For decades the basketball scene in Czechoslovakia was one of the best in Europe. They won medals, and took part in almost every national team competition around. In the last decade, and while becoming an independent country, the Czech Republic has gradually slipped from center stage.
The 2000 U20 European Championship was the first to host a Czech team. They opened with a win in the first game but from there never won again and finished last. Four years later they can celebrate a place in the quarter-finals, which is just another example of the big jump that Czech basketball made in the last years.
If we remember that there’s a Czech player in the NBA– Jiri Welsch and another in the top level of Europe – Lubos Barton, it is clear that one of the most special countries in the history of Europe should be a place to consider when searching for players.
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The Czech national team coach, Frantisek Ron, had to deal not only with the lack of talent compared to most of the teams in the competition, but also with a problem every hosting team in any sports is facing – lack of games in the months before the competition, due to the fact hosting teams don’t take part in the qualification rounds. So far it seems he ha managed to overcome those issues.
How did you prepare your team for the championship without playing any qualification games?
"We started to prepare to the championship two years ago. We picked 60 players and started to play against local teams. It was seen that the team was slowly building, and they improved from time to time.
We tried to create a good team spirit because we knew it will be a key thing for us. The final preparation started in May 2004.
From that point the team was together until the championship with short breaks. In that time we played against Greece and Lithuania and again league teams, and again we improved from game to game. This generation isn’t as good as the one of 1980, but they have a little more team spirit."
Talking about your team spirit, how did you bring it to that point?
"We started to work on defense. These guys want to play all the time. It doesn’t matter for them if they are up or down by 10 or more than that. We have 12 players and any one of them can play."
But you still have one big star – David Steffel, how does he fit in the system?
"In the beginning the team played without Steffel. He us in the last week of April, and since then stayed with the team. He’s the true star of this team – a typical European power-forward. He likes to face to the basket and shoot the three, but he has to play much, much harder."
How was the feeling after the win over Spain?
"We really scouted their team well. The Spanish team are here without a good shooter from the outside, and usually good teams that play against “weaker” ones, don’t play as hard as they should.
In the game against Spain we got the lead right before the end of the game, and they didn’t have the time to recover from that."
Basketball used to be a big sports here a few years ago, how’s the situation now?
"Football and Ice Hockey are the most popular sports now. Basketball is third.
Everything broke down in the 80’s during the communism. They canceled all the schools and preparations for the young kids. It started again in 1993, and since then we try to get to the level before.
It’s going to take a little while until we get where we want to be. In France they had the same problem in the 70’s and after that they started to build everything again, they made a big jump and you can see now that they made good decisions, because they are doing very well. This is our model for revitalising the Czech basketball."
Do you feel there’s been an increase in the interest of basketball in the last years?
"Each year new foreigners are coming to play here. We had Zidek, who used to play in the NBA, back in the league, and an American that was an NBA camp before playing here, so the level is just improving in the last years.
Also Jiri Welsch is doing a camp for young kids every year and each time more and more kids are coming."