By Tim Hanlon, PA International
Belgium will lean heavily on Axel Hervelle this summer as they try to join the Eurobasket 2005 party in Serbia & Montenegro in September.
The Liege-born player, a broad-shouldered, athletic 2.05m forward at Real Madrid, averaged 12.2 points and 10.7 rebounds for his country last year during the Belgians' unsuccessful qualifying campaign.
The team from the Low Countries has never been a basketball powerhouse but with Hervelle in the fold, they have a chance to win the nine-team, additional qualifying tournament in the summer.
And taking the big step to the final round is crucial for the game in Belgium, he says.
|Hervelle in action with Real Madrid|
"We have some good Belgian players coming through and the attendances are getting bigger," Hervelle said to PA International.
"The main aim for us now at international level is to qualify for the European Championships and then we will move on from there."
In the additional qualifying tournament, Belgium will face Israel and the Netherlands in Group B.
Should they finish top of that group, they will advance to take on the two other group winners in Belgrade for the right to play in the finals of Eurobasket 2005.
Hervelle firmly believes there is talent in the country for a national team to eventually be successful.
"The only thing lacking in Belgium is the financial support," he said.
Hervelle's rise to stardom has been rapid. He moved through the youth ranks to the first team at Verviers-Pepinster, receiving rave reviews.
That paved the way for his move in the autumn to Real where, under respected coach Bozidar Maljkovic, he has blossomed into one of the finest young players in Europe.
Most NBA scouts expect the 21-year-old to be drafted this summer, although he is currently in the first of a two-year contract with Madrid.
Despite having gone up against some of the biggest names in the game in the past year, Hervelle has never been awestruck.
It could be because of the way he followed the game as a boy.
"I did not have role models as I grew up because I have developed my own game but, of course, I liked watching Michael Jordan," he said.
He was not fazed when Belgium faced the Dirk Nowitzki-led Germany in European Championship qualifying.
In the first game, Dallas Mavericks superstar Nowtizki led his team to a convincing win but Hervelle still had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
In the next game, when Nowitzki did not play with the Germans already through to the final round, Hervelle poured in 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.
Belgian basketball is hoping to capitalise on Hervelle's gifts.
The player himself says hoops is definitely a solid number two sport and is growing in popularity.
And he has no regrets about pursuing a professional basketball career.
"I got into basketball first of all because I was tall and it is a good sport to play for both lower and upper body fitness," he said.
"I have always worked very hard to get where I am and I have gradually improved."