A Season On The (Elde)Brink: Sweden Part I

By Paul Nilsen

If there is one nation in Europe that feels the pain of coming so close to reaching the promised land of Division A, and then falling agonisingly short, it has to be Sweden. On one fateful day last September they had to swallow not one but two very bitter pills as both the men and women missed out.

Consequently they now find themselves in the basketball equivalent of no man's land. Having failed when trying to step up to the top flight, they potentially tower over many of the developing Division B nations with a tradition that boasts several previous appearances in major tournaments - including the Olympic Games.

Jonas Jerabko
After a promising start in Europe Jonas Jerabko is making his mark in the NBA.
Not that reputation or past glories count for anything in basketball while nobody associated with Swedish basketball expects any tears to be shed for their predicament. Instead, the Federation now have to concentrate on masterminding a strategy to pick themselves up off the floor and try once again to achieve their ambitions.

Secretary General, Lena Wallin-Kantzy is one of those who had to deal with that gut wrenching double whammy last year but is now trying her best to be understanding in spite of the disappointment.

She explained, "On the men's side we always knew that Montenegro was probably one of the best teams in Europe and I think potentially in the top six teams even in Division A.  We knew they had good players and they could maybe win every game and in that sense it was maybe impossible for us."

"That was of course still tough for us to take although maybe missing out was to be expected. I think the way that we reflect on last summer is that we were satisfied with the way that the team played and we are now sure that they could not have really done much more."

While the sadness was gradually beginning to fade, the recent draw for the next promotion round brought the implications of their near-miss firmly into focus again. Wallin-Kantzy is currently trying to digest the off-court practicalities as reality bites with another spell in Division B ahead - including having to persuade Detroit star Jonas Jerebko to commit to life in the second tier once again.

"When you look at what happened in the draw for next time it will pose some big challenges for us - mainly off the court. We are trying like a lot of other Federations to come together to promote the sport as this is hugely important."

"However, while I have the utmost respect for all of our friends from across Europe, the facts for us are that games against Azerbaijan, Albania and Belarus during the summer months won't be easy for us to promote - even if a player like Jonas Jerebko plays."

"He is one of the best rookies in the NBA and it is a hard sell to him when we go over there and meet with him about the programme. He is a big celebrity in the media right now here in Sweden and that makes it very difficult all round as some people around him might question him playing in Division B against some of the smaller and developing basketball nations."

She added, "It takes such a long time to make the journey from Division B to an actual EuroBasket tournament and Of course this would not be an issue if we had got promotion last year, but we didn't and now we have to deal with reality."

At least the Swedish Federation can point to the example of Luol Deng and the impact he had in helping Great Britain move from Division B to reaching EuroBasket 2009 although the Chicago Bulls star did have the benefit of achieving the aim at the first attempt.

According to Wallin-Kantzy, the Federation remain confident that their prize asset will pull on the yellow vest again.

"Our Sports director has been in the States talking to both him and Detroit recently and he claims they are positive about him playing with the national team again this summer which will be really great for us."

Forward Martin Ringstrom meanwhile was one of four other Swedish players to average double-figures with Jerebko during their failed promotion bid and he remains somewhat philosophical about missing the boat, preferring instead to focus on reaching their destination next time.

"Of course we are disappointed but getting to the last four from a really tough group was good while losing against a strong Montenegro team wasn't a big shame."

"You have to take into consideration that in these countries, basketball is the first or second sport along with football but in Sweden basketball is not yet in the top three sports."

"We always feel the pressure in the team and by the people involved to make it to Division A. In respect of the group for our next promotion challenge, I don't know too much about the other teams. Logistically it looks a difficult group with a lot travelling."

"However, as we know, the opponent doesn't matter as we always focus on doing our best and believing that we can beat any team on any given day. We played good against top teams before so we know we have the results in us.

The Federation clearly have a few key decisions to make when it comes to planning for the future in what could be something of a crossroads. The coaching hot-seat remains empty for now but whatever happens, Wallin-Kantzy and her colleagues are remaining upbeat in their outlook for the future.

"We are in the process of hiring the new coach and are looking at early in March. Coach Fleverakis is still a candidate, we just wanted to take our time and evaluate things when his contract came to an end."

"At the same time we will be talking to the players, not just Jonas but we have other talented younger guys coming up. It is interesting for us because we have also got a lot of players who are experienced and have done a good job but we must decide if it is time to welcome a new generation."

"Jonas will obviously be the key player and we also have Jeffrey Taylor who is one of the best players at College level right now and we will be waiting to see how he is drafted."

"We also have a lot of talent coming through in the youth groups so in this respect the future is very bright for us and we can have some hope and confidence that we can make it to the next level quickly."

While the men came up against a truly outstanding team and immovable force in Montenegro, it was undoubtedly more of a disappointment that the Women failed in their quest to reach the top level.

For EuroLeague Women guard Frida Eldebrink, the experience of last summer clearly still sticks in her throat. Ask her what went wrong and you sense her regret when she tries to explain although you also get the impression that next time it will be entirely different.

"I don't really know what happened. It's so hard to even think about it. I am very disappointed that we didn't go up. I think we were very nervous for some reason."

