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21. 9. 2021

I was lonely in the NBA world

Jiří Welsch. Czech basketball legend. Former NBA player, captain of the Czech basketball team and now one of the key people shaping the future of Czech basketball. He has dedicated himself to young players and for the last six months, also to the project of the National Basketball Academy. Do you feel that you know him personally? It is possible because the Czech Basketball Federation is newly headquartered in DOCK.

What exactly does your role in the Czech Basketball Federation mean? You are the leader of the youth department and are thus helping develop the future of Czech basketball...

Behind this is the work of a lot of people, but yes, I'm involved. The future of Czech basketball is made up of young players and their parents who support them. Then the coaches who work with them at the club level and guide their basketball steps also have a great influence on this. My role is to coordinate everything, on two levels specifically. As an organization, we distribute the money we receive from the state among the clubs within the talented youth system, so we pass it on to these clubs. My job is to communicate and work with clubs and actually manage the whole administration around it. This is one pillar, that is, overseeing the development of young basketball players at the club level. The second is communication and management of implementation teams at the representation level. These two things make up the bulk of my work.

And have you set a goal as to where do you want to position the future of Czech basketball?

One thing is continuous work on what I have described. Adding to all this now is the project of the National Basketball Academy, which we are going to build in Prague, and I am in charge. A number of things related to this - we address coaches from abroad, we have put together a Czech team of experts - for fitness training, nutrition, sports psychology and the development of activities designed for individuals. So we have practically assembled an implementation team and the overall project itself in terms of organization. One of its goals is to educate future representatives. This is a goal that I have personally embraced, and one that I am working on intensively.

Was it a natural step for you after the end of your playing career? Did you intend on working with young people?

It was not automatic. There was a process of interviews and decision-making, and it all took shape over time to get where we are now. But what I was clear about was that I didn't want to embark on the path of coaching. Maybe it's because I realize how hard such work is, and it's work that I respect very much. But I knew it wasn't the path I personally wanted to take. What I knew 100% was that I wanted to stay with basketball, because that's the environment in which I've worked all my life and the environment I know. So I didn't start from scratch. At the same time, I work for the media as a basketball commentator, and that is something I enjoy a lot and I hope this I will continue.

How important is it to pass on experience in sports? Are young players even interested in this or do they want to go their separate ways?

In general, I think the motivation factor is declining a bit, and maybe that's why it's becoming more valuable. Of course, this cannot be said in general, but it certainly affects how we develop as a society. Young people today have a lot of opportunities and different ways to achieve success. When I started, basketball for me, in addition to being a passion and love, was also a way to get out to see the world and to apply myself and try to secure myself financially. As society moves forward, this is not so much the case. But at the same time, there are still boys who are hungry for sports success. One of the reasons I chose to work with young people is that I felt inside that this was an opportunity for me to bring this back to basketball. When I started, I needed to be inspired by someone who had come this way before me. And now I can be the inspiration and help young athletes pursue that goal and dream.

Do you agree that the foundation for success is laid at a young age? How do we work with basketball youth and is there something that you consider to be the main building block?

Personally, I think this is rather overrated. One of the problems in youth sports is the pressure of parents on children, and especially premature specialization. Parents feel that if a child does not start playing tennis at the age of five, or if he or she no longer plays hockey four times a week, it is all wrong. But it is the other way around. Studies also show that early specialization is one of the reasons why young athletes end their involvement professional sports prematurely. This is precisely because they were pushed into the sport at too early an age. There is definitely a need to start early, but at the same time playing multiple sports is extremely important, which means to develop in well-rounded fashion, not only physically, but also mentally. So that they can easily alternate between collective and individual sports. Many athletes who are really successful started to specialize in their sport at a later age, and therefore their careers last long.

You yourself said that when you were 15 or 16 years old, you needed inspiration. Is there something or someone that inspires you?

