Satoransky, Vesely, and Czech-Americans in the NBA | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Satoransky, Vesely, and Czech-Americans in the NBA

By
Updated: June 17, 2019

An old Czech proverb says “If there were no children, there would be no tears.” Similarly, if there were no Czechs, there would have been no “Havlicek stole the ball,” Neto’s in the Meadows, Hanz’s mustache, Hornacek’s famous free-throw face ritual, The Jan Vesely Diaries, #FreeSato, or maybe even the NBA itself.

Ever heard about a guy named Max Kase?

Born at the end of the 19th century in New York City, Kase was a famous newspaper writer and perhaps the major driving force behind both the creation of the New York Knickerbockers and the Basketball Association of America, the predecessor to the NBA. One author wrote that “Kase conceived the BAA and drew up its charter” and the second commissioner of the NBA, Walter Kennedy said, “His personal involvement in the beginning of the NBA in the 1940s and his strong belief that pro basketball was destined to be a major sport were important factors in the growth and success of the NBA.” But why I’m telling you this? Because Kase was most likely a Czech-American Jew: his parents, Solomon and Frances Kase, emigrated to New York from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they were probably Bohemian (Czech) Jews, since Kaše is a Czech surname (it means “mash”).

As you might have heard, the Wizards’ Tomas Satoransky is the fourth Czech in NBA history. But since there are almost two million American citizens of Czech descent, some of whom live in towns like New Prague in Minnesota, Prague in Oklahoma, Pilsen in Wisconsin, Tabor in South Dakota, and Protivin, Iowa, sometime in 2012 I began to wonder how many Czech-Americans had played in the NBA. This led to months-long research and eventually the creation of the unofficial Czechoslovak-American Basketball Hall of Fame. Though an exact number is impossible to define (for example, if a player named, say, Williams had a Czech mother or grandmother and it’s not mentioned anywhere, we wouldn’t ever know he belongs to the Czech diaspora), there have been around 20 NBA/ABA players of Czech ancestry.

Many cities in America hold festivals celebrating Czech culture. In Parkville, Maryland, for example, there’s a Czech and Slovak Heritage Festival celebrating Baltimore’s Czech/Slovak heritage. So this month, as a celebration of Czech contributions to the NBA history and to the history of the Wizards franchise (did you know that in 1964, the Czech company Bata’s factory in Maryland created the Bata Bullets basketball shoe collection for the Baltimore Bullets?), I put together a hypothetical basketball squad comprised of Czechs and Czech-Americans who played in the best basketball league on the planet Earth.

Starting Five

Jeff Hornacek, John Havlicek in the backcourt, Don Kojis and Bob Netolicky at the forward spots, and Jan Vesely at center.

Players off the bench

Tomas Satoransky, Chuck Mencel, Jiri Welsch (guards), Bill Hanzlik, Steve Novak, C.J. Kupec (forwards), big men Jiri Zidek and George Zidek.

If we have a 15-man roster, I’m also adding Nebraska’s Chuck Jura, a 1972 NBA draftee, and former Duke Blue Devil Shavlik Randolph as the team’s 15th man (Shavlik’s currently playing in China; did you know that his grandfather Ronnie Shavlik was a first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks in 1956?). For the hell of it, Greensboro Swarm’s Luke Petrasek is the team’s two-play player and since every team needs a nickname, I’m naming this team the Sokols. Nazdar! (Note: Besides the four Czech-born players, these Czechs played in an NBA Summer League: Ondrej Balvin, Lubos Barton, Ales Chan, Jiri Hubalek, Martin Ides, David Jelinek, Pavel Milos, and Ondrej Starosta; plus American-Czech Blake Schilb, and Loukas Mavrokefalidis, a Greek with a Czech passport born in Czechoslovakia.)

And all these guys would be coached by Joe Lapchick, who played for the OG Celtics in the ’20s and 30s.

At traditional Czech taverns, it’s acceptable to share a table with other people – and for other people to join you, if space is available. So in that spirit, I enlisted the help of basketball writers and each one of them was kind enough to pen a short write-up about one of the 14 guys. Without further ado…

#17 JOHN HAVLICEK

by Cort Reynolds, freelance writer and historian of the game

Almost unnoticed, former Celtic great John Havlicek had consecutive seasons in the early 1970s that were better than Oscar Robertson’s vaunted triple-double season. And arguably the best all-around seasons in NBA history. In 1970-71, the 6-foot-5 Havlicek averaged a career-best 28.9 points per game while also yanking down 9 rebounds a contest and dishing out 7.5 assists per game. He shot 45 percent from the floor and 81.8 percent at the foul line and missed only one game. He followed that year with 27.5 points per game, 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists in 1971-72.

Okay, maybe not quite as great statistically as Robertson’s triple-double year, but then consider the other end of the court, where Hondo was probably the most versatile and best defender in the NBA for much of his career. He was voted second team all-defense that season, and was capable of guarding anyone from small guards to big forwards with his quickness, tenacity, intelligence and most of all, incredible endurance. Havlicek made the all-defense team eight straight years, from the award’s inception from 1969 through 1976, when he was age 29 to 36. No doubt in his six seasons before the all-defense team was born, Hondo would have made it at least five times. Havlicek would be far and away the best player on this Czech team. Great scorer, super passer, great athlete, very clutch, and along with John Stockton the best conditioned player in NBA history.

