By David Hein
Expectations were high for the Czech Republic to defend their crown at the 2007 EuroBasket Women in Italy, and of course many were a bit shocked that tournament debutants Belarus knocked off the Czechs in the quarter-finals.
But Czech assistant coach Lubor Blazek, who has been head coach Jan Bobrovsky's right-hand man for the past eight seasons with the national team, thinks the high expectations were a bit unfair - as were the negative talk about the eventual bronze medal winners Belarus.
Blazek sat down for a chat with FIBA Europe's David Hein after the Czechs collected fifth place with their 93-54 victory over Lithuania - a result which meant that the Czechs had advanced to the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament next summer - the country's minimum goal, according to Blazek.
|A loss to Belarus in the quarter-finals left the Czech Republic out of the medal hunt.|
FIBA Europe: Mr. Blazek, most observers know that you are head coach at Czech powers USK Praha and that Czech head coach Jan Bobrovsky leads Czech rivals Gambrinus Brno. Perhaps you can clarify straight off what your position is with the team.
Blazek: I'm the assistant coach. Mr. Bobrovsky is head coach. But if we make two or three mistakes, then I'm also responsible for them. It's not just Mr. Bobrovsky.
FIBA Europe: Thank you for that. So, the Czech Republic has finished fifth place here in Italy and with it secured a spot in the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. What does this result mean to you and Czech basketball?
Blazek: We were European champions and everybody expected the Czech Republic to again make the final in Italy. Our preparations were good. We were able to beat France and Russia by about 20 points. And we saw right away in the first game that we didn't have a great form. It was pretty poor against Israel, without our heads. We played bad defense and we didn't shoot very well. But we played very good against Turkey and Latvia. And then we lost against Germany. And for the team, that was really, really tough. We lost and nobody expected that. And after that, the team started going down.
FIBA Europe: In the quarter-finals you lost against Belarus. What was the difference?
Blazek: Against Belarus, the team was nervous in the first half and Belarus really played well. But before the championship, we said Belarus could be a serious challenger. So it wasn't that big of a surprise for me that they played that well.
FIBA Europe: What do you think was the main reason for the team's struggles here in Italy.
Blazek: Hana Machova had an operation. Ivana Vecerova was also injured and did not practice for one month, Machova either. Machova is the kind of player who when she plays good, the team plays good. If she plays bad, the team has problems - not only on offense, but also on defense. She's the kind of personality who carries the team when they aren't playing well. Everybody sees her and says okay we have a chance, she's fighting. Machova really played well today. She started really strong, hitting three-pointers and the team was much better. I really think we played good today, but Machova as well.
FIBA Europe: Were there any other problems in your eyes?
Blazek: One other problem was the fact that we played five times at 9 p.m. Sometimes we got back to the hotel at 1 a.m. and ate dinner and didn't have time to relax. And that was tough. Also, the team should be together. When you win the team should celebrate a little bit - not go drinking, but have fun and bond. But when you come home at 1 a.m., what do you expect? Everybody is tired and goes their own separate ways into the rooms to relax. We couldn't really bond and live together. When we lost, all the girls were on their own to deal with the loss. And that's not right. The team should be together then as well.
FIBA Europe: Your players and the coaching staff received a lot of criticism in the Czech media about your showing here. What are your thoughts about that?
Blazek: That was really incorrect. We played bad, but fifth place is also not bad - for me. We can still play in the China Olympics. And that's what matters. We lost three times here and everybody was really bitter against us. What are you doing? Why are you playing like that? How are you coaching? Your player substitutions are bad. Everything is bad.
FIBA Europe: What was the team's goal coming into the tournament?
Blazek: Before the tournament, we said we would be satisfied with fifth place. But everybody expected second or third. Me too. But we said we'd be satisfied with fifth place.
FIBA Europe: There are a couple of young players on this Czech roster, including the 18-
year-old Katerina Elhotova. What can European fans expect from the Czech Republic for the future?
|A recent knee injury meant Hana Machová was not at her best.|
Blazek: Elhotova is my player at USK Prague. She is 18-years-old. She has very good ball-handling. She plays with no fear. She can play very aggressively on offense and defense. But she needs to play. And she will play for me. We're playing in the EuroLeague and she's be with Janell Burse, Sandra Le Drean and Elodie Godin. She'll have a good opportunity to take something from those great players. Romana Hejdova plays at Brno. And we have three other very good youth players. And we would like to switch up the team for the Olympic Games and build a new team. The Czech Republic, in my opinion, has a very good future.
FIBA Europe: Eight years ago, despite being fierce rivals at the Czech club level, you and Jan Bobrovsky joined forces for the Czech national team. Was that difficult at all?
Blazek: I coach the second-best team in the Czech Republic and he coaches the best. We battle all the time in the Czech league and in the EuroLeague as well. Our teams really have a lot of battles with each other. But we really work like friends in the national team.
FIBA Europe: Is it not difficult to come together and work with your fiercest opponent? How has the relationship changed over the years?
Blazek: There was never a rivalry. We prepare together the national team season. And we say this is my job and this is your work. And these are the things we do together. And I don't see any problems, no rivalry. Some people may think that the assistant coach would like to get certain things done. But that's not how we are. I know my role and what I should do. So we don't have any problems. I work work as a head coach as USK Prague and I know what I want from my two assistants.
FIBA Europe: There really can't be a rivalry between the coaches if the team goes onto win the EuroBasket Women like they did in 2005.
Blazek: We have a rivalry in the Czech Republic. We want to win the league and beat each other. We won one time and that was really great. But we work really good together for the Czech team. And that's good.
FIBA Europe: When you and Jan Bobrovsky join up each summer to talk about the national team, what are the first things you do? Say something like: that was a good fight?
Blazek: We always start from the beginning and drink a little bit of wine together and talk about the team and what we want to do. And each have their own duties.
FIBA Europe: You used to coach in Germany and Germany beat the Czech Republic in the qualifying round. What were your feelings about that?
Blazek: Germany has a good team. They played a really good game against us. They were very well-prepared. Coach Imre Szittya is a good friend of mine. So I had mixed feelings about the game. I had worked in Germany so I was happy about them playing well. But I was sad that we lost against Germany. That was tough, but for Germany it was tough too, that they lost to Turkey. They were so happy that the concentration and motivation were gone a little bit.
FIBA Europe: Russia and Spain are playing in the final. Who will win?
Blazek: As a coach I would love to go to the Russia team and say I'd like to have you and you and you and you. They are all great players. For me, they are already the European champions. They will win by 20 points.