By Paul Nilsen
The story usually goes that when teenagers leave home, they head straight for the bright lights and excitement of the big cities in pursuit of fame and fortune. For Klaudia Lukacovicova the mission to follow her dream was familiar but the journey altogether different.
As a youngster already used to living in a metropolis, Lukacovicova left her family in Bratislava at just 15 years old and headed to the modest town of Ruzomberok to start her basketball development in earnest.
It was a bold move for any young teenager but crucially, what Ruzomberok appeared to lack on paper from a cultural perspective it certainly didn't lack when it come to basketball pedigree with MBK having landed back to back EuroLeague Women titles a decade ago.
|Lukacovicová plays her club basketball for MBK Ruzomberok.|
Still only 19, Lukacovicova has since developed into one of the brightest rising stars in Europe and believes her decision to head to the North of the Slovak Republic was the best thing she has ever done - with the added bonus of finding her new home far more appealing than she had expected.
"I was born in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovak Republic and I left when I was 15. I got an offer from one of the best teams in the country - MBK Ruzomberok. It was a pretty big difference to compare Ruzomberok with Bratislava. Ruzomberok is very small city with 35 000 people."
"It's such a cute little town with beautiful land all around. There are amazing mountains, ski resorts, a thermal park and also caves. People here are very nice and friendly and I am just glad I got this chance to come and play here."
"I have not been living with my family for the last four years and I miss them a lot. It wasn't an easy decision to leave so young, but my mom and I knew that if I wanted to play basketball then I had to go."
"Now, after four years, I can say that it was best decision I could have made at that time because I'm a much better player and I have learned to take care of myself."
Having continued to mature both on and off the court, the last year twelve months have underlined her massive potential. As an 18 year old she travelled to Ohrid in FYR of Macedonia last July to take part in the U20 Division B tournament for her country.
While something of a bitter-sweet experience after missing out on promotion to Division A, from a personal perspective, Lukacovicova shone and made it into the All Tournament team even though she had some injuries.
She explained "My feelings about Ohrid are very mixed. My team and I were going there with just one goal - to win this championship and get to Division A. Unfortunately, we didn't make it."
"The first three games were great for our team but then I got injured. It happened in fourth game against Macedonia and I sprained my left ankle. It was not so bad, and I was able to play the next day."
"It was in the game against Portugal where I sprained my other ankle, but that time it was pretty serious and I could not play anymore. I was really sad and upset, but it happens."
"Anyways, I met many great players and I also made a lot of friends there."
She also started to shine even brighter on the radar of Pokey Chatman, head coach with the Slovak Republic senior team and was invited to practice for the first time.
While selection for Eurobasket 2009 in Latvia was never a realistic prospect, it was the breakthrough she was waiting for and has now got her thinking about her timetable for 2010.
In theory she should be heading back to FYR of Macedonia for another U20 tournament in Kavadarci but right now while taking nothing for granted, she is hoping she might have bigger fish to fry with the senior team.
"Yes I know about Kavadarci, but I'm not sure if I will actually go there. During the same time, preparation with senior national team will start and the coach wants me to be there. I would really like to go and help my team but everything depends on what coach will say."
"Last summer I practiced with this team for the first time and it was such a great experience for me. I like Pokey as a coach and know how much she can help me to be a better player."
Taking absolutely nothing for granted, her hope that she will be recalled and be given an opportunity of court time for her country at senior level this year is well founded. For Coach Chatman is a big fan and has continued to plot her development closely.
"Klaudia caught my attention 2 years ago and I was ecstatic to learn she was only 18 years old." explained Chatman.
"I think the next step for her was gaining experience against high level competition, working on her body and getting stronger/quicker, and continuous individual player development.(footwork, low post moves, passing, attacking the glass, etc)"
"I travelled to Slovakia a couple of months ago to watch her play and was pleased to see she had made tremendous progress. Although she was sick for this particular game, I could visibly see the maturation process taking place with her development both physically and mentally."
"As you know, we find ourselves ‘limited' (injuries) at the post position (for the National Team), so I'm hoping for big things from Klaudia in terms of her ability to step into the Senior level and understand she can contribute."
Certainly Lukacovicova hasn't done herself any harm with her development at club level for MBK Ruzomberok either. Having made her debut in Euro Cup at the tender age of just 16 years old, a couple of season later and she has exploded into one of the best young talents in the competition.
During the current campaign she averaged a superb near 13 points and over 7 rebounds per game yet and is thrilled with the progress she has made.
"Eurocup is a very good competition and I'm glad that I can play there with my team. I'm happy I have been given the chance to play a lot of minutes even though I'm younger and I have gained some great experience which will help in the future."
"I'm proud of the success we have had in Ruzomberok. I am also thankful that the club believes in me because it helps me to have confidence to shoot the ball and to try and score on offence."
If progression has been rapid then don't be fooled into thinking Lukacovicova believes she is anywhere near the finished article. By her own admission she is lucky to have some serious strengths but there is plenty of work still to do - especially if she is to reach the level of her role model.
"I really admire Zuzana Zirkova. She is an amazing player. She is good at everything and plays very hard. She has also been to the Olympics, in the WNBA and played for some of the best teams in Europe."
"In terms of my own game right now, think I'm pretty fast and have a pretty good shot, but I can't say those are my biggest strengths. I'm still young and need to work a lot and hard on everything."
"Like I said, there are so many things I need to work on. For example, my biggest weakness is my low post game. I want to be stronger on this position and that's why I'm going to the weights room and working hard in practice."
Dedicated to her sport and determined to reach the highest level, there isn't any fear the starlet will abandon the things she enjoys as she breaks a sweat to gradually realise all of her ambitions. She always makes time for her friends and springs a surprise by explaining a game of beach volleyball is a particular favourite - along with football.
As for the longer-term outlook, it could be a case of going back to the future for the center who might just find herself playing at a true basketball metropolis and in the brighter lights of EuroLeague Women later in her career although she is in no desperate hurry to leave a good situation - with time still very much on her side.
"First of all, I want to get more experience here in the Slovak league. After that, I would like to go and try outside the country. Of course, there are many countries where I wish to go including Spain, France and Italy but it all depends on the situation and how I will play."
On the subject of EuroLeague Women, Good Angels Kosice have of course done a terrific job of putting Slovak Republic Womens basketball on the map at the elite level this season. Despite being arch rivals of former European flag bearers Ruzomberok, Lukacovicova still believes it is still something to celebrate for everybody associated with Slovak Republic basketball.
"I'm really proud of them and how they did in the Euroleague this year. Slovak Republic is not a big country and this is great way to make a name for us and to let the rest of Europe know about our country."
If she is going to be a future star of a tournament like EuroLeague Women whether based at home or abroad, she will need to continue her development and find the consistency in her game that top level competitions demand.
Backing her all the way and lending support is Coach Chatman who is quietly confident but also excited that she can play her part in helping Lukacovicova to realise her true potential.
She claimed, "Klaudia definitely has the skill set to become a very good player! Her size, touch and mobility are all positives that open the door to a bright future. I am looking forward to working with her this upcoming summer for National Team qualifications."
"A big part of that is Klaudia simply believing in herself and her ability. Again, she has the ability, she's experienced success at the U20 level, she is gaining valuable experience this season, and it's imperative that I continue to help her along this journey of evolving into a solid, consistent player of the future."