With Boston he started out as a sixth man and didn’t complain, unselfishly sacrificing so lesser teammates could start. But even by his second year Hondo was second on a championship team in minutes played, and was almost always on the court at the end of the game, when it mattered most. By 1969 he had become the star who led Boston to the last title of the Bill Russell era. The quiet son of a butcher who spoke only Czech at their rural Ohio home, Havlicek had the humility, athletic ability, smarts, size and drive to be truly great, and his unassuming personality made him universally respected. As Russell said in a 1974 Sports Illustrated article on Havlicek, he called the tireless John “quite simply the best all-around player in NBA history.” The running machine Havlicek was named the NBA Finals MVP that year—averaging 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Don’t underestimate how great a competitor he was. Most fans know about his famous steal in final seconds of the 1965 seventh game against Philadelphia. Not many recall his nine-point overtime in Game 6 of the 1974 Finals (including three huge baskets over the 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), or his apparent running game-winner off glass in the second of three OTs in the classic fifth game of the 1976 Finals.

The most underappreciated superstar in NBA history ran (and willed) his way to the top echelon of the Hall of Fame. Hondo said that if he knew Bird was coming, he would have stayed around instead of retiring in 1978 to play with Larry and possibly add to his total of eight rings. In his 16th and final season, Hondo still averaged 16.1 points a game in 34 minutes a night. Thus even though he would have been 40 by the end of Bird’s rookie year, Hondo still could have been a valuable reserve by 1979-80, maybe even back full circle to his early-career sixth man role—and his familiar role of NBA champion.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio. John’s father Frank and grandpa Ferdinand Havlicek were born in Cihost, a village near Havlickuv Brod, Bohemia (grandma Marie Simova in Motycin).

#14 JEFF HORNACEK

by Paul Coro, former Suns beat writer

Division I coaches did not believe in Jeff Hornacek enough to offer him a scholarship. NBA teams did not see enough talent to consider him one of the top 45 players in his draft class. Now, his No. 14 hangs retired for Iowa State and the Utah Jazz as a symbol of a career that includes an NBA All-Star season and two NBA Finals visits. Hornacek made it happen with the instincts of a coach’s son and resilience and toughness that belied the image of a nice guy who wiped his cheek three times before each free throw as a hello to his three children. Hornacek went from being an Iowa State walk-on to setting a then-Big 8 record for assists and making the overtime game-winner for Iowa State’s first NCAA tournament win in 42 years. He still was prepared to take his accounting degree elsewhere when the Suns drafted him 46th overall, behind their three other first- and second-round picks.

Hornacek stuck as a playmaker with a shooting stroke that did not suggest he would become the 18th-best free throw shooter in NBA history or a two-time NBA 3-Point Shootout champion with 15,659 career points. But he fixed that stroke at the behest of then-Suns general manager Jerry Colangelo. Hornacek taped his left thumb to his hand to prevent him from creating a side spin on his shots. He averaged at least 12 points for the last 12 years of his NBA career, which included a 1991-92 All-Star season in which he averaged 20.1 points, 5.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds. He was so good that the Suns used him to trade for Charles Barkley, a player Hornacek suggested the Suns needed. Hornacek escaped Philadelphia for Utah, where he was an ideal fit alongside John Stockton and Karl Malone for 6 and a half seasons. Before 3-pointers were cool, Hornacek held NBA records for making eight in a game and 11 in a row . . . over two weeks. The only thing that could stop that shot was Father Time, when his aching knees prompted retirement at age 37. The family man stayed home for six years to watch his kids grow up before starting a coaching career that eventually put him at the helm of Phoenix and New York.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Elmhurst, Illinois (western suburb of Chicago). Jeff’s grandfather John A. Hornacek was from Tasov, a small Moravian village in the region called Moravian Slovakia. His grandmother was Marie Hornacek (born Mrkva), a Czech-American.

#44 DON KOJIS

by Reinis Lacis, host of The Handle Podcast

Don Kojis was a fluid and athletic 6-foot-5 small forward who enjoyed a 12-year career which spanned from 1963 to 1975. The two-time All-Star was famous for playing well above his height and could really rebound the ball. However, Kojis’s road to success in the NBA wasn’t of the usual variety. After averaging 21 points and 17 rebounds as a senior at Marquette, the Czech-American played for two years on the AAU’s Phillips 66ers. It was the so-called industrial league where he began showcasing The Kangaroo Kram, becoming possibly the first ever alley-oop dunker in basketball. You don’t get called “the jumping-est white boy I’ve ever seen” by Wilt Chamberlain for nothing.

