heinnews’s David Hein this week caught up with Stephan Baeck, manger of German basketball club Köln 99ers. They discussed the state of the financially-strapped 2006 BBL champions, losing and gaining players, bringing back Michael Jordan to the organization, the German U24 fond, a new arena and a fellow Köln manager appearing on a German game show.

heinnews: Hi Stephan, Köln have won two straight games and ranked 16th in the BBL standings. What is the current state of the team?
Baeck: We always thought that we would turn it around in the second half of the season. We really believe in our young talent. And we had to concentrate on our talent since we couldn’t buy any players. It took a long time for all of us to get on the same page. And now the additions of Michael Jordan, Edin Bavcic and Stevan Milosevic have been a big help. But in general, everybody believes in our program and if you have that belief it will work.

heinnews: During this season, the club lost Guido Grünheid and Yassin Idbihi to other clubs. What were the circumstances behind those two players leaving?
Baeck: Both players were available on the market during the summer. But their demands were too high for us and for other teams too. Yassin was a special case because he had an option. Last year he played so well for us at Köln and moved up to the German national team. But he got hurt. A lot of teams wanted to avoid the risks of him being injured. So we stepped up and told him he could stay with us and rehab in our center and play for us. And then when he was healthy and another team comes in and wants him, he can use his option. Guido got an offer from Greece and we didn’t want to match it. We wanted to make some improvements and wanted to go another direction. So it worked for both sides. It may look bad that we lost two players. But we had planned that all along. Guido was an excellent player for us. He was very respected. But we just needed more production from the power forward position -someone who could shoot a bit more consistently outside and work inside and outside. And we found that in Bavcic.

heinnews: You mentioned bringing in Jordan, Bavcic and Milosevic. Where did that money come from? Was it allocated for new players for once Guido and Yassin left? Or was there a new influx of money?
Baeck: We wanted to go with this young squad into the season even though we had some question marks. For example, we thought Jeremy Hunt could be a big combo guard playing a bit of point guard. So that was a question mark. But now we see that he’s a better two-guard than at the point. And we had Jamon Gordon, who was better at the one spot. But he had other issues as we saw recently when he left the team without respecting his contract with the club. But now we know that. With Jordan, that was a great move for the team, the club, the fans and the city. He really brings with him a winning mentality and a fun atmosphere. He’s very contagious with his flare and passing game. Actually everybody is passing better because of him.

heinnews: Going back to Jordan, the move from Bamberg back to Köln happened really quickly. Earlier in the season Bamberg, Köln and Artland Dragons were all in the mix for his services before he choose Bamberg. Can you take us behind the scenes how Köln brought Jordan – a big part of the 2006 BBL title-winning team – back in?
Baeck: Well since the 2006 championship, parts of this organization always wanted to bring him back. But not every one did. So it didn’t make any sense until everybody was on the same page. We had Gordon to start with and thought he was a better choice for us so we didn’t bring in Jordan. But Gordon proved not to be the right choice and we went after Jordan since we knew he was the right guy for the leadership he brings on and off the court. So we took advantage of Bamberg signing Dan Dickau. We knew they needed to get rid of one of their point guards. And we had been in contact with Mike, and he knew I wanted him back. We also talked with Bamberg coach Chris Fleming and really had some open talks. And it worked out for all parties. I think Mike is a winner in all this as well. With us having a young squad, he is a real leader and motivator. And he can really be a better player with us. In Bamberg, there are a lot of guys who have been through a lot. So Jordan really couldn’t show his leadership qualities, which he can with us.

heinnews: Jordan also has given you a chance to earn a few marketing dollars. Tell us about those “MJ is Back” t-shirts.
Baeck: That was a real way to show how much the guy is appreciated. He is so connected to the success of this club. And it would be so stupid for us not to use it.

heinnews: What’s the status of the t-shirts? Sold out yet?
Baeck: We’re close to selling out.

heinnews: What about printing more?
Baeck: If we can, we will. Our work with Nike has been great. They are really spontaneous and had the shirts printed in two days. So we really have to thank them for the work.

heinnews: Back to the team, Köln 99ers are one game out of the relegation zone and have a big four-game stretch of home games coming up in February. How important are those games and what is the goal of the team for this season?
Baeck: Well the goal for the season hasn’t changed at all. We want to improve the mentality of the team. We have a lot of young talent but they haven’t been able to show it much. When you lose tough games, it’s tough on the players and they feel more and more pressure. We lost in overtime at home against Paderborn and by one point against Düsseldorf after we were leading by 22 points. And then we beat Düsseldorf last week. And that was a big win for us. Two wins in a row has changed dramatically the mood of the team and showed we can win big games. If we would have lost against Düsseldorf, everybody would have had doubts. But everybody really still believes in the program. And with this team and our budget, we just want to avoid relegation. If we can make the play-offs, it would be great. Realistically we have to fight to stay away from the bottom, even though we are only three games from a play-offs spot.

heinnews: A new concept this season in the BBL is the U24 fond where teams which play Germans under 24 years of age can earn money. Your team currently ranks second in the rankings for most minutes given to the players with more than 407 minutes. What do you think about the idea in general?
Baeck: I think it’s good because it gives teams a reason to take the risk of playing the young players. But that being said, we wouldn’t be giving Tibor Pleiss and Philipp Schwethelm playing time if we didn’t believe in these guys. We need the production from Tibor and Philipp. Tibor needed a long time to get over his stress fracture in his foot from last season. And it’s been so tough for him this season. But both Tibor and Philipp have been big guys for us. Philipp is a constant factor in our game when he’s healthy. And with Tibor, we don’t have another post player because we think he is a talent for the future and want to give him all the time he can play. But he needs to get over the hump with some minor injuries so he can get back on the court.

heinnews: The U24 fond currently totals 340,000 euros with your club right now having earned more than 25,000. What do you think about the actually amount of the money being dished out?
Baeck: It’s decent money. But it’s good because it doesn’t put people in the position to play them because they need the money. If it was 3 million euros it would be a different story. But it’s clear that other teams do not believe in their young players. For us, it’s a nice bonus because we are playing our young guys anyhow.

heinnews: The club was close last season to getting a new arena. What is the latest on a new facility for Köln 99ers?
Baeck: The other plans didn’t work out because the arena would have been outside the city and many people thought we needed to stay in the city. But now, our owners own the land right next door to the current arena so we can build the new place while the old one is still there. And then when the new arena is done, we can just switch.

heinnews: What’s the time frame on the new facility?
Baeck: Well we probably need about one and a half years for planning and another one and a half years for building. So maybe three years we should have the place open.

heinnews: And how many spectators will the new arena hold?
Baeck: Between 5,000 and 6,000

heinnews: Alba Berlin have reached the Top 16 of the Euroleague. What do you think about that?
Baeck: What can I say? They have two of our players from last season – Immanuel McElroy and Aleksander Nadjfeji. And they have been great for them this season. Those two are great guys and great players. So we’re happy. And Alba now is working for all of us in German basketball. So we wish them the best.

heinnews:Your fellow Köln 99ers manager Jens Brämer recently appeared on the “Millionaire” game show. What do you think about him appearing on the show?
Baeck: He is definitely the right guy to do it. Unfortunately he couldn’t win 10 million and give the club 1 million euros.

heinnews: Okay, great. Thanks for your time. And good luck for the rest of this season.
Baeck: Thanks. But we will be okay.

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