“Basketball in my country is not so popular, but after this night, I think — I hope, that the basketball will be more popular. I will do my best to help that.”
-Jan Vesely, Draft Night 2011
Jan Vesely wants to put Czech Republic basketball on the map. Good luck.
“The Czech media have been really lame covering the story,” direct-messaged Yon Pulkrabek via Twitter. I’d sent out a tweet wondering if any follower spoke Czech, and the instant world of the Internet connected us.
Pulkrabek says he’s lived in Prague permanently for the past decade, working as a translator, journalist, and editor. He grew up in upstate New York to Czech émigré parents and has been a fan of the Boston Celtics since the 1980s, keeping up with their recent success thanks to League Pass, streaming web video and his DVR. Now, Pulkrabek has taken an obvious interest in the Washington Wizards.
He writes that initial coverage of Vesely in Prague was limited to a couple stories in the paper and a report on the evening news, but otherwise, soccer and hockey get the most attention in the Czech Republic. “But they are off now,” messages Pulkrabek. “Tennis is the headliner now, followed by inline hockey and hockeyball.”
Even with minimal media coverage in his native country at the onset of his NBA career, Vesely is still the biggest basketball story to ever come out of the Czech Republic. That, however, does not promote high hopes from the motherland above those of Wizards fans, it’s just that the latter interest group contains more skeptics.
The obvious statement is that speculation is futile until Vesely has had a chance to show his skills, and even with that, it’s more about how the 21-year old will guide his vessel around the prerequisite learning curve. Nonetheless, some have labelled Vesely an unknown of the 2011 Draft — even though you could say the same about most picks in most year — but now his ambiguity is less so stateside as a result of the kiss.
“That’s how it is in America. It wouldn’t have been such a sensation in Europe,” said Vesely during a press conference in his hometown of Ostrava last Friday, as translated by Pulkrabek from iDNES.cz Sport. Welcome to United States, home of the Kiss Cam (in varying regards).
Oleksiy Pecherov’s name rolls off the tongue of Vesely detractors like a speed auctioneer. Pech was goofy too, endearing… BLOG-worthy! Just like Jan, so far, but signs point to glaring differences.
Pecherov the seven-foot Ukranian was talent worthy of an 18th pick, he could shoot from distances sometimes. He wasn’t sixth pick material, even in a draft filled with low expectations. Denote Pecherov as a mistake by Ernie Grunfeld if you will, but don’t bring Vesely into that guilt-by-Euro-association mess. If for anything, because of the words from former Maryland Terp James Gist via the Washington Post’s Michael Lee:
“It’s not like he’s real creative, but if he gets a foot in the lane, he’s not trying to lay it up. He’s not trying to shoot a jumper. He’s trying to dunk the ball, no matter where he is. It’s amazing how he plays.”
Toughness is the desired effect in the rebuilding plan of Ted Leonsis, and although Vesely will need to prove toughness in rebounding and on defense (while limiting his penchant for fouls), his credentials in getting to the rim will likely translate to the NBA — whether he is throwing down alley-oops on the break with John Wall or putting back errant misses under new goaltending rules (the same expected rule change why I’ve argued that JaVale McGee is a keeper).
“I think it’s the aggression that he goes to the basket with. Guys can make spectacular plays, but he goes relentless,” said Wizards coach Flip Saunders at Vesley’s introductory press conference in the District. “When you have someone that plays with his aggression and plays all out, that becomes very contagious.” The coach then issued a challenge to his players, if any were listening.
“As everyone is anticipating, I think when you see John coming down the floor, there were many times last year we didn’t have people that could run with John, he’s so fast. That’s Jan’s strength.”
Saunders further indicated that Vesely was more built for the NBA game than for the European game. Vlade Divac, a manger with Vesely’s Serbian team, has also said Jan is “not a typical European player.”
Past dashing first-date athleticism, Vesley’s potential success in the U.S., and thus his standing that fuels basketball in the Czech Republic, largely rests on his ability to get along with his teammates. And furthermore, the ease of the adjustment to his new country.