Kojis hit his stride relatively late in his career, though—the 1967-68 San Diego Rockets was his fourth NBA team in his first five years in the league. He had just become 30 when he received his second All-Star invitation in a row. The marriage with the Rockets didn’t last as long as it could have, yet the forward played until 36, an impressive feat for those times. Matter of fact, the likes of Jerry West and John Havlicek lead the list of seven players at 6-foot-5 or shorter who scored at least 13 points per game at the age of 35 or older. You can also say that about the very durable Kojis and the last hurrah he had with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both of Don’s parents, George and Agnes (née Koubkova) Kojis, came to the U.S. from Bohemia before World War I; his grandad modified the surname from Kois to Kojis.

#24 BOB NETOLICKY

by Tom Orsborn, sportswriter at San Antonio Express-News

A native of San Francisco who was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the rugged 6-foot-9, 220-pound Bob Netolicky ranks as one of the ABA’s early stars with his ability to shoot, rebound and defend equally well. A star player at Drake University in the 1960s, “Neto” averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds over his first six pro seasons, earning All-Star recognition in each of the ABA’s first four campaigns. A beast on the boards, Netolicky averaged nearly 4.0 offensive caroms over his first six seasons and ranks 115th on the list of NBA and ABA career leaders for offensive rebound percentage at 9.33.

Netolicky ended his nine-season career after the 1975-76 season known as one of the all-time great Indiana Pacers after spending seven seasons with the club and helping it win two league titles. Named to the 30-member all-time ABA team in 1997, he was also one of the league’s most colorful personalities. Tagged the “Broadway Joe Namath of the ABA” by one sportswriter, and the only player to make the ABA’s All-Flake team four years in a row, Netolicky was quoted by the website remembertheaba.com as saying: “If you’re single and you don’t wear a gray flannel suit, they say you’re different. I wear mod clothes, enjoy good times, and I like to party. If that’s a flake, then I’m a flake.”

Netolicky also enjoyed stints with the Dallas Chaparrals and the San Antonio Spurs and has the distinction of playing for two teams in one game (the Spurs and the Pacers in a game played 18 days apart due to a protest).

FACT OF INTEREST: Neto grew up in Iowa, son of a brain surgeon, Dr. Robert Y. Netolicky, and grandson of a doctor, Dr. Wesley J. Netolicky. Since Czechs love beer so much, I asked Neto how many beers this Czech-American team would drink at Neto’s bar after a game. He texted me back, “We would probably make the Guinness Book of Records on that one.”

#15 JAN VESELY

by Michael Lee, The Athletic NBA writer

Jan Vesely has always been a crowd pleaser, except for those two years when an NBA audience was too caught up in his missed free throws, non-existent outside game and clumsy fouls to find much amusement in those astonishing dunks. Fortunately for Vesely, his professional career didn’t end at the conclusion of a forgettable stint in the world’s greatest league. Vesely used that failure as the launching pad for greater success—and most importantly—happiness elsewhere.

The Washington Wizards thought they were selecting the ideal, high-flying, rim-running complement to John Wall when they made Vesely the first NBA lottery pick from the Czech Republic in 2011. It was a glorious moment, celebrated with an infamous kiss with Vesely’s then-girlfriend, that serves as the pinnacle of his time in the league. Vesely had some memorable dunks—including a slam in which he took off one step inside the foul line—and earned the nicknames Air Wolf and Dunking Ninja, but never quite lived up to the (self-proclaimed) European Blake Griffin label that came with his arrival to the United States. Two years with the Wizards and later the Denver Nuggets did so much to derail Vesely’s confidence that he scurried back to Europe. Vesely didn’t settle into obscurity, instead choosing exultation. He re-discovered his love for the game and proved that there is a place that will appreciate a big man who glides down the floor, soars toward the rim as if he was launched with rocket fuel and never runs low on energy.

Audiences in Serbia, where he represented perennial power Partizan and first flashed the above-the-rim potential that earned him FIBA Europe Young Men’s player of the year in 2010, and Turkey, where he finally turned that promise into production with Fenerbahce, have been fortunate to witness his best days as a professional basketball player. With legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic unlocking that swagger, Vesely has blossomed into a Euroleague legend. His game is mostly the same but Vesely plays with more joy and passion. Vesely has won a Euroleague championship (in 2017), a MVP award (this year), thrice earned first-team and become, to the surprise of many, one of the league’s better free throw shooters.

Back in America, basketball fans will continue to question why the Wizards picked Vesely over the likes of Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. But that’s no longer Vesely’s concern. Instead of dwelling on what he isn’t, he’s found a home that cherishes all that he is. Vesely is back to being a crowd pleaser, back with an audience that is captivated by the dunking, howling, raucous show.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Ostrava, Moravia-Silesia. Famous person from Ostrava: Ivan Lendl.

#31 TOMAS SATORANSKY

by Chase Hughes, NBC Sports Washington writer, and
Kelyn Soong, sports writer at Washington City Paper

Hughes: Through his three years in the NBA so far, Tomas Satoransky has gone from a little-known second round pick to an essential piece for the Wizards and someone who is likely to make a good deal of money this summer on his second contract. Satoransky first carved his niche as a backup point guard, and arguably the best the Wizards have found since drafting John Wall. Over the past year, he has taken another step, proving to be a legitimate starter in Wall’s injury absence. Satoransky is versatile, tough on defense and has a high basketball IQ. He is popular among teammates and fans. He is the type of player the Wizards could use many more of. The Wizards would be smart to keep him beyond this season and have made doing so a top priority.

