Building On Junior Success: Sweden Part II

11 February 2010

By Paul Nilsen

Having failed to make the jump into Division A with both senior National teams last summer, you might reasonably expect Swedish basketball to be hiding somewhere in a corner sulking. If you did you would be wrong since self-pity simply isn't an option.

If there is one silver lining from a giant cloud of disappointment, it is a renewed vigour and determination to get it right and build for the future. Failing last time means more work this time around and thankfully, it would seem that everyone is willing to roll their sleeves up and come together.

The Swedish Federation are confronting the challenge that lies in front of them head on. Not only do they want their current National Teams to be playing top level basketball, they want to make sure they can call on a conveyor belt of talent in years to come and restore former glories.

This means building on the grass roots development that has taken place in recent years with the Federation happy to put quality above quantity when it comes to nurturing young talent according to Secretary General, Lena Wallin-Kantzy.

Lena Wallin Kantzy, Nar Zanolin, George Vassilakopoulos, Lennart Johansson and Lars-Christer Olsson
Swedish Federation Secretary General Lena Wallin Kantzy is optimistic about her federation's progress

"There is so much competition for different sports here in Sweden and it is tough. We have around 9 million people living here and around 3 million are associated in some way with sporting clubs."

"Here in the Nordic countries, the parents are even more important because often they are involved with the voluntary work at many of the clubs whether this is ice hockey, football or basketball."

"However, at the moment, I would say that basketball in Sweden has developed a lot - particularly in the last five or six years. Much of this has been down to the fact that we have been really working hard on the quality of everything we do in the structures, the coaching and the education programmes that we run which are all linked."

"Interestingly we have made sure that we are not too focused on just raising the number of kids playing the sport just for the sake of it. We feel that if we concentrate on raising the quality that in time, parents will see the benefits of this and we will then see more and more young players playing basketball."

While concentrating on quality is very much top of the list, this doesn't mean that the current approach is shunning recruitment altogether. It has simply been a case of realigning objectives and looking to focus the recruitment drive on even younger players who they hope they can get hooked on the sport early.

"In the last couple of years we have got more involved with recruiting programmes for younger kids aged between 6 and 10 years old when they come to games and through their schools get involved" said Wallin-Kantzy.

"Many of the kids enjoy playing in the tournaments that we run at our monthly camps and it has become a real family thing with many players coming along with their brothers and sisters too."

"They spend the whole day doing different things and then playing four on four and this is something we are continuing to evaluate but we think it is really good.

"On the subject of four on four basketball, from later this year or maybe next year, all kids who are ten or eleven will start playing a lot more of the game in this format. We feel strongly that at this age, four on four is very good in developing the young players and they should only play five on five after they have reached twelve years old."

She added, "More importantly we hope that with good quality coaching and facilities the players who have already started playing basketball will also stick with the sport and continue."

Wallin-Kantzy is also fiercely proud of the Federations commitment and approach to achieving equality in the sport. While others may still be tempted to turn the resource tap on fully for the men and yet only allow a trickle for Women, the Swedish Federation are splitting things right down the middle and even bringing both sexes together to help improve the sport.

"All of the money we spend is spent equally and we never think of putting more money into the men's side."

"Another one of the big things that I think helps us stand out as a team sport in Sweden is that from the senior National teams right through to the youth teams we are now doing everything together at camps."

"We mix some of the players together and I think importantly we have the same programmes for the boys and girls. It is a clear message from the Federation board that we cater for fifty percent girls and fifty percent boys because it is a spot that is just as popular with girls in Sweden."

"It is also very clear that the boys and girls really love doing the camps together and we make a big deal out of this and making sure the coaches talk and help each other."

Another big reason for Swedish basketball to look forward and not back is the performances of their youth national teams who have performed well recently and point towards a bright future. None shine quite so much as the U18 men who achieved what neither senior team could manage and made it to the top level for this summer having been crowned as Division B champions last year.

It is something that has left Coach Olle Lunden excited for the months ahead and he can't wait to head to Vilnius in July - even if they have been drawn in a tough group with France, Spain and Latvia.

"It is very inspiring for me, my staff and the players to participate in Division A this summer. It's actually 25 years since a Swedish men's team played on that level."

"I have a very confident group of players where most have experience from playing important, must win games in Division B."

Christopher Czerapowicz (Sweden)
Christopher Czerapowicz was the leader of the U18 team that finished first in Division B and was invited to the U18 All Star Game in Katowice during EuroBasket 2009

"All together this set our mind into knowing we can compete with the best. We understand we need to prepare well for the championships. And, we believe that we, in doing so, will be able to play with the top nations of Europe. So if anybody thinks that Sweden is just happy to be here, they have not done their home work."

"Having said this I do believe that our team is confident, but not over confident. We understand that we have things to learn before the first game on July 22nd. If things go as we want we will play in one of the quarter-finals."