In my youth, I had two decisive role models. One was probably the greatest basketball player of all time - Michael Jordan - I grew up in the 90's, and those were the years when Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls were an absolute world and basketball phenomenon. He was my favorite athlete and player, and he was the one who inspired me to become the best basketball player possible. And my second role model was my brother, who was four years older and also played basketball. I followed in his sports footsteps, he inspired me, and I learned from his mistakes. At the very beginning, however, it was my father who founded a basketball club in our hometown and introduced me to the sport.

And you played against Michael Jordan?

Yes and No. My first season in the NBA was also Michael Jordan's last season. I played for the Golden State Warriors and he for the Washington Wizards. We competed twice as teams during that season, and unfortunately, as a rookie, I didn't get any playing time in those games.

Basketball is a team sport. Players are personalities, individuals. How is it possible to make them work as a team?

That is the job of the coach. One thing is working with the player and his upbringing, whether in terms of sports or as a person. The second thing is the work of a coach at the club level. There, his goal is to get players on the same page and make them an effective team. All coaches and managers of sports clubs are looking for the answer to this question: How to do it so that the different egos, personalities, players of different ages and today especially other cultures can get together, because we live in a global world, so that players from different parts of the world can really play together. And those who can do it are well paid for it.

Good relationships on the team and spending time together off-court and training. Is this an added value that will build successful players and a successful team?

There is a big difference between Europe and America. Because there is a lot of emphasis on this in Europe. Sports clubs and teams work together not only on the field, but also outside it. It is a question of European culture because the NBA has a completely different approach to it. That was one of the things I had to get used to, and I probably never did. When we traveled to a game, and there is a lot of travel in the NBA, we only met as a team in training and then during the game. Everyone spends time alone, even while eating. In addition, players in each city have their friends or family and spend time based on what they want to do. This is not how it works in Europe at all. When the team is on the road, they live together in a hotel, the players eat together and go out together. That's why I often felt very lonely in the NBA world.

Do you recognize a leader even among young players? What are the prerequisites, and can we work with such a player?

Yes. And not only can you work with such a player, but you have to work with him. Because this is one of the things where we have a lot of room for improvement - now I'm talking specifically about the Czech sports environment. I mean working with one's head. I know from experience that the moment an athlete achieves his physical limits and technical skills, one huge factor enters into it all - and that is the head. For example, in golf, it’s 90% mental and just 10% sports skills. You have to master the technique, but it represents only 10% of the total performance. So the mental state of athletes is very important. And yet it is still viewed in a circumspect manner. If an athlete works with a sports psychologist, people interpret this to mean that he must automatically have a problem. And yet this is not the case at all; it is just the opposite. The psychological training should be continuous and targeted and taken as part of the athlete's overall performance.

You mentioned golf, but in my opinion it's also very noticeable in such sports as tennis. In recent years, the mental health of athletes has also been addressed in sport, but as you said, it is still taboo in a way. Many professional athletes now have mental coaches. These days, the story of the young Japanese-American tennis player Naomi Osaka and her confession that "it's ok not to be ok" resonates. Is it important to work with young players at this level as well?

You bet that it’s important. And those individuals and cases are not singular or even in the tens or hundreds, there are thousands of them. The sports environment is extremely competitive and leads you directly to confrontation, there is always a winner and a loser, and you as an athlete have to deal with it on a daily basis. This, of course, has an effect on mental health. And no less important is the fact that people like Naomi Osaka will find the courage and be willing to open the subject to the public. That's exactly where the inspiration comes from. These cases may inspire others who have not yet found the courage. The moment we start talking about it, it becomes a topic, and it starts to be resolved not once, but systematically. And that’s the most important part.

Mental health of players. Will this be one of the pillars of the upcoming Academy? Offering help to players, because most likely, growing up in such a competitive environment must be challenging and stressful for athletes at a young age. Pressure from coaches, parents, the inability to cope with defeat. All this can have a significant impact on certain individuals...