Which Czech player would you like to play with in the NBA, Tomas?

“I would like to play with Jan [Vesely] here because we have a good connection and he’s one of my best friends in basketball. Before, it was different basketball, but I think with Jan, he would be really good to play with here. I also would like to play with Jiri Welsch. I don’t know if we could be on the same team, [because] we are kind of similar players in terms of being creative with the ball for the others. I did play with him for a couple years on the national team. He was an older player back then. He had a lot of experience and you could see he had went through a lot of different basketball situations in the NBA, the Euroleague. It was great to have him on the team as a vet. Maybe it would be fun.”

Soong: It only took a few weeks into the season for the Wizards to reveal its dysfunction. The team showed little chemistry on the court, and a prevailing narrative was the players simply didn’t like each other. But one player continued to stand out from the soap opera: Tomas Satoransky. What intrigued me the most about the relatively unknown third-year player from the Czech Republic was how often teammates commented on how much they liked him or enjoyed playing with him. Former Wizards players Marcin Gortat and Austin Rivers both told reporters that Satoransky cannot be blamed for the team’s struggles. I spoke with several Wizards players about what made Sato so likable, and one word kept coming up: unselfish. He’s competitive, but he doesn’t seem to mind when his teammates receive the spotlight or attention, something that anyone who plays with him will appreciate.

I think Rivers put it best: “He just plays the right way. Tomas can shoot two shots and not give a fuck. But if his impact is out there and he’s playing a lot and he’s competing, then he don’t care.”

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Prague, Bohemia. Famous person from Prague: Vaclav Havel.

#18 CHUCK MENCEL

by Stew Thornley, official scorer for Minnesota Timberwolves games

The grandson of immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Charles (Chuck or Charlie) Mencel grew up in Wisconsin and in 1951 he moved 90 miles to the west, to Minneapolis, to enroll at the University of Minnesota, where he became an All-American guard. Mencel was a smooth player with an uncanny knack for getting open or setting up a teammate and he was highly regarded for his jump-shooting ability. In four years with the Gophers, he participated in 87 games, scoring 1,391 points (a record that stood for more than 20 years before it was finally broken by Mychal Thompson) and pulling down 353 rebounds. In 1954-55, he teamed with another Gopher All-American, Dick Garmaker, for a 10-4 Big Ten record, good for second place; both Mencel and Garmaker are honored today with banners and retired numbers in a display at one end of Williams Arena. The next season, Mencel was voted the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player and it’s worth mentioning that he played all 70 minutes in a six-overtime win at Purdue on January 29, 1955.

After graduation, Mencel joined the Minneapolis Lakers (a team that won six league titles in its 13 years in Minnesota), part of the tradition that saw Gophers Don Carlson, Tony Jaros, Don Smith, and Garmaker ascending to the local pro team. The bright professional career forecast for Mencel did not pan out. A little undersized for the NBA, he played for two seasons, averaging 9.2 points per game in 1956-57, and then he fulfilled his Army obligation; when he got out, he could have played more but it was known that the new owner of the Lakers was planning to move the team to Los Angeles, so Mencel decided to stay with his family and embarked on a construction industry career, eventually becoming a vice president of Caterpillar, Inc.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Phillips, Wisconsin. From Chuck’s father’s side, his grandparents were born in Kublov, Bohemia; from his mother’s side, Chuck’s grandfather Ludwig Urban was born in Benetice, Moravia, his grandmother (née Hostynkova) in Veseli nad Moravou.

#9 JIRI WELSCH

by Rich Kraetsch, co-host of Over & Back podcast

Jiri Welsch entered the NBA in 2002 with lofty expectations. A 6-foot-6 combo guard with a championship pedigree, Welsch was drafted amongst “Euro Fever” where every NBA team was seemingly looking for their version of Dirk Nowitzki, their diamond in the rough, their unknown European enigma. Like Nowitzki, Welsch possessed incredible size for his position but matched his physical gifts with tremendous smarts as well as a keen eye for the basket and his teammates. In an ESPN.com NBA Draft preview, Welsch was described as “John Stockton on hormones.” Unfortunately for Welsch, he’d finish with 15,431 fewer career NBA assists than Stockton.

Welsch arrived in the NBA on draft night 2002 when he was selected 16th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. His tenure in Philly was short-lived as he was immediately traded to the then-hapless Golden State Warriors for two future draft picks. Welsch struggled with the Warriors shooting only 25 percent from the field and sporting a ghastly assist to turnover ratio. The following offseason, Welsch was thrown into a Dallas Mavericks/Warriors mega deal. Welsch along with Antawn Jamison, Chris Mills and Danny Fortson were sent to the Mavericks where Jiri would join the aforementioned Dirk on the up and coming Mavs. Or not. In October, before ever stepping on the floor for the Mavericks, Welsch was once again on the move—this time to Boston.

