coaching career now and to be part of something like this, fresh, taking a club from the very start to reach the top is really exciting. This is a fantastic chance to do something new and that was very attractive to me.

We’re going to build a new club from the bottom up, in Scotland, alongside people with great imagination and great interest and it’s a wonderful challenge. We’re building a new, professional club and that’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around every day. It’s not a normal opportunity, it’s something really out of the ordinary. You can manage a professional team in various places, or whatever, but to do everything from the ground up is a unique opportunity.

SH: Let’s take a step back to the start of your career. Talk me through where you earned your stripes as a coach and how you began to build the knowledge that has allowed you to go on and have such a successful coaching career… 

MAO: I am from Hospitalet, a city close to Barcelona. I began to play basketball for various teams but, my journey as a player, I can sum up quite easily. When I was a junior, at 18 years old, a coach in Spain told me: ‘You can dedicate yourself to becoming a referee or you can dedicate yourself to becoming a coach, but as a player you’re not going to have a future’ – that tells you all you need to know about my level of playing ability. It wasn’t harsh, it was realistic, and it helped me.

It came from the coach who got me my first job in basketball as a professional coach, he spoke clearly to me back then but as a young coach at 20 years old, he helped me and taught me how to work professionally and how to get work, how to get my first experiences as a young coach and I’m always very grateful to him.

SH: Who was that? And where did you go from there?

MAO: Jose “Moncho” Manuel Monsalve (now 78 years old), he has been a coach for a long-time. I have a great respect for him, because he was a great coach in my country. In that time, he was a person who helped and guided me.

After that, basically, I dedicated myself to teaching, to working with young players and young kids to make them into players and that was my first coaching experience. I did it in schools and clubs in Barcelona and then in Galicia, in La Coruña and Ferrol. I worked in clubs which had a great tradition of developing players and it was a very enriching experience. It also put me in contact with some great coaches, whilst I was very young, and that was an important part of my own learning and development.

SH: What were the key lessons you picked up during that period?

MAO: I learned what was essential and what was truly important. Being around veteran players and coaches, back then, I gained the knowledge of the attitude that was required to be successful and the importance of maintaining it all times. Also, that when you’re a professional, they pay you to always be the best version of yourself, both as a player as a coach. To do that, you have to keep that attitude at all times and always give of your best.

These are people who had a great influence on me, with a very strong level culturally – not just great basketball knowledge but also great knowledge of habits that help you in life, to put yourself across well and become that best version of yourself. That culture is such an important part of what makes up a person. I had the good luck to encounter those environments when I was very young and that without doubt is very important.

SH: So, how do you go about building that kind of culture in teams you’re coaching?

MAO: As a coach, you have to be at the service of your players. At the end of the day, they are the ones who are out there on the court, they score and they miss and they make buckets and make mistakes – what you have to do is support them and they have to know you’re always with them.

You have to transmit your passion but in the background you’re always helping and the players have to feel that sense of togetherness. If that sense of togetherness is present then everything flows much better. In the end, the coach is a supporter and partner for the player, as you try to accomplish the same thing. If you can achieve that balance, whilst working together, then that is the key.

SH: What do you find most satisfying as a coach when working with players?

MAO: For me personally, I like the role I can play training and moulding a player – particularly when they’re around their early 20s in age, say, because that’s the period where that player has decided to be a professional and embrace all of the requirements and demands that entails. That player has decided to be a fighter. That player has decided to play under pressure and under stress.

There’s always an aspect of that being the point in time where a lot of different elements are in the mix, when it comes down to the psychological side of things. It’s about where you can take a player’s mind in terms of effort and output.

Of course, I like working with players to evolve their game and bring them forward. If they’ve arrived at, say, 22 years old to this level – let’s see if we can work on a couple of aspects of their game to get better. That side of it, the technical side, I also really enjoy. Looking at how a player has arrived at this level, and how by improving this element and that element, they can get better to move on to a new level.

But on the original point, the psychology of it all is fundamental in terms of underpinning everything because by this time in a player’s career, it’s all real, it’s competitive and it’s more fun. I love that aspect of coaching and that stage of progression.

SH: Bringing it back to the Gladiators, how would you assess this season and what grade would you give?

MAO: Grade A, without a doubt!

In terms of results, it’s been excellent. We finished second and were very good. Managing to do that in our first season is a great achievement, particularly with everything which has gone on and all the challenges we’ve faced.

We’ve had various adverse situations that we’ve had to deal with along the way but we’ve managed to keep things afloat, with our experienced players anchoring the way supported by some of the younger players stepping up. Zoe (Sharpe), Kerry (McGhee), Sally (Campbell) and Emma (Kerr) have been massively important in some games. In the middle of December, when we only had four professionals available, the support of those young girls was huge for us, as they helped us to win matches in a difficult period.

The first year is always tough, and you have to keep in mind everything that has happened. When you consider it all, finishing second is exceptional and we were only able to do that due to the support of Chantelle Handy, Erin McGarrachan and Robyn Lewis who have led the team forward when we were really up against it. Bit by bit, everyone has kept working and the more experienced players have held firm and we’ve managed to get the results to ensure a spectacular finishing position in the league.

SH: We can’t look at the season without picking out that London Lions win specifically ­– how do you remember that game and what did it mean for you and the team?

MAO: It was a game, for us, which acted as a point of inflection. It made us see that we could do it. It made us see that we belonged at that level.

We don’t have the players to keep that level up all the time yet, you need to have a deep squad to do that and to maintain it, but we can reach it as a group. The EuroLeague teams have 12 or 15 players for that reason, to maintain a high level throughout a whole season. We don’t have a huge number of players, but in a given moment we can reach that level – and winning away at Leicester and Sevenoaks in the last few weeks of the season also shows how strong we can be.

SH: Finally, please sum up how you see the future for Caledonia…

MAO: This project has two paths. One is that of the professional team where we want to try and build the best team possible because we want to win. That is what we are all about, of course, that is our main objective as a team.

But we are also a club, and a new club at that. We need to develop players and in the coming years we want to have three or four players like Chantelle Handy; three or four players like Erin McGarrachan; three or four players like Robyn Lewis. We need to keep building our own players, that is fundamental – because those three players I’ve mentioned, one day they won’t be playing any more. So, we need to make sure that our player factory starts working to bring through stars of our own.

It’s about two paths: one of generating players and working to build up our youth system to do that and, then, to build a team which wins and fights and stays near the top, domestically and in Europe.

Both of those paths, we need to build them. If we push forward, then those paths will come together. If we have a talented young player and bring them along, then of course they will end up in the professional team, that’s logical. That’s where the future is for us and it’s vital that we do it right.

The future is in the professional team that fights to be at the top and wins games and competes in Europe and which, at the same time, has young players becoming part of that team. Young Scottish players who start with us at 12 years old and by 18 become part of the first team, standing out and making a name for themselves. That is the road ahead for us and it’s very exciting.