Mind The Gap: Denmark Part I

27 April 2010
By Paul Nilsen

If you need a reminder of what can happen when a generation gap appears in the talent pool of a basketball nation, take a look at the tight spot Denmark now find themselves in.  Less than three years ago, they were competing for the last spot at Eurobasket 2007 in Spain - this summer they will be competing in Division C.

While it could be argued Denmark were punching above their weight in the first place by participating in Division A, it does not take away from the fact that at senior level, the men's team has continued its downward spiral at a frantic pace.

Christian Drejer
The loss of players like Christian Drejer have hurt the senior team.
They lost each and every one of their eight competitive games in Division B last summer to further underline their demise and also highlight just how brutally competitive European basketball has become even outside the elite Division A level.

After such a dramatic fall, it can be tough to pick yourself back up but this is certainly not the case with Denmark. To their credit, they could see themselves hurtling downwards and after seeing what was coming, they wasted little time in tipping-off a long term strategy of recovery to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again.

One of the people at the Danish Federation charged with putting the pieces back together and masterminding a new and stronger future for basketball in Denmark is Sports Director Jesper Hauge.

He speaks candidly about the circumstances that led to the current situation and isn't interested in excuses - preferring to concentrate on the reasons and some valuable lessons to emerge.

"It has been difficult for the Federation and I think there are different reasons for it."

"First of all, some of the really valuable players for us who had a lot of experience ended their careers while probably one of our most famous players of late in Christian Drejer had a career ending injury."

"Going down from Division A was partly due to that but then we have no real excuses and we have to admit that we then found a big gap in our talent production recently and that affected us in Division B."

"Right now from around 20 to 25 or 26 years old we have some gaps and not enough strength in these areas because of a period in the past when we were not able to put players through the right development paths and programmes."

"We really do have a lack of players in this kind of age group and on top of that, we have had to deal with some financial cuts from the government so it hasn't been easy."

In some ways, the predicament the Federation have found themselves in during recent times has given them a chance to wipe the slate clean and to turn one giant threat into one of the most exciting opportunities around.

Having anticipated the drought of talent at senior level, the Federation have already implemented and found some early success with their new strategy which has seen a complete switch to focusing their resources onto an improved and successful structure at national youth team levels.

It was a bold but perhaps necessary move and initial results have been overwhelmingly positive. For example, the U16 Men will be playing in Division A this summer having gained promotion last year.

While a strong focus has been placed on ensuring there are no more generation gaps in the future by ensuring continuity is at the heart of their approach, Hague also revealed that keeping things ticking over at senior level was still essential.

"In spite of our recent problems, we made a decision that we would really like to keep competing at the FIBA Europe competitive level and when we got invited to the C group we were happy to accept."

"However right now we are happy to say that our focus is very much on the youth programmes."

"Those born 93 and 94 that helped us go to Division A in the U16 level are the cornerstones of our entire programme right now."

"We really hope that when these players grow up and get more experience of playing at this high level they will be able to eventually step up to the senior level, hopefully back in Division B but who knows?"

"Maybe one day even fighting to get back into Division A again!

"The most important aspects of our work right now is having continuity in our youth programme and trying to develop in the right way."

One fiercely proud former national team player who is backing the exciting new approach of the Federation is Thomas Soltau. The forward was one of the main contributors in the team that made the Additional Qualifying Round during 2007 and he has endorsed the current work being undertaken.

"The Federation made the decision to renew the Men's National Team and focus on giving the unproven, younger players a chance to play important games in the B-Division during the last two summers. And of course, the 0-8 record is not what the Federation had hoped for."

"However, in all fairness, it was likely Iceland were the only side the Danish team had a real chance against, and there they came up a bit unlucky."

"The Federation have decided to move the Men's National Team down to the C-group and to start building completely from scratch."

"They have recently hired former professional player and Coach Pete Hoffmann, which seems to be a very good choice since the federation is also looking for a head coach with personal experience, and someone who can coach the young players on more than just a tactical level."

