We often hear about the success of basketball teams in the Baltics.
But the achievements normally deal with the national teams or leading clubs in Lithuania or Latvia.
Baltic brothers Estonia, however, have been jumping into the spotlight lately.
The men's national team did very well last year in EuroBasket qualifying while club sides like Tartu University Rock have been one of the real success stories in this year's EuroCup.
FIBA Europe caught up with the General Secretary of Estonia's Basketball Federation, Karel Loide, and he provided a lot of insight into what is going right in his country.
FIBA Europe: Hi Karel. There is a real basketball buzz in Estonia with the Baltic League. What kind of impact is this competition having on the sport in Estonia and why is it so successful?
“ The Baltic League has helped all the participants. For Estonia to have two of our teams play weekly against top Latvian and Lithuanian clubs gives our players ideal conditions for development. „ Karel Loide
Estonian General Secretary
Karel Loide: "The buzz has been there the whole time for Estonians. Basketball is considered as the most popular sport in Estonia but we have had mixed results in different international tournaments. Our national team has qualified to EuroBasket twice since the independence and has been close a couple of times. For a nation of less than one million (population), it is not something to be ashamed of. Club competitions at European level have not given us much to cheer about the past 10 years. Most of the best players from the last decade had a chance to play in the Soviet basketball system. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we had to restructure our club system and development programs."
FIBA Europe: So what has taken place, then?
Karel Loide: "One of the main goals has been to increase the level of domestic league to develop young talent. For a country as small as Estonia it is difficult to maintain several top teams and have a really high level of the league because there are just not enough players or finances for so many clubs. The situation seemed to be the same for the Latvians and even the Lithuanians (who had two very strong teams [Zalgiris Kaunas and Lietuvos Rytas] but the rest were no match for them). The idea of the Baltic League was to increase the sporting level and the market size (also for sponsors it makes more sense to invest in a team that plays in a market of eight million rather than one or two million people). The development of the league has been great. This season, we had eight teams out of 10 play on a European level (two Euroleague, four ULEB Cup and two in the EuroCup) and all of them were successful in meeting their goals set before the season."
FIBA Europe: The impact has been positive, then?
Karel Loide: "The Baltic League has helped all the participants. For Estonia to have two of our teams play weekly against top Latvian and Lithuanian clubs gives our players ideal conditions for development, and clubs to taste a top European level. When some European tournaments begin with elimination rounds, then it is a risk for a club to invest in a good line-up because the trip could end in the first round. It makes no sense to play the rest of the season, only local games against weaker teams. The BBL guarantees a top level game for the whole season. This also has helped to attract some really talented players to join Baltic teams. Fans have been pouring into gyms, several new venues have been opened and each season, more games are televised. The league has really jump-started club basketball in the region but there is still a huge potential - the day when Latvian and Estonian teams will start giving a hard time to Lithuanian giants - that's when this league is out of its puberty. "
FIBA Europe: Estonia's men's team last summer, when they almost progressed in the additional qualifying tournament for the EuroBasket, also raised eyebrows. Would you say that Estonia are closing the gap on Lithuania and Latvia in terms of talent, or is there still a huge difference?
“ The key to their success seems to be teamwork, good spirit and surely home-court (advantage). They have a mix of young talent and experience of veteran players. „ Loide on the success
of Tartu Rock in EuroCup
Karel Loide: "Lithuania is one of the best basketball countries in Europe and perhaps in the world. Every kid there dreams of becoming a basketball player and a well polished education system and traditions put them far ahead. I think we were equal with the Latvians in the middle of the 90s but since our national sport systems have taken different directions and our neighbors have enjoyed more success. But we are hoping to catch them some day. The Estonian national team still hasn't got a big selection of players and thus our results often depend on the availability of key players and their current health (fitness). With a full line-up, this team has caused several upsets to some teams with much more impressive rosters but missing some key positions can cause the result to be the opposite. We are sure that our current direction in Baltic basketball helps all three countries and even if we do not catch Lithuania soon, the development will take us further compared to the rest of Europe. Our goal for the coming years is to consolidate our position among Europe's top 20 teams and in a couple years time, try to take a step higher with a new generation of players."
FIBA Europe: The draw for the EuroBasket Qualifying is coming up in Venice next month. Are there any teams you would like to play, and teams you would prefer to avoid?
Karel Loide: "There are no longer weak teams in Europe especially for Estonia in Division A. It is always interesting and intriguing to see neighboring countries meet on a court; it gives this special "something" for fans and players. But I'd rather see a change in the qualification system where more teams would have direct possibility to qualify to the EuroBasket and also for the strongest teams to participate. I think it would be an enormous boost for basketball in Estonia if Spain, Greece, Lithuania or Germany came to Tallinn. It would probably be the same for all the countries' top teams to visit and I think this would help raise the interest towards the qualification tournament in Europe as a whole. This is to my mind crucial since only a qualification tournament is the only possibility for home fans to see national teams play and federations to raise money for their development programs."
FIBA Europe: Last but certainly not least, we have been most impressed with the play of Tartu University Rock in the EuroCup. Have you seen this team play yet and realistically, how far can they go in the competition?
Karel Loide: "We are very happy with the results Rock has shown this far. The team had a difficult start to the season when they lost several games in the domestic and Baltic League, but they have gained momentum as the season progressed and since the start of the EuroCup, they have really shown some impressive basketball. The key to their success seems to be teamwork, good spirit and surely home-court (advantage). They have a mix of young talent and experience of veteran players. Any of six or seven of their players can be a top scorer in any given game. If Rock wins their remaining game against Lappeenranta (they did win) and has a home-court advantage in next stage, then they are surely candidates for Final Four. Once there, it is difficult to predict scenarios since all teams that make the Final Four are top quality and are there for one reason only. Personally, I hope that Rock gives their best in this competition and players and fans do not have to wonder in couple months time "what if...."
FIBA Europe: Thanks Karel