Motivated by Vesely, Slavik finding his way at ''special'' Opava
To help encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
OPAVA (Czech Republic) - There are teams who know each other through continuity, and then there is BK Opava. And Jakub Slavik is starting to find his way at one of the most unique clubs in the Basketball Champions League - if not in all of professional basketball worldwide.
Slavik has played in three of Opava's five games to start their first-ever season in the BCL, and the 19-year-old wing has averaged 3.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.7 assists in 10 minutes a game.
"It means a lot for me (to play in BCL) because it is a high level competition where you can play against very skilled and experienced players," said Slavik, who missed Opava’s fourth game against UNET Holon due to a back problem.
The 6ft 7in (2.00m) Slavik was disappointed about missing the Holon contest because it was a game in Israel.
"I was upset that I couldn't play against Holon especially at their home because they are known for a great atmosphere at their games."
Opava are 1-4 after five rounds of action in Group B with a 74-67 win over Nanterre 92, and while the Czech club has been unable to distinguish itself through its results, the four-time Czech champions do have one of the most curious roster constellations in the BCL - and perhaps in all of basketball.
Not only are 13 of the 14 rostered players back from last season - only the 24-year-old Jan Svandrlik is new to the team - but all of them are from Czech Republic. Ah … but it gets better.
More than just all-Czech
Slavik is one of 10 Opava players who were born in Ostrava, which is the third largest city in Czech Republic and located in the far eastern part of the country about 30 kilometers southwest of Opava in the Moravian-Silesian region and about 15 kilometers from the Czech-Polish border. Two of the Opava players were born in Opava, and Lukas Bukovjan was born in Novu Jicin, which is about 30 kilometers southeast of Ostrava. Only Svandrlik is not from the region, being born in Plzen in the west part of Czech Republic.
In addition, Vaclav Bujnoch, Rotislav Dragoun, Martin Gniadek, Ludek Jurecka, Radim Klecka, Miroslav Kvapil, Jakub Sirina and Filip Zbranek have all been with Opava for at least the past four years - Gniadek for the last six years, Kvapil for seven, Klecka for nine and Sirina for 10 years.
“OPAVA IS A VERY SPECIAL TEAM. THE COACH AND STAFF ARE GIVING CHANCES TO CZECH PLAYERS AND ALSO YOUNG PLAYERS WHICH I THINK IS VERY GOOD.”
And to top it all off … head coach Petr Czudek is from Opava and played for the club from 1996-1999, 2001-2004 and 2007-09.
"Opava is a very specific team," Slavik admitted. "The coach and staff are giving chances to Czech players and also young players which I think is very good. But it’s also very rare here in Czech Republic because most of the teams have some foreign players from United States, Serbia etc. And we are assembled only from Czech guys. But I think it’s good because some players have played together for nine or 10 years, so they know each other very well on the court and off it. And in my opinion this is the key to our success."
Slavik said joining Opava last season was a challenge - exactly because of this strong bond among the players on the team.
"It was really hard from the start, especially as a young player to join the training process and learn all the signals we play etc. because all the other guys already knew what to do and what to play after all those years," he said. "But by now I think I understand everything."
Slavik, who started playing basketball at about age 9 through his older brother, grew up in Ostrava, which is known for its mining industry and industrial sites. And he never really knew anything about Opava, which has about 60,000 residents compared to the about 300,000 population of Ostrava.
"I didn't know much about Opava before I went there, but some of my friends were from Opava so they told me where everything is located and what should I expect."
Lukas Bukovjan (number 7) has played in 4 minutes over three games this season for Opava.
While the move to Opava was a challenge with the long-formed group there, Slavik did have two friends with whom he was sharing the experience as Bukovjan and fellow Ostrava native Jiri Stepanek were also moving to Opava after playing together at the Snakes Ostrava club. In fact, the trio was coined by a Czech journalist as the "Three Musketeers".