"I think we played our two worst games of this summer just when it mattered the most and now I guess we have to look forward and get the promotion in the next two years instead."

"I do believe we will be more ready next time and we will all be two years older and have more experience because last year we had a really young team. I think we now know what it takes to make it."

"To go to Division A we have to be able to beat everybody in Division B so I am not worried about the draw this time as I think it looks pretty good for us."

Wallin-Kantzy meanwhile was far less sheepish in her assessment and more willing to elaborate on the explanation of Eldebrink with a slightly more candid version of events.

"The result for the Women was so disappointing last summer. They won everything very easily in the Qualifying Round and obviously many of the players have had some success at youth levels but when it come to playing the one or two big games at senior level when it mattered they did not really cope with this situation mentally."

"It was an under-achievement for everybody concerned but it is important that we remember that many of the players are still at the start of their careers. For sure I am confident that this next time we can join the top level and get promoted to Division A.

"When we look at the draw we are up against some of the countries still developing and while it might not seem very challenging to some of our players, we have to show the respect and be prepared mentally to do the job."

"We have to make sure they stay motivated because I am sure they can and will make it but in any sport it can be difficult if players do not find themselves excited at playing games they think they should win easily.

"However if they want to play at that top level where they believe they should be, they have to be prepared and I am sure that after next summer they will be where they want to be."

One of the most striking aspects of both the men and women having to try again is the potential vicious circle that the pressure of reaching Division A inevitably brings. The longer the nation is without top flight basketball, the more pressure falls on those tasked with achieving the aim and hence the more nervous and difficult it becomes on the court.

While that may not seem exactly fair, the harsh fact is that Division A status is the golden thread that pulls everything together for basketball in Sweden. It is something that is no more underlined than in the attitude of the media towards basketball.

"If you are not in Division A, it can be very difficult to get sponsorship and television or media coverage and the two go hand in hand together" explains Wallin-Kantzy.

"It is hard to convince the media and spectators about the longer term objectives and that it is not

14. Louice Halvarsson (Sweden)
20-year-old Louice Halvarsson led Sweden is another young, and rising star for the Swedish women.
about qualifying for the next EuroBasket but for the one after that. Sometimes the media just can not understand and it is worse when you have no chance of being at the Olympics in London but this is the reality for us after not getting promoted."

"We get compared with ice-hockey, football and handball all of the time and in those sports you do have the opportunity to qualify each year for tournaments instead of having to work through different levels but that is the way that it is and we are trying to be very positive about the situation."

Journalist Linus Schroder writes for big morning newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and agrees although has no desire to put the boot into Swedish basketball. In fact, Schroder feels that in spite of what has happened in the last six months, there is reason to believe that the Federation and the sport is on the right track.

"Basketball is a small sport in the Swedish media and one reason is the lack of success at International level, I think it is changing somewhat due to Jonas Jerebko, but for a long term rise in interest, good results by one of the senior national teams will be instrumental. "

"Publicly, having Jerebko in the NBA has already resulted in a small interest boost but I don't think the Eldebrink sisters have quite the same impact. However inside the sport itself, all three are role models. Swedish basketball kids realize that it is possible to reach a high international level and to earn money as a player.

"With their experiences from NBA and EuroLeague, Women, they will know what it takes to succeed on international level - something that is desperately needed on the national teams."

"My experience is that sports that are not successful on a senior international level always point at their talents and towards a lighter future. Right now, Swedish basketball does exactly that. Usually, I do not get thrilled about predictions like that, but this time I think they might be correct. "

"The reason is the second generation. Sons and daughters of American imports playing in Sweden in the 1970's are starting to surface. Jonas Jerebko is one of them, and the soon-to-be-drafted Jeffery Taylor another. And they are not the only ones."

Clearly the decision of Jerebko to commit will be fundamental to the success of Swedish basketball in the next couple of years - especially if he can help make the breakthrough not just on, but also off the court.  His team mate Ringstrom was also quick to underline the influence his decision could potentially have on the entire sport.

"I believe that Jonas making it in the NBA makes a huge impact. Interest in the sport from media and public is necessary to get basketball on the map in Sweden. It's important for the young players to have role models and believe it's possible to reach your goals and dreams -with the right attitude and hard work."

" I know Jonas put in a lot of hard work to get where he is today I am really happy for his success and I hope he will be able to play again with us guys in the national team in the future. I hope that the sport gained some new players because of Jonas.

Even Eldebrink, who is herself under pressure to carry much of the load for the Women has jumped aboard the campaign to get Jerebko back in a National team vest. She was crystal clear in what it means to basketball in Sweden to have a fellow player plying their trade in the NBA.

"Jonas is going to be the face of basketball in Sweden."

"I think it will have a big impact on the sport and to have Jonas playing there is going to be a big deal for the sport in Sweden."

"People will see basketball in a different way and now other young players now that's its possible to get there if you work hard and have the motivation. It will make basketball bigger in Sweden and that's exactly what we need."

In Part Two find out how basketball in Sweden is pulling together to lift themselves off the floor, develop and plan for future success.

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