High Life Now Within Belgium’s Reach

04.08.2011

DESTINATION LITHUANIA

Mark Woods

Every week, fibaeurope.com collaborator Mark Woods talks to players with a single travel destination in mind this summer, Lithuania.

Next in the series is Sam Van Rossom, the 25-year-old Belgium point guard.

Mark Woods writes on basketball for a number of British newspapers as well as broadcasting for the BBC and Sky Sports. He is also assistant editor of mvp247.com and can be found on Twitter @markbritball.


Belgium - the land that gave us sublime chocolate, the tales of Tintin and exquisite frothy beer.

Basketball, admits Sam van Rossom, is not among the list of the country's most esteemed exports.

But, he hopes, it could be if The Lions can prove their worth on their travels at EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania.

Surprise winners of their qualifying group last summer, the Belgians have quietly built up their brand.

Step by step, says Van Rossom, their national teams have made progress, engaging a public which did not previously care much about their fate.

"I still remember the first year I played for the national team," recalls the 25-year-old point guard.

"People didn't come to watch. The last couple of years, there's a new spirit. There's more motivation. People want to get involved. We're playing in front of bigger crowds.

5. Sam Van Rossom (Belgium)
Sam Van Rossom, who is used to playing in front of big crowds in the Spanish ACB league, enjoys every bit of the attention the national team now gets in Belgium - he knows success in Lithuania will be key to keep the momentum going

"It's grown to the point where we have a lot of interest. We have to keep that and grow it even more if that's possible. Getting good results in Lithuania will be a big help."

Mired in a first round group which also includes Russia and Slovenia, Eddy Casteels' side will have to fight to make a good impression.

A squad now reduced to 14 has embarked on a barnstorming tour of North America, testing itself against both college and international squads before returning for a final warm-up tournament in the German city of Bamberg later this month.

Everyone is aware of what lies beyond and what is at stake, Van Rossom confirms.

"Our group has Slovenia and Russia, they're the strongest teams on paper. The rest is open. The first three teams will qualify for the next round and we've proved in the past that we can beat Georgia and Bulgaria.

"Ukraine's an unknown but when you're at a championship, it's different. It will be a tough first round. If someone beats one of the big two, they'll be in a strong position. It's just so hard to predict but there are evenly matched teams with us."

Third place, he believes, is up for grabs. Close games should be expected. Point average might be vital.

"We'll have to do our best and try to beat the teams we're supposed to beat. If we upset Russia or Slovenia, it would be a huge bonus. But it will all be about getting off to the right start."

Much of the responsibility will fall on Belgium's playmaker. Emerging through the junior ranks, he was offered the opportunity to test himself in Italy with Scavolini Pesaro two summers ago before catching the eye of ACB side CAI Zaragoza.

Shining in Spain, he has just agreed a new two-year contract with his current club, allowing him to focus his thoughts fully on Lithuania.

"It helps take away the stress," he reveals. "Right now I'm feeling quite calm."

He is also feeling more confident than ever in his own capabilities. The ferocious competition in Spain has toughened him up like never before.

"It's the best league in Europe and every week, you're up against very good players," he confirms.

"That's helped me. I think I improved and I hope to carry that onto the national team at the championships."

That is all Casteels can ask for. Losing existing captain Jef Van der Jonckheyd to injury, he has turned to Christophe Beghin and Guy Muya to be the nominal leaders.

Beyond that, they will lean on the experience of DJ Mbenga, twice a NBA champion with the Lakers but now biding his time before returning to New Orleans post lock-out.

"It's always good to have him," van Rossom states. "DJ's been in the NBA for a while now. He has a lot of experience and that helps everyone else get better."

Upwardly mobile as a squad, the Belgians do not want to take steps back. They have waited 18 years to return to the finals, disappearing into obscurity before finally rising to the occasion.

Falling short on the big stage could send Belgium back into the dark.

"I don't see it as pressure," states van Rossom.

"Last year, we had a great campaign but inside, everyone on the team is still hungry going into the EuroBasket. People are expecting a little bit more from us now than before because we've had good results. But I don't think we should see it as pressure. We should just use it positively."

They'll drink a beer to that.


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