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“It’s all in the mindset”

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Tomas van den Spiegel has many interesting stories to tell. The 33-year-old is a top 20 career (per minute) shotblocker in the Euroleague. His interior defense and dirty work, most of which you won’t find in a boxscore, has earned him four Euroleague Final Four appearances and two Euroleague titles. Now he’s back in Belgium, where he is, though currently injured, trying to help second-placed BC Oostende to win a championship again.

Read his excellent column over at beyond the beat.

Here’s him on embracing a role vs. playing for your own stats, Ettore Messina, the importance of player personality and the use of statistics in professional basketball.

SJ: Tomas, would you disagree if someone were to call you, regarding your years with CSKA, a “defensive role player”, or is that an accurate description of the role you played there?

Van den Spiegel: I am perfectly fine with that description. CSKA was a very tall and long team and it was mainly my job to cover a lot of defensive space in order to protect our basket and to bring defensive energy and agressiveness off the bench. I would like to add that most of my minutes did come with Theo Papaloukas on the floor because we had a very good offensive pick and roll connection as well. Running the floor, offensive rebounding and playing agressive pick and rolls were my offensive tasks.

SJ: You averaged more than 14 minutes per game for CSKA between February 2006 and summer 2007, one Euroleague title, one runner up. That’s a significant role and significant success. You then joined Asseco Prokom for half a season for a 24MPG role, averaged 11 and 8 and won weekly MVP honours with a 27/14-performance. You moved back to Moscow before Top16, 10 minutes a game, helped them win another Euroleague title. Everyone who’s followed you a bit has a sense of which of the two situations you prefer to be in, but is there really no satisfaction whatsoever for you to go out and put up big numbers in a somewhat bigger offensive role? After all, mainstream media and fans seem to care first, second and third about points scored …

Van den Spiegel: Of course there is satisfaction in being a numbers guy as well and playing lots of minutes. But Jasmin Repesa, when at Fortitudo Bologna together, once told me that the guys that will be remembered and respected are the ones that lift trophies, not the ones that consider checking their stat sheet after every game as the first thing to do. I always tried to aim for the highest level possible in my career, and once I became part of CSKA I realised concentrating on the things you are good at can really help a team, even a great team. It also gave me, as a little above average talent, a chance to compete against and play with some of the biggest names in European basketball history.

SJ: Speaking of the biggest names, who are the most difficult-to-defend centers you played against throughout your career?

Van den Spiegel: Nate Huffmann was really good at an early stage in my career. I remember having a hard time vs. Lazaros Papadopoulos more than once too, because he was very hard to force into a shot he didn’t want. He always found a way. And I have to mention Sofo, because of his strength and foot speed that is rather unusual for a guy his size.

SJ: There are hundreds of American players in European basketball, including Belgium. J.R. Holden, let’s face it, was a bit of a chucker in his early playing days. If an American was to take 20 shots a game repeatedly today (which Holden did eight times in his Euroleague career, six of them with AEK), he’d be facing the typical stat-padding stereotypes. European top level basketball is all about being efficient in your role and we’d intuitively say that a young Holden wasn’t a guy very likely to play that type of basketball. I’m always wondering what distinguishes Holden, a guy who then goes on to play eight consecutive Euroleague Final Fours, from the guys you’re now playing with and against in the Belgian league. Why does he get there while hundreds of others don’t?

Van den Spiegel: Having played with dozens of American imports I feel that I can say at quite an early stage whether a player will be able to adjust to the top European level or not. It’s all in the mindset, which often goes hand in hand with the kind of education a certain person received. You can’t expect Europe to be like the US basketball wise, but more importantly you cannot expect it to be alike off the court either. Guys that have an open mind and that are able to make that click early, often show to be the ones that have success at a higher level. I have to mention also that you can get away with certain things in the European minor leagues, but once you get to Eurocup/Euroleague level where there is much more at stake it gets harder to do so.

SJ: You describe Ettore Messina as one of the persons who’ve had a major influence on you as both a player and person. You wrote that Messina’s “defensive and offensive rules were so clear and logical that there was no way of getting around them.” Is that what distinguishes him from most of the rest, the ability to A) develop logical, objective guidelines and B) communicate them properly?

Van den Spiegel: I agree but would like to add C) practice the guidelines until perfection. Every team practice with him would feel like a game. Like I described my own role earlier, every player had specific tasks and we were expected to respect those also in practice.

Preparing the next move: Van den Spiegel won two Euroleague titles with star headcoach Ettore Messina and CSKA Moscow

SJ: Messina had overwhelming success in Moscow, but things went wrong in Madrid. Is it difficult to find players who fulfill his demand for a high-quality skillset, understanding of the game and professionalism?