"The Federation should be commended for all their work with their Youth National teams. Now they probably need to focus on other issues such as our domestic league - the CDL."

One of the biggest challenges posed to the Federation is how they keep pushing up standards in CDL to give youngsters something to aspire to in terms of a career. Soltau has extensive experience of playing both in his homeland and around Europe and is keen for young players to see the pro-league in Denmark become an aspiration to them.

"It is now important to secure a reliable CDL and Division 1, where Danish players can play and grow. A gentlemen agreement about the use of foreign players might be a good idea, and also CDL must try to expand to 12-14 teams, in order to have enough possibilities for Danish basketball to spread across the country and for young players to see minutes and learn how to take on leading roles."

"Sadly we lost a team this year, Randers, due bankruptcy, and also SISU CPH came very close to throwing in the towel this. And at the same time no Division one teams seem able to meet the Federation's demands to move up to the top level, which might mean that they only have 9 teams next year. So where can out young talents play minutes and have important roles, so that they can continue to develop?"

"The problem remains a lack of opportunities for young talent to play important minutes in the league, and maybe still a lack of support for the players that do make the move to play in US colleges or in Europe. There are no people who can help these kids if things don't go as planned. If the Federation wants to place players in the US or around Europe they need to create a system that furthers this, and helps to secure opportunities for their young talents."

Soltau is also a realist and knows the good work undertaken by the Federation in the face of the challenges posed by the recent generation gap in talent is only the start. Getting the professional league to the highest level possible is a key factor in the overall plan but it won't be easy.

"Denmark probably lacks a basketball culture and a fan- base in the gyms. Without people in the gyms, excitement and culture throughout the clubs, which only a few teams have at present, there is nothing to present to sponsors, and to our talented players, who are often forced to down prioritise basketball, because they don't necessarily see a future in the sport. "

"The best young players have a chance to be seen with their Youth National Teams, but what about the rest such as players, who don't feel ready to live abroad at seventeen years old, or all the players who cannot see a future playing in Denmark?"

"Because of this, it seems like we reach stagnation in the growth of many of your talented players, where other countries continue to have opportunities for their players, either in their National Leagues or with good support and placement in good college programs or with bigger teams in Europe."

"In order for the National Team to progress its players need a solid National League to play in."

"We cannot ask sponsors for money, television to transmit games with empty gyms, and spectators for money before we have a quality product that is consistently good, and a culture that furthers great basketball games, full gyms, positive stories, development of talent, and the creation of Danish stars and idols."

All easier said than done of course although without a top level player like Christian Drejer anymore it could prove difficult to really focus young minds on becoming the next big thing.

Other countries such as Sweden and Great Britain who have flitted between Division A and B and are still looking to blossom fully at all levels at least have a Jonas Jerebko or Luol Deng to stick on their promotional material to inspire youngsters.

Despite the challenges ahead, Hauge remains positive. He is confident that slowly but surely, the tide will be turned and pointed to some positive signs around media exposure and youth development within the CDL clubs themselves as reasons to be optimistic.

"On the Mens side there is no doubt in my mind that the league in Denmark has experienced a raising of the level and not just on the playing side but also off the court too."

"We now have a television station that shows 36 live games across the season and they really care about building up basketball in Denmark and that is important."

"While it is not the number one channel, over half of the population can access it and a decent amount of people are now watching the games."

"The amount of spectators to the men's league game has increased 10 years in a row. Last week we had 4030 spectators to game two of the men's finals (best of 7), so that is really great."

"I really think that our youth programmes in the actual clubs themselves and not just at national team level are now much more focused on technical issues rather than just results."

"This is building up a really positive environment and also positive expectations for the future."

In part two we catch up with one of the new rising stars Esben Reinholt, take a look at plans for the Womens teams, focus on technical development and most important of all - ask whether everyone has the patience required for such a long term strategy.

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