When asked about fitting into a new environment, Vesely said that he was able to adapt to Serbia, Washington, D.C. shouldn’t be a problem. On draft night his girlfriend, the now famed Ana Kodouskova, proclaimed that the Serbs love him, that he quickly endeared himself to the country where he played professionally since 2008. That love has been well documented and reciprocated; Vesely says he picked up the Serbian language in about a month. Worth noting, however, that serving as a high-flying dunk show for KK Partizan, the New York Yankees of the Serbian League, probably provided an extra boost to his Q-Rating in Belgrade.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has expressed confidence in the plan to “assimilate Vesely culturally,” as he likes to call it, indicating that his experience doing the same in hockey will translate.
“What we’ve spent a lot of time on is not allowing cliques. You don’t want the Russians hanging out with only the Russians, and speaking Russian,” said Leonsis about his Washington Capitals in a phone interview. ”From day one when Alex [Ovechkin] came, Alex wanted — which we loved — he wanted to room with someone who spoke English so he could learn the language better and kind of get shown the ropes. So we’re very cognizant of ‘no cliques’.”
“What’s more likely to happen is when you have a young team and some vets — young players who are single, vets who are married with children — you tend to get some separation there,” Leonsis said. The schism between old and young in the Wizards franchise was most recently evident in Saunders’ first season on the job in 2009-10, but was induced by remnants of the Eddie Jordan coaching era (all under team president Ernie Grunfeld). The past shifting around of lockers in hopes of having youth peppered with age bringing a positive effect ultimately fell short on the team as a whole. The problem, as it turned out, was that the veterans were part of the problem.
“We’re a very, very young team, so I think we’ll be able to build good chemistry. We’ll just have to make sure and manage that they’re socializing, but that they’re healthily socializing,” Leonsis concluded with a chuckle. There are still varied experience levels in today’s Wizards locker room, it’s just that the slate of the past has been scrubbed. With new and youthful arrivals, expected accountability of the previous era’s few holdovers increases.
Leonsis explained that much of the responsibility of making sure young athletes are successfully integrated into the pro ranks falls in the realm of player agents. They help with basic support — finding translators, setting up checking accounts, assisting with housing — and combine forces with the assistance the team provides.
“We have a concierge kind of service where we also make sure that a lot of these things that he needs are attended to, because the less stress in the personal life, the more focused a player can have on his professional and basketball life,” said Leonsis. He also explained how, in Vesely’s case, involving people from the Czech Republic embassy was more than marketing goodwill. They help with visa issues and travel arrangements for family. They help make connections with other Czechs in the Washington community through events, some church driven.
“[We're] just trying to get them to understand that [Jan] is not alone and that D.C. is a very culturally diverse community. And naturally, he’s going to be introduced to the American side of socializing and business, but that he also can celebrate his heritage. I think that’s vital,” said Leonsis. ”We certainly saw that with Alex Ovechkin. You know Alex is American and North American as can be, but there’s also a large thriving Russian community and he toggles back-and-forth between those two communities.”
The Russia House lounge might stake claim as the toggling epicenter. Well, there and the ice in Chinatown.
Ensuring a comfortable environment is one thing, getting along with teammates is another. And hockey, despite being an international sport longer than basketball, can be vastly different to integrate demographically. Basketball being more racially diverse adds a slightly different variable to address.
Pecherov got along with teammates because he was of the ‘wild and crazy guy’ mode, a third Festrunk brother if you will. He partied with the likes of Andray Blatche and Dominic McGuire in South Beach. On the opposite end of the spectrum, although Yi Jianlian experienced a much more comfortable environment in Washington than he did in Milwaukee or New Jersey, thanks to Leonsis, he was still quite reserved, unintentionally aloof. Yi lived in the same building as several young Wizards, but wasn’t exactly known to fraternize with them over video games and Twitter.
