Tomas Pacesas, head coach of Asseco Prokom speaks to Jack Majewski of Future Stars on the use of young players in elite European Basketball.
JM: Two years ago you were perilously close to making the Euroleague Final Four tournament and it looked like Prokom could establish itself as a permanent feature in an absolute upper echelon of European basketball. Now the situation looks much different, you have won just one game and all chances of the qualification to Top 16 are long gone. Do you feel disappointed that this great opportunity was lost?
TP: Of course I feel slightly disappointed, but I genuinely feel that Euroleague really appreciates our efforts. They proved the by offering us a Licence A which allows us constant participation in their premier competition. We are using it now and I think entire polish basketball benefits from it at as well. Without us there would be no Polish representation in Euroleague! However there is no escaping the fact that after several successful seasons our position is much weaker and I’m very aware of it, so are our fans, management and sponsors. There are several reasons for our current state of affairs. The main one is the current financial crisis in Europe which forced us to cut our budget significantly.
JM: We are all aware of a financial situation in Europe and clubs must look for other models of operating in these difficult circumstances. Do you think that a policy of using young, talented players is one of the more effective and financially viable ways of building competitive teams?
TP: In some strange way I think this financial crisis hit Polish basketball particularly hard. In the last 3 years the level of basketball in this country has lowered drastically. Somehow we are not seeing it in Russia, Germany or Turkey. Perhaps basketball has been affected slightly in Greece and Italy but generally speaking the rest of the countries are dealing with it quite successfully.
I agree that a proper development programme is very important. Domestic players are always playing with a particular type of pride. They are not playing just for their club, they feel like they represent the entire country. I’m not saying here that foreign players are acting like mercenaries, but they certainly don’t have this particular affiliation with local fandom. Each club which has a long term development policy must have a strong junior academy programme and be involved in the community.
JM: The situation of young players has become more precarious recently, there is a very small number of young players who are playing a significant roles in Euroleague or even Eurocup teams. In the 80’s or 90’s, teams like Partizan or Jugoplastica were able to dominate European competition using domestic young talent. Why this is not happening anymore?
TP: There is a couple of reasons for it. Firstly, there was no such money involved in the game as there is now. Secondly, the political situation was much different, people couldn’t move so freely and coaches were forced to use domestic players. Of course the political structure and system of countries like Soviet Union and Jugoslavia was also much different than the current situation. There were 350 million people living in the old Soviet Union and now we have only 150 million people in Russia. The same happened in Jugoslavia which was divided into several smaller states. In the old days competition to get to the clubs like Jugoplastica, Crvena Zvezda, Partizan, Zalgiris or CSKA was absolutely murderous. These clubs operated almost like national teams and could attract absolutely the top players from those countries. They weren’t worried that these players will leave the country because the political system didn’t allow them so the pool of talent was not diluted. Even in Poland, over 20 years ago all top Polish players were playing in the domestic league. When Lech Poznan qualified to Top 8 in European Cup in 1989 they exclusively used Polish players. Nowadays every good young Lithuanian, Croatian, Slovenian or Serbian player is thinking about playing abroad, preferably in NBA or Turkey.
JM: So are you of the opinion that teams based on young players are relics of the past and can’t be successful in the current situation?
TP: Obviously the political situation has changed completely and regulations of EU allow free travel and movement of players and clubs needs to work very hard to keep players. There are a lot of factors which make players comfortable and make them stay in one place. Money obviously is one of them. However it is such a natural instinct for everyone to look for a better place or more money and national pride or sentiments are no longer so important. That goes in an equal measure to coaches and players. Having said all that I still believe that the policy of promoting domestic talent is the right one. Some clubs in Europe like Partizan Belgrade are doing that and I would say that Prokom follows this path to a certain degree. We are financially poor in comparison to other clubs but we are playing mainly with Polish players. Our economic situation forces us to do it. Time will show whether this policy long term can be successful or not.
JM: Your Euroleague campaign is almost over. What are your goals for the remaining part of the season?
TP: Euroleague was a great experience for my players this season. I think for this particular group of players Euroleague level is too high at the present time, but experience from it will be very important in the later stages of the domestic season. Of course we want to win the Polish championship yet again. We can’t forget about VTB League where we have a lot of games left and we would like to qualify for their Final Four tournament. Going back to Euroleague, I think he fact that we played a lot of close games must help our players to develop both mentally and physically.
Photographs courtesy of 23 Studio