In Boston, he finally found his footing averaging 9.2 points per game for the playoff-bound Celtics, providing brief glimpses into his tremendous promise. Welsch’s momentum stalled the following season as the Celtics attempted to integrate new players into their rotation including Ricky Davis and Tony Allen; midway through the season Jiri was dealt to Cleveland where he’d join rising star LeBron James and help solidify their depth for the playoff run. Welsch became a footnote in history as the unprotected future first-round pick Cleveland gave up for him eventually turned into Rajon Rondo. Welsch was never a good fit in Cleveland and quickly saw his playing time evaporate as the season progressed. His fourth and final NBA stop came with Milwaukee in 2005-06. While his numbers rebounded slightly, the bloom was off the rose and following the conclusion of the season he returned to Europe signing with Unicaja Málaga of the Spanish ACB league.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Holice, Bohemia. Famous person from Holice: Harry Horner.

#22 BILL HANZLIK

by Ian Thomsen, author of The Soul of Basketball

I have known of Bill Hanzlik for most of my life. In 1975 he was starring for his high school in my hometown of Lake Oswego, Oregon, while I happened to be attending junior high school across the street. Decades later we became acquainted while he was serving as a Denver Nuggets analyst for their local TV network.

Hanzlik was a star 6-foot-7 guard for the University of Notre Dame in 1976-80. He was appointed to the forgotten 1980 U.S. Olympic team (the Americans boycotted the Games that year) even though he averaged only 5.9 points per game in college. But statistics weren’t the real measure of Hanzlik’s influence. He was a defensive stopper who in 1978 drove Notre Dame to its lone appearance in the NCAA Tournament Final Four. Hanzlik then affirmed his selection as the number 20 pick of the 1980 NBA Draft by playing 10 seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics and (following a 1982 trade) the Nuggets, who brought him off the bench to provide game-changing energy and stifling defense against opponents of all sizes and positions.

Hanzlik scored in double-figures only twice in his NBA career—he averaged 12.5 points in 1985-86, and 13.0 points the following season—but memories of his off-the-ball influence remain strong among Nuggets fans. Hanzlik runs the Gold Crown Foundation, a charity in Denver that has helped thousands of children and families.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Middletown, Ohio. Bill’s dad John Hanzlik—son of a Czech—was a World War II Army Air Corps veteran; Bill told me that John’s father Henry Joseph (Hynek Josef in Czech) Hanzlik immigrated to the USA from Prague in early 1900s, then he met his would-be wife Nora, a Bohemian, and they married in upstate New York in 1913. Henry’s brother Stanislav immigrated along with him, but he later returned back to Prague, where he became an influential professor at Charles University and a world-renowned meteorologist.

#20 STEVE NOVAK

by Mick Minas, author of The Curse

Steve Novak will always occupy a special place in my heart, as he was one of 12 Clippers who played in the season opener on October 29, 2008. This date holds particular personal significance, as attending this game and watching the Clippers lose to the Lakers by 38 points sparked an interest that ultimately led to the writing of my first book: The Curse: The Colorful & Chaotic History of the LA Clippers.

The game itself was like a microcosm of Novak’s 11 year NBA career. He played a little under 14 minutes off the bench, during which time his primary role was to space the floor with his long-range shooting. Novak finished with 6 points on 2-for-5 shooting from 3 and was the only Clipper to record a positive plus/minus rating.

For his career, Novak hit 575 3-pointers at a remarkably accurate conversion rate of 43 percent. He led the league in 3-point percentage in 2011-12, shooting over 47 percent while playing for New York. Even more remarkable is the fact that this was not his most accurate NBA season. That came 12 months earlier, when Novak hit over 56 percent of his 3-point attempts.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Libertyville, a suburb of Chicago. Another person of note surnamed Novak born in Windy City: Kim Novak, a Czech-American actress. In late 19th century Chicago, a full-valued life could be lived knowing only the Czech language exclusively. Even later on, the largest Czech community in the United States lived in “Czech-ago.”

#41 C.J. KUPEC

by Dan Peterson, legendary Olimpia Milan coach and basketball commentator/writer

Coaching C.J. Kupec was one of the great joys of my career! He played three seasons in the NBA for the L.A. Lakers and the Houston Rockets, and back then, three years in the league was a lot. Once I saw him in the L.A. Summer League in 1978, I knew he was the guy I wanted and I waited until he was available. Shooter, defender, rebounder, force, leader. He was, as they say, the total package. So C.J. came to my Olimpia Milan team in 1978-79. We were predicted for dead last and relegation to A-2, as we had the smallest and youngest (six teenagers of our ten players) team in the league. But we had C.J. and we had Mike D’Antoni. I knew what we had the first game of the season, against the defending champions. We were down by eleven at half, then won 77-68, stopping them cold, as C.J. stopped the Serie A league’s greatest scorer, Bob Morse, and scored one long basket after another on the pick-and-roll, as he stepped out to the corner and Mike got the ball to him. He did not miss. That got our season rolling in the right direction and we went to the playoff final.