Making the job slightly easier for Lunden is the success of Jonas Jerebko, a factor now heightened by his place in the NBA rookie team. According to the coach it is giving his players even more of a carrot to succeed although, it is the confidence from last years promotion that will really matter when they head to Lithuania.

"Jonas Jerebko is, of course, very important for Swedish basketball. He is also personating the new kind of players coming out of Sweden with his great work ethics and confidence. He was the first one, but he's not going to be the last one. I'm sure there will be others following him."

Jonas Jerabko
Jonas Jerabko made a smooth transition from European Basketball to the NBA

"Jonas is on TV, radio and papers every day all over Sweden. He makes the talents of Sweden work even harder. They, too, want to show the world they can play with the best. The Swedish federation is now using the interest around Jonas to make new sponsor deals and putting new money into the youth national teams and education of coaches."

"Already a number of players have been invited to practice/try-outs in well known clubs in Spain and Italy. Two players already play in Spain and Italy. And a few players more are right now considering offers."

"Ultimately I just hope that the success we had in Sarajevo last summer will make Swedish players even more confident and more willing to put in the time to become the great players that we need to reach our goals."

According to Wallin-Kantzy, the Women's game is also on an upward curve with a similar situation when it comes to the youth categories with young players looking to follow in the footsteps of the new breed of senior national team players. In fact there is genuine excitement and passion for the Womens game within the Federation, who believe the sport is about to really take off.

"There will be a lot more focus and expectation on the Women and generally I think that Womens basketball can now develop quickly and really explode right across Europe."

"It is a fantastic sport to watch when you compare it to many other female sports. It is such a good quality technical game and yet always such fun to watch that I think it is getting easier to promote and it can get even more popular in the next few years."

"We have new stars like the Eldebrinks, Louice Halvarrson, Chioma Nnamaka and a couple of others so it definitely looks good for us. If you add that we also have some good prospects at U20 and U18 level then we are very hopeful for the future."

6. Frida Eldebrink (Tarbes GB)
Frida Eldebrink scored 19 points for her Tarbes side against defending champions Spartak Moscow in the EuroLeague Women

"Frida Eldebrink in particular has really played well recently which is good news for her and for us. Playing for Tarbes she is shooting the ball pretty well in the French League and almost completed what would have been the biggest surprise in EuroLeague Women by beating Spartak earlier this year. They only lost by three points and Frida was the top scorer."

"We have a lot of media attention on females in sport here in Sweden, not so much in team sports right now but more around individuals. However if the Women can get that promotion to Division A, I am sure they will get a lot of attention."

Eldebrink herself is certainly showing young players what can be achieved and is loving life in EuroLeague Women during her rookie season in the elite competition of the women's game.

"I am really happy with my performance in Euroleague Women this year. I went in with no expectations about how it was going to go for me but it has been a pleasure to play every game against really good and big name players."

"To play against the likes of Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Sylvia Fowles and Anete Jekabsone has always been a dream and now I havbe played against them, I know that I can play on their level too."

"It has been a real pleasure and a good experience to play in EuroLeague Women this year and I hope I will play in it again next year."

With her ever increasing profile. Eldebrink is thriving on being a potential role model for girls in her homeland and it clearly means a lot to the guard and she feels that the feel-good factor will return to Swedish basketball. The guard also believes the game is definitely on the up and the current optimism even against the backdrop of last years disappointments is well founded.

"It feels really good, and particularly good to show the young girls that you can play as a professional basketball player as a women and earn good money with basketball as your everyday work."

"I think its important to have someone to look up to and I would love to be that person. I would always give them the advice to work hard every single practice and to believe in themselves that they are good. If you don't believe in yourself its hard to make it to the top."

"Basketball is not a very big sports in Sweden but its on its way up. Its starting to get more and more popular so that's very good. Now when we have some really good players out playing in both USA and Europe I think basketball will grow more and get even bigger because that's what you need - some big star names that show the way."

The confidence of Eldebrink is mirrored by Martin Ringstrom a forward with the senior men's team and further evidence that Swedish basketball is pulling together to ensure the glass is viewed as being very much half full rather than half empty.

"Our federation has done a lot these few years to get more success. At this moment we are on a tight budget and need to bring in some strong sponsors to help develop the sport even more but we got our first NBA player and we have a lot of young talented players. The last summers our youth national teams having good results."

"Basketligan is still developing but there is a big opportunity for young Swedish guys to get big roles in their teams. For example, one of the teams (Borås) has only Swedish players and doing good results. This is going to be good for our national team in the future."

"With the recent bad economy, a lot of young Swedish players are having big roles in their teams in Basketligan. With a strong Basketligan we will get a strong National team. I know the level still needs to improve but we are getting there."

Encapsulating the desire of everyone associated with Swedish Basketball to ensure those 2009 clouds of doom are replaced with ever increasing rays of sunshine, Ringstrom was only too happy to sign off in splendidly upbeat fashion.

"I can't really see many bad points at all right now. The future can only be brighter."


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