Leonsis says that Wall did a lot with Yi during the season, but the result didn’t appear to evolve as much as hoped. After an early February home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, a member of the Chinese media covering the Wizards throughout last season asked Wall about Yi as a person, and if he ever hung out with the team after games.
“Aw, naw,” Wall started with his Southern draw. “Yi is mostly quiet. He speaks in here and I speak when I see him going into his apartment, but other than that, I stay in the house.”
Don’t get me wrong, Yi was liked by his teammates. He was even said to think fondly of his relationship with guys like JaVale McGee. But there’s a difference between being liked by co-workers and being invited to the card game.
Perhaps that was Yi’s nature; a meek, unconfident demeanor making itself all too obvious in a lack of aggression on the court. Maybe he still felt like an outsider by default. Other international players such as Kevin Seraphin and Hamady N’diaye more easily laid groundwork for bonding through circumstance of a common language, French. N’diaye attending college for four years at Rutgers allowing him to help with English translations to Seraphin, a native of French Guiana.
“There’s a lot of work to do to make sure that everyone understands that basketball and the system is the universal language. You know we’re trying to create our own culture, and these young men, for the most part, end up hanging around together. And they have to build trust and like one another,” said Leonsis. ”At the same time we want a high level of competitiveness, because playing time and touches are a point of the realm. And we’re trying to teach these kids that they harder the practice, the more they’re coachable, the more film they’re watching, the extra time they’re spending with the coaches and the instruction that we sent to them, the higher their opportunity to earn that coin, which is playing time.”
Unfortunately, the lockout has put a halt to team-organized competition friendlies on the Verizon Center practice court. Valuable integration time continues to be lost with the cancellation of the Las Vegas Summer League, which would have begun this month. Saunders and his staff have worked hard to prepare their players during a time in which contact between players and team personnel is banned, but that falls vastly short of hands-on instruction and face-to-face interaction amongst players.
When Saunders speaks of Vesely’s aggressive relentlessness as being contagious, he’s also saying that bruising hard work is an attitude that’s endearing toward teammates. Lithuanian and former Wizard Darius Songaila held a quiet persona like Yi, but was liked akin to Pecherov, yet his hard work spoke more volumes than what either of the other two were able to accomplish in Washington.
If Vesely earns respect with dunks of reckless abandon and energy worthy of teammates rushing to help him off the floor, his reputation in the Czech Republic will naturally build from a grassroots campaign in America. Remember, we made the kiss big (at least the almost 170,000 views of the post-draft reaction video I put together indicate as such). If he is chucking outside shots or shying away from contact under the glass, the kiss will become a distant memory and critical media will be stomping on eggshells.
Americans may sensationalize made-for-television smooches, but hustle is the pertinent language that speaks across boarders. If Vesely adds to the tone already set by team leader John Wall, the team culture and other young chickens won’t have a choice but to unite and follow. And if winning is the result, well, everybody will be friends.
Draft Night: Vesely with Czech media…
(translated below, courtesy of Pulkrabek)
JV = Jan Vesely
I = Interviewer 1
I2 = Second Interviewer
JV: Those three years in Partizan were worth it and now I’m definitely very happy
I: There was a lot of talk about the Wizards’ interest in you, so was it a surprise or did you expect it?
JV: We were hoping for it and our wish came true.
I: What about the Wizards style of play? Will you fit in?
JV: Definitely. They have a fast team that they can use to get out into the open and make the pass to the man up-court so I think it’s a good fit for me.
I: What do you have to work on, specifically in your game?
JV: Definitely my shooting and I have to get a bit stronger.
I: I have to ask about it, you had that great kiss and it got a big reaction from the crowd. I don’t know if you noticed that. Can I ask who those lucky ladies were?
JV: Well, the first one was my girlfriends and the second was my younger sister.
I: So I wish you the best and I hope to see you in Washington because I live and work there so we’ll definitely come out and see you play.
I2: Was it a surprise that the Wizards selected you?
JV: I wasn’t a surprise and it was definitely our wish to come to Washington and that was granted in the end. And I’m very happy about that.