In those playoffs, in the quarter-final, down in Rome, Blue Star had us down by 10 the whole game. But guys like C.J. do not give up. We were down 7 with 1:43 to go and rallied to tie it, 92-92 (despite the worst refereeing I have ever seen in the Serie A, all in favor of Rome). We tried a jump shot to win it: miss, with no foul called. C.J. got the offensive rebound and went up, missing because no foul was called. He kept after it, got the rebound again, went up again and, with contact, put in the winning basket to give us the 94-92 win in regulation time. That got our playoffs going and we knocked out Blue Star, 2-0, to advance to the semi-finals. In the semi-final, we had not win at Varese in 13 seasons but upset them, up there, 91-81. They won Game 2, but we won Game 3 to take the series. We won because C.J. hit six straight shots from ICBM range to bring them out of their air-tight 2-3 zone. We did not have the 3-point shot back then but they came from way, way behind where the 3-point line is today. It was just another clutch performance by C.J.

But my favorite story is set in the summer of 1979. We were to play three exhibition tournaments in Sicily: Palermo, Capo d’Orlando and Messina. Each stop had three games: two against USA all-star teams and one against the USSR national team. The U.S. teams were packed with guys trying to get contracts in Europe, so they were battles. I only had seven of my ten guys, as D’Antoni was in the U.S., another guy had been loaned to a team and one was with the Italy National Team. So, I had three 16-year-old kids, including Rinaldo Innocenti. I put Rinaldo in one game against the Americans and he accidentally tripped one of their guys, who went down hard.

Their whole team came after Rinaldo, who was scared to death. C.J. stepped forward and said, “If you want him, you’ll have to deal with me first.” Now, of course, C.J. is 6-foot-8, weighed 235 pounds and had played football at Michigan. They stopped where they were, “Hey, C.J., hold on there a second. No need for that.” It was over before it started. Here is the best part: C.J. did not even know Rinaldo’s name! No matter. Rinaldo was his teammate. I saw Rinaldo a couple of years ago and I asked him what he recalled about his time with our team. He said, “C.J. Kupec.” As they say in Italy, “You can’t buy that sort of thing at the supermarket.”

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Oak Lawn, a suburb of Chicago. C.J., born Charles Jerome, told me all he knew about his Czech ancestors; his grandfather Frank J. Kupec was born in Velky Vir, Bohemia, and served as a journeyman tailor in Vienna from age 12 to age 17. He then returned home and joined the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1904, he immigrated to the United States, where he worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines until he learned enough English to work as a tailor in Chicago. There he married a woman from Vinarice, Bohemia, Sophia Vaic, and they had six children—one of them was Charles, C.J.’s dad.

#10 JIRI ZIDEK

by me, Lukas Kuba

Some of you are probably asking “Who is Jiri Zidek? Ain’t that George Zidek?” Well, no . . . it’s Jiri “George” Zidek’s father, a 2019 FIBA Hall of Fame inductee and arguably the greatest Czechoslovak player of the 20th century. Obviously he didn’t play in the NBA, but reportedly, he got an offer to play for the Celtics in the mid-1960s. Czechoslovakia played two exhibition games against the USA basketball team in the summer of 1964. Zidek scored 22 and 23 points, respectively. And almost every summer in that decade, Zidek and his club team, Slavia Prague, played at tourneys in Italy; the legendary Celtics coach/GM Red Auerbach probably first saw him at one of his basketball clinics/tournaments there. Jiri said that back in the spring of 1966, when he played in a European Champions Cup final in Bologna, Italy, “representatives of the Boston Celtics came to me and offered me a contract for five years and $600,000. Like every kid, I dreamed about playing in the NBA.”

But it was impossible and unthinkable for him to get out of Czechoslovakia.

“The formalities took place in the arena; I agreed to it, and I even had an airline ticket in my hands and I went to the airport with them, but then I figured this would get my girlfriend and my family into trouble. We lived in the communist era, without personal freedom. Getting out of the country in a legal way was almost impossible. So I canceled the deal and returned behind the Iron Curtain.”

Could this story be true? I’d say $600,000 is a tad too much for that era (maybe it was $60,000?), but I discussed it with historian Cort Reynolds who said “I think it is very likely the Celtics were exploring all options to replace an aging Bill Russell and did look into signing Zidek Sr.”

I contacted George Zidek and he emailed me back with: “Papa tells this story about the Celtics. It’s his word, no proof.” In his book Let Me Tell You a Story, Auerbach was quoted as saying: “I do know a lot about the game internationally—I was the first guy to spend a lot of time overseas. I would bring [Bob] Cousy or [Tom] Heinsohn and sometimes a referee with me. We would work with the coaches and the players too. I always enjoyed it because they were all so eager to learn.”

Aram Goudsouzian, author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, opined: “It does seem plausible that Red Auerbach would have offered Zidek a contract. Auerbach made frequent trips to Europe to conduct basketball clinics during the summer. If Zidek could play in the NBA, Auerbach was probably the only figure in the NBA at the time who would have had the regular exposure to European players. He would naturally search for a competitive edge.”