Yes, in the CBF, we have set up a performance evaluation system for young players. Its working term is Mercedes, because if you imagine the sign of the car, it's a wheel divided into three parts. And each part represents the performance of the players - the first is skills and technique, the second is the physical side and the third is mental health. And we try to approach the development of our young players accordingly. Experts will work at the Academy, focusing on these individual segments. That is, physical improvement, developing technique and fostering mental health.

And what about lifestyle? Do you leave it to each player, or do you deal with it? What they should eat, how much they should weigh, etc.?

We will definitely not leave it up to every player. Michal Miřejovský, whose philosophy is a holistic approach to the athlete's body, will take care of the fitness side. It emphasizes that just as performance is important, regeneration too is important. Just as physical exertion is important, so is sleep. This is a person who will talk to players in terms of enlightenment and education in this sense. Within the national teams, we have established long-term cooperation with Zuzana Šafářová Pavelková, who is a nutritionist and will be involved in the Academy.


Stress is probably an integral part of the sports world. Do you have any advice on how to handle it? What helps you?

I'm not sure I do. I guess there is not really any universal advice to offer. It certainly goes hand in hand with knowing oneself, with the fact that everyone must learn to balance sports life with private life. And find a valve that will help them relieve stress. And it's different for everyone. For some it's family, for some it's a different sport. Everyone has to find a way to compensate for this.

And what does it for you? Recreation?

For me, it was playing different sports. At 26, I started playing golf, which for me was a great counterbalance to basketball. Because it is actually the absolute opposite - basketball is a team sport, golf is individual, basketball is played indoors, golf is played outdoors, basketball is a fast, dynamic and instinctive game, golf is rather slow and more technical. The second valve for me is music. As a child, I went to music school and learned to play the guitar. I went to music school from 1st to 6th grade and learned to play the accordion. I taught myself to play decent guitar only later. So sitting down, playing guitar and singing is a form of relaxation for me. And at the end of my career, my family joined in. We didn't have our first daughter until I was 35, so at the end of my career. This significantly affected not only how I played, but also how I spent my free time.

NBA basketball is a huge show and sports business. Which is probably not at all comparable to the Czech situation. After the national team won over Greece, you said: “ I may be nostalgic, but when I came to the national team 20 years ago, we faced games with a feeling of defeat in advance. As a new generation, we tried to change that at the time and start looking at those countries and players eye to eye. But this generation around Saty (Tomáš Satoranský) and Veseláč (Jan Veselý) already has it in them. They have respect for their opponents, but at the same time they are aware of their own quality and strength, which moves them differently than the generation before them 20-25 years ago.“ Is this the path of Czech basketball? And where will the next generation move it?

That's all true. What has happened in the last two years - 6th place at the World Championship and now advancing to the Tokyo Olympics - is not a coincidence and something that happened overnight. It is, of course, the development of several generations of players. And what separates Tom Satoranský and Jan Veselý from other players is that they are internally convinced of their qualities and that the opponent should respect them as well. Which was not the case in the past. And if the new generation can move basketball forward? Sure it can. Those who come after Tom and Jan must make it happen. But it must not be for just a few players, but many players , so that it is not just about the self-confidence of the individual, but that it becomes a collective self-confidence. For example, we could reach the level of Lithuania, which is a small country of two million inhabitants, but it is a basketball power and a regular participant in major international tournaments. And it is precisely because of the national self-confidence and feeling, and their inner conviction that it is rightfully among the world's elite. And this is exactly a step that should happen in our country as well. Sixth place at the World Championships and qualifiers for this year's Olympics is not a coincidence, we belong there.

Do you find time to relax during the year? Can you rest?

Not only can I do it, but I want to and ultimately, I have to. No one can stay on the go all the time, and I have two small children. So I strive to to find the work life balance between family and work as it is an absolute priority for me. But I admit that this has changed in the last six months, because I threw myself into the Academy project and I’ve been devoting a lot of time to it.

What did Jiří Welsch's day look like as an active basketball player and what does your day look like today?

