The BBL Cup final always hits close to Leicester Riders coach Rob Paternostro’s heart.
Returning to Birmingham, a city where the Connecticut native enjoyed three spells as a player for the Bullets and Panthers between 2000 and 2008 with a short venture in Belgium and a season at Leicester sandwiched in-between.
“Man, it’s a very exciting feeling to go back to Birmingham,” Paternostro reminisces.
“I lived there for about eight years while playing and I actually lived in the area close to the [Utilita] Arena. I spent a lot of time there and in that time, I got to know a lot of the places and the locals.
“So anytime I go back there, it’s always special and Birmingham will always be close to me.”
A fan favourite wherever he went as a player, Paternostro made one final during his time in a Bullets uniform, whereas the one – and only – season with the lesser known Panthers in 2008 saw the American struggle with injuries before moving on to coaching.
Now, 13 years on since his coaching odyssey commenced with the Riders, he has transformed the franchise from basement dwellers to constant front-runners, and on Sunday, he leads his side to what he hopes will be a third BBL Cup.
Standing in their way will be the Manchester Giants, a team going through a change of fortune themselves this season.
Currently sitting second in the BBL, Manchester are enjoying their best start to a campaign since the team’s rebirth in 2012. Mainly due to the sheer depth of the squad, largely made up of a strong British core, led by Great Britain captain Dan Clark.
“When you look at them, I think that they have the most players in the league,” Paternostro says.
“Their roster is extremely deep and I think that coach [Lloyd] Gardner has done a good job balancing that roster. It’s hard to have that many guys throughout the whole year and keep them happy.
“Dan Clark’s presence certainly gives them an advantage and he’s a tough player to go up against but it isn’t just Dan, you also have several guys that can shoot well, they communicate well and they present a huge challenge on both ends of the floor.”
Despite the challenge, the league-leading Riders are flying high right now. A perfect 10 for 10 in the BBL with nine of those being double-digit victories, the style of basketball Paternostro has instilled in his players is both breathtaking to watch and devastating to play against.
And terrifyingly, he warns that there is still more that they can do.
“I love the way we’re playing,” Paternostro says. “We’re a group that has improved day-to-day from September until now.
“I still think there is more that we can do, but overall, we are all in a good place, we know what our roles are, as a team we’re very balanced, meaning that we don’t rely on one or two guys and we have a group of players that can score in numbers.
“On the whole, I love how professional we are, and when you have a group of players with high basketball IQ, good work ethic and talented, it makes it fun to come to work everyday.”
The BBL Cup final takes place on Sunday 30 January at the Utilita Arena in Birmingham.