Esteemed European basketball writer Vladimir Stankovic told me, “I am sure that Zidek was ready for the NBA, he was a really great player.” Zidek was a 6-foot-9, 220-pound center; according to Stankovic “his best weapons were the fundamentals, he could hit the outside jumper, had a hard-to-guard hook shot, was a great rebounder and had the spirit of a natural-born fighter.”

Then I emailed veteran sportswriter Lew Freedman, author of Dynasty: The Rise of the Boston Celtics, and he speculated:

“Although I know the older Zidek was a great player I cannot recall anything about him from that time more than 50 years ago. I do remember his son George playing. I have no recollection of hearing about a flirtation between him and the Celtics during the 1960s. As you mention, given the political climate of the era it would have been extremely tough for him to come to the United States then. It was well before the basketball world changed to see so many overseas players joining the NBA. (Note: From 1959 to 1973, there were no international players in the NBA, with the exception of Tom Meschery, born in Manchukuo to Russian parents.)

“Yet certainly it is possible that ex-office talks took place. Besides Zidek’s word and memory, I am not sure how else you would be able to pin down such a communication that was unlikely ever put in writing. I am the type of person who is an optimist who would like to believe such a story was true with the Celtics on the threshold of being pioneers and looking the world over for talent.”

By the way, the second Czech-born baller who got an offer to play in the NBA before the year 1989 was Kamil Brabenec, the Czech scoring machine of the 70s and 80s. In 1974, the Detroit Pistons took an interest in him and Brabenec—chosen as the second best Czech player of all time—took part in the Pistons’ training camp that year. Allegedly, Detroit wanted to sign him, but Brabenec made a decision to go back to his native country because during that era signing for an NBA team meant renouncing your spot on the national team and emigrating without family.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Prague, then the capital of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

#25 GEORGE ZIDEK

by David Svab, Czech basketball journalist

The first Czech-born basketball player in the NBA could have been Jiri Zidek in 1966, but Czech basketball fans had to wait 29 long years on top of it before they saw a Czech player in the NBA. And that player was George Zidek, Jiri’s son. Soon after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, George moved—urged on by his dad—to the USA to attend UCLA, where he played four years on the Bruins’ team. In 1995, Zidek helped the Bruins win the NCAA tournament; he scored 14 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in the final against Arkansas. After that, the 7-foot center was selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft, with the 22nd overall pick. George was an able player for his size, with good skills, strength, rebounding instincts and a hook shot. He was also a player who coaches appreciated: not a superstar, but he always played hard.

Zidek started his NBA career well: he scored 13 points against Jordan’s Bulls in his first NBA game and in the second he had 21 points, which was his best performance in the NBA scoring-wise. During the first month in the league, he averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds per game, but then his playing time began to decrease. In his second season, he was traded to the Denver Nuggets, where he lasted just for a year and then was waived. In March 1998 Zidek signed with the Seattle SuperSonics, but eighteen days later he was waived again and his NBA career came to a close. He appeared in 135 games, averaging 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in 10 minutes per game. For comparison, Ed O’Bannon—the NCAA’s Most Outstanding Player in 1995—played only three NBA seasons, too, with averages of 5 points and 2.5 boards per game. Zidek returned back to Europe and immediately became a star in the Euroleague, winning an EuroLeague title in 1999 with Zalgiris Kaunas of Lithuania. George Zidek thus became the first person ever to win both an NCAA and a EuroLeague championship.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Zlin (then called Gottwaldov), Moravia. Famous person from Zlin: Tomas Bata.

Coach JOE LAPCHICK

by Gus Alfieri, author of Lapchick

Joe Lapchick, the son of Czech immigrants, resembled his mother’s narrow frame, blond hair and high cheekbones while inheriting athletic advantages from his father’s large hands and long arms. By the time Joe was 18 years old he grew to be 6-foot-5 and his size and basketball talent attracted the best professional team in America, the Original Celtics. By the end of the basketball season in 1922, Joe signed an exclusive contract with them that eventually made him one of the highest paid players. And his play made him arguably the best big man in basketball. After a career barnstorming America with the Celtics, Joe retired from professional basketball to try his hand at coaching.

In 1936, Lapchick was hired by St. John’s University to coach one of the most powerful basketball programs in America, and became one of the school’s most successful coaches. In a career that spanned 20 years, Lapchick’s St. John’s teams would win four National Invitation Tournaments when the NIT more than challenged the present day NCAA tournament. Meshed between Lapchick’s two successful coaching stints at St. John’s, the New York Knickerbockers in 1947 tapped Joe to become their first coach. Lapchick’s legendary status, as well as his coaching success, helped the new National Basketball Association to survive and then succeed beyond any one’s imagination. In the nine years that he coached the Knicks, his teams won 326 games while losing 247, never had a losing season, and made the NBA finals three times.