"A journalist wrote about us that we are the 'Three Musketeers', but I think it was meant just like a funny nickname for us - not any big deal that people would start calling us 'Three Musketeers' after that," Slavik laughed. "We have a good relationship because we have been playing together since we were small kids so we also know each other really well."
And that closeness helped in breaking into the Opava family.
"It was definitely a huge advantage because we could talk with each other until we fully joined the team and got to know the other guys on our team. So yeah it was definitely great," Slavik said.
Signed Vesely jersey as motivation
Slavik grew up in the BK Snakes club before spending the 2014-15 season with BCM Ostrava and then returning to Snakes until his move to Opava. And there in the hallways of the Snakes club was something to inspire the young players trying to work their way towards a professional player - a jersey signed by former Snakes player and Ostrava native Jan Vesely.
And Slavik said the concept of looking up to the Czech superstar definitely is an effective one.
"I think that's a nice idea to motivate young guys to work hard if they want to be good at basketball," Slavik said.
He even had an interaction with the former NBA player and 2017 EuroLeague champion, who still has a good relationship with the club and his father also working there.
"Once he came to our gym and had training with us when we were younger so I think this also tells that he likes this club and likes returning there."
Like Vesely, Slavik also has played for the Czech Republic internationally, at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2015, Division B; FIBA U18 European Championship 2017, Division B; and the FIBA U20 European Championship 2018, Division B - the latter as a bottom level player with the team finishing sixth after losing to eventual champions Poland in the Quarter-Finals.
Jakub Slavik playing for Czech Republic at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2018, Division B.
"It was always an honor to represent my country in basketball and it's a great feeling be on the court with the Czech Republic jersey and hear your national anthem when you win a game," who averaged 1.5 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8 minutes at the U20 championship. "Also it's a great way to compare yourself to players your age from around the world."
Slavik knew at Snakes that he wanted to play at a higher level but still had high school to finish up - which meant staying in Czech Republic was a must, and being close by in Opava made perfect sense.
But why do so many players from Ostrava head to Opava instead of staying in the city and play for fellow top flight side NH Ostrava?
"In my opinion, BK Opava gives better conditions for the players in most ways. Also Opava is close to Ostrava so travelling to practices and games doesn’t take that much time," reasoned Slavik.
High school may be complete for Slavik but the next step in his education is studying pedagogics and physical education for three years after which he will decide if he wants to study two more years - not an easy feat as he tries to play professionally as well.
"It's really hard to combine professional sports and school, but I kind of manage it. The teachers are trying to tolerate my absence and I’m trying to have all the homework, tests etc. done on time."
Petr Czudek playing for Czech Republic at FIBA EuroBasket 1999.
For Slavik, it's definitely a case of learning on and off the court. On the court, in addition to the veteran players with Opava, there is coach Czudek. The 47-year-old is the perfect man to lead this interesting group in Opava. Not only is it the coach's home town but he also helped the club to their four league titles in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2003 and played for the Czech youth and senior national teams from 1990-2005 - including EuroBasket 1999.
"It is very interesting because he is really connected to the club and was a really good player. But in my opinion it’s great that someone like this is the head coach of our team because he can give us a lot of experience," Slavik said. "The main thing that he has taught me is that in men’s basketball you won’t get anything for free, and if you want to succeed you have to work for it."
Opava have their own work to do as they try to break into the dominance of CEZ Nymburk who have won the last 15 Czech league championships dating back to 2004. Opava reached the Finals of the playoffs last season and lost both legs against Nymburk, 114-90 and 114-73. But the goal for the season is to get back to that stage again.
Opava experiences like beating Nanterre 92 in the BCL will help them in the Czech NBL league.
"The goal is to play the Finals again this year. But unlike last season to do so will be tougher because we are also playing the BCL," Slavik said.
That also will help the team, Slavik said, adding: "The BCL games will improve us as players so I hope we will be able to use those experiences in Czech league and win a title this year."
Regardless of what happens - both in the Czech NBL and the BCL - BK Opava features one of the most fascinating rosters in basketball, and Jakub Slavik is learning to be his part of it.
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