Of course, when I played as an active player, it depended on whether there was a game that day or not. But I usually got up at 8:30 a.m., had breakfast at 9:00 a.m. and started at 10:00 a.m. with the first training session, which ended at 12:00 p.m. After lunch, I would take a nap. And in the afternoon, we usually had the second practice. Nowadays I get up today at 6:15 a.m., when the kids come wake me up. Over the period of Covid-19, I started focusing more on myself, so I practiced in the morning. After breakfast, I drop our children off at kindergarten and continue to work. Sometimes more, sometimes less depending on what I have planned that day. I try not to come home late because I want to be with the family. We have it set up at home so that I am in charge of the bath and putting them to bed, so in the evening I lie down with the children and read fairy tales. I'm really trying to maintain that regimen. The exception is if any sports broadcast gets in the way when I am the commentator.

You already mentioned that you started playing golf. What do sports mean to you personally? Can you imagine your life without it?

There is a simple answer to that. I can't imagine life without sports.

You are one of four Czechs who have ever played in the NBA. You experienced Michael Jordan on the court. You were a long-time captain of the national team. This year, the Czech basketball team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Do you still have an unfulfilled sports dream?

What happened in the summer was my unfulfilled dream. I had always wanted to participate in the Olympic Games as an athlete. That will never happen again. But I really enjoyed providing commentary on the TV broadcasts. I was able to share everything remotely and be at this historical moment for our sport as a commentator and pass it on to the public.

The CBF has its new headquarters in the beautiful premises of Prague’s DOCK in an attractive location near Palmovka on the boundary of Liben, Karlín and Holešovice, which is not entirely coincidental. Omar Koleilat, CEO of the Crestyl Group, who is the developer of the project, is a big basketball fan. Have you ever had the chance to meet and discuss basketball?

I know Omar and we met recently over lunch in the Kolkovna restaurant in DOCK. For me, Omar is not only a basketball fan, but also an amazing person. Very inspiring, he is a visionary. What he managed to build with Crestyl, not only in DOCK, is fantastic. And I can say for myself that I am happy that we moved to DOCK as the CBF. Because we went from the old historical buildings of Prague Strahov and I like to say that we moved only 15 km elsewhere in Prague, but in terms of time, we managed to go about 50 to 60 years ahead as we catapulted into the 21st century. The environment of DOCK and our new offices are an amazing representative space for Czech basketball, and I am very happy for this.

You have an office in a beautiful environment near the river. Is this an important added value for you?

This certainly is because we are in an environment we can be proud of and where we can represent as an organization. It is also an environment that can connect us to other people and organizations. Which is great. In addition, it is modern and attractive, just as basketball is modern and attractive. So that's a big added value.

Would we know from your office that you are a former professional basketball player? Do you have memories of your successful career displayed here?

I don't have my own office per say, but it is definitely noticeable in our offices. We have been at DOCK for a relatively short time, but a lot of basketball artifacts have already moved there, whether modern or historical, cups or balls, and these are very popular basketball trophies. In my place you would find one interesting thing, it is the piece of the parquet floor that we got in 2015 when participating in the European Championships in Latvia and France, where each player received a piece of the floorboards from both places. I never got that at any basketball event, and I thought it was original. So it sits on my desk and reminds me of participating in the European Championships and our 7th-place finish.

Thanks for the interview.

Photo: Jiří Welsch made his debut in the jersey of the national team in 1999, and ended his national team career in 2017.

Jiří Welsch Born 27 January 1980 in Pardubice Height 202 cm Position - guard Began his professional career with BK Pardubice

  • 1998-2000 Sparta Prague
  • 2002 drafted to the NBA by the Philadelphia 76ers
  • 2002 Slovenian league most valuable player
  • 2002-2003 Golden State Warriors
  • 2002-2006 played 247 NBA games and scored 1,519 points
  • 2003-2005 Boston Celtics
  • 2006-2010 Baloncesto Málaga
  • 2010-2011 Estudiantes Madrid
  • 2011-2012 Spirou Charierol
  • 2012-2017 ČEZ Basketball Nymburk - 5 titles
  • 2017 BK Pardubice
  • 5x participation in the European Championships