His coaching career ended at SJU with a spectacular double triumph in the Holiday Festival and in the 1965 NIT final. The next year, Lapchick was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and spent the rest of his life mentoring coaches who went on to fame, like Bob Knight, Lou Carnesecca, Al McGuire, and Butch Van Breda Kolff. But of all the honors Lapchick accumulated what stands out is Bill Bradley’s summary of his life in the foreword to Lapchick, where he identifies him as “a man of character,” a quality that is missing in much of society today.

Coach Lapchick was a wonderful man to play for. As I emphasized in my book, he was a chemist able to get his players to play together, and hard, not by screaming or ranting but by his command of plain, old fashioned horse sense. As he often said to us, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and won us over by always being fair in his judgments. If you dealt with him, you respected him. He always wanted to play against the best teams, never wanted to build wins on soft teams, and would never “run the score up,” when an opponent was overmatched. As far as coaching this Czech team, he would have cherished the opportunity. And I’ll close with a statement I used to make to my classes: “The smartest man I ever knew was my college coach, Joe Lapchick, and he was only an 8th grade graduate!” He was a person who could honestly be called, a gentleman.

FACT OF INTEREST: Born in Yonkers, New York. Joe’s father Josef Lapcik was born near Zlin, Joe’s mother Frantiska (born Kasikova) was a Czech born in the Russian Empire. They both immigrated to America in late 1880s.

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Czech-American Game Highs in the NBA

POINTS: 54 (Havlicek)
REBOUNDS: 20 (Kojis, Havlicek)
ASSISTS: 18 (Hornacek)
STEALS: 7 (Hornacek)
BLOCKS: 4 (Hanzlik)
THREES: 8 (Hornacek, Novak)

***

I asked the New York Times’ Marc Stein (via his NBA newsletter) about this Czech-American team. How would it fare in today’s NBA? Would this be a playoff team?

Stein: Admire the ingenuity, Lukas. Write in with an original concept like this—all the way from Prague—and, yes, you read me very well. I couldn’t resist giving this some run. Can’t say I really see your roster as playoff material, but who cares? It’s a fun concept that makes me want to see more rosters like this from different places, while throwing in the disclaimer that I’m taking the leap that you have indeed confirmed that all of these players really hail from families of Czech origin. Also: What you presumably didn’t know is that I am also always on the lookout for reasons to talk about the Czech Republic. Part of it is the fact that one of my closest childhood friends grew up worshiping Ivan Lendl. The other part: I made one short day trip there to see a Champions League game in Pilsen a few years ago and saw enough to know that I need to get back ASAP.

***

Note: Originally, I had Jon Koncak on the team as a backup center. Michael Lee wrote the following about him:

Jon Koncak will always be known, derisively, as “Jon Kontract.” Whether unfortunate or unfair, Koncak won’t just be remembered as the 7-footer from Kansas City, Mo., who turned tiny Southern Methodist University into a respected program that knocked off powerhouses North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Duke and nearly upset Patrick Ewing’s 1984 champion Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA tournament. He won’t be looked upon as a member of the 1984 gold-medal-winning Olympic team that included future Dream Teamers Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Ewing. The Atlanta Hawks thought enough of Koncak to take him fifth overall in the 1985 NBA draft—ahead of future Hall of Famers Mullin, Karl Malone, Joe Dumars and Arvydas Sabonis and other stars like Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, A.C. Green, Terry Porter and Michael Adams. Koncak wasn’t some stiff before his arrival in the NBA but he always wasn’t going to be confused with Wilt. He was a serviceable big man over his 10-year-career who could be trusted to work hard, grab some rebounds and make the most of limited scoring opportunities.

He could have played his entire career in anonymity and retired an afterthought. But Koncak became much more—a symbol of a broken NBA salary structure—when he signed a six-year, $13 million free agent deal with the Hawks in 1989. The contract was astronomical at the time, especially for a backup/part-time starter averaging roughly six points and six rebounds, because it put him on the same level as superstars Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Jordan and his all-star teammate Dominique Wilkins. “I can’t justify what they offered me,” Koncak told Sports Illustrated, “but what was I supposed to do? Say no?” Koncak went from fan favorite to most hated, especially after Hawks management used his contract as an excuse for higher season ticket prices. He retired in 1995 as a member of the Orlando Magic, walking away from the game with a nondescript career but a nickname that will always stick.

However, I managed to obtain Koncak’s email and he told me:

“My father used to tell the story of his grandfather and two brothers who immigrated to the USA. Their original last name was spelled Konczak. One brother removed the C, the other the Z, and the third left name intact.”

They must have been Poles, not Czechs, because “Konczak” is probably a Polish surname. (TAI’s Polish Correspondent Bart Bielecki said that it doesn’t sound 100% like a typical Polish name, but that it is possible. According to the website House of Names, “Konczak” is a Polish/Ruthenian/Ukrainian surname.) So I had to un-induct Koncak from my CSABHOF (I decided to add Jiri Zidek Sr. to the Sokols team instead of him).

Sorry, Jon.

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Lukas Kuba
*** TAI’s Czech correspondent, a.k.a. all things Jan Vesely and Tomas Satoransky-related * Founder of the unofficial Czechoslovak-American Basketball Hall of Fame * NBA history junkie ***