Van den Spiegel: Players never exactly do what a coach wants from day one. A team has to come together in all aspects of the game in order to be successfull but this often takes time. I am sure if Obradovic would change teams the first thing he would do is trying to take Diamantidis with him because after so many years they perfectly work together. The market must allow you to do it this way, if not, changing teams at top level is a difficult job and requires a long building process where all parties need to cooperate and be patient.

SJ: The current CSKA team is perfect so far in the Euroleague. With Kirilenko staying for the full season, most people see them as Euroleague contender number one …

Van den Spiegel: It’s hard not to. Kirilenko’s presence has a positive impact on everyone. For example, I am a big fan of Teodosic the playmaker and less of Teodosic the scorer. With Kirilenko roles are easier to define, and his unselfishness leads to better chemistry.

SJ: New topic: Watched “A Locker Room Story” by film maker Johan Dirkx the other day, a powerful documentary about the Belgian Lions’ 2011 Eurobasket campaign. Since it’s already out there, it’s no secret that head coach Eddy Casteels clashed heavily with DJ Mbenga. Was Axel Hervelle’s injury, which sidelined a quality, hard-working player and triggered a new string of events, the turning point of the whole summer?

Van den Spiegel: I have to say that DJ came back from a knee surgery and that he combined rehab with our national team preparation. He sure was working hard but I can understand some people’s frustrations and he eventually was the last cut before Eurobasket. Everyone’s mindset at that point was on a championship without him and as a team we had the feeling to be ready. When Axel got hurt a couple of days before the start of the tournament we knew it was going to be tough and so it showed. I am convinced we have a good team and we can do well even at a Eurobasket but for that we need every of our main guys which wasn’t the case.

SJ: How does Messina handle an unprofessional professional?

Van den Spiegel: Chances for that kind of player to make it to a team of that level are quite low I think. Same goes for other European top teams and coaches.

SJ: You know about the “Moneyball” movement. How do you perceive the influence of statistics in European coaching? Not specifically the new wave of “advanced” statistics, but statistics in general …

Van den Spiegel: First of all I am a big fan of stats but only up to a certain point. Especially when preparing for opponents they come in as very useful for everyone, but I still prefer them in combination with video material, for both teams as individual players. When it comes to recruiting I am more sceptical. I’d say they give you a good idea about what kind of player you might need or what certain players can do. But there is no statistics for the human psyche in basketball yet, and getting the right personality might be as important as getting the player with the right stats. Chemistry is as important as statistical potential. I notice that most guys that I stay in touch with at this point of my career are guys that I played with on successfull programs.

SJ: From my perspective, one of the main problems on the lower to medium levels of European basketball seems to the fact that putting up high per game numbers is a good way to net a well-paid contract, and since players are nonstop playing for new contracts, many are playing for their own good numbers. Hence revolutionizing the way we look at statistics, plus finding more meaningful ones, doesn’t appear as a negative thing to me …

Van den Spiegel: I am still trying to figure this out myself too. Basketball is maybe more than anything else also business and finding a way to convince ‘minor league’ teams to start long time projects is not easy. Stats can help in a better team management but changing players also generates some money (better contracts, agent fees, buy outs,…) for all parties and it often depends on team’s priorities.

SJ: You signed a four-and-a-half-year-deal with Oostende until summer 2015. You also have a growing family to take care of. That sounds like settling down. What do you want to achieve with Oostende in the upcoming years, and will you stay in basketball after retirement?

Van den Spiegel: I always had a certain plan during my career and last season, when with Milano, I had the feeling of being a mercenary and not being able to put all I had in what I was doing. I looked for a new challenge and this deal came in perfect. I might have settled down off the court but with Oostende I still would like to win trophies and become an every year Eurocup participant. I am not sure yet whether I will stay in basketball after retiring or not. I do have some plans (Studying, getting a coaching license,…) and I do like the basketball/(new)media combination but I have plenty of time left to decide.

Questions: S.Jatsch
Photos: CSKA Basketball

Written by sJacas

January 14th, 2012 at 2:26 pm

  • Dimitris Ritsonis

    Interesting perception. We obviously all understand that he is not your typical athlete. Rather a normal person with some common sense, but with an opinion on the sport. He is now in the business for several years and his opinions are mature and respectable and he knows how to explain his statements

  • Guest88

    I agree about the mindset. The mere fact that Tomas takes the time to talk to non-mainstream websites like this shows his simplistic approach and devotion to the game, even off-court.

  • sJacas


    Really appreciated that he took the time to not only answer, but put a lot of thought in the answers, too.

  • such sweet thunder

    Nice interview. I thought your back and forth about J.R. Holden was particularly interesting. I wish Mr. Van den Spiegel would have elaborated on his comments about education and the adjustment to playing and living in Europe.