By Gideon van der Hijden

 

It was 25 years ago – in 1989 – that the Dutch national men’s basketball team last played at an European Championship. Since then, basketball almost didn’t develop in the Netherlands.

The Dutch Basketball Association has had around 40,000 members for the last 25 years, it really didn’t grow at all. Dutch pro teams sometimes play in European competitions, where most of the time they don’t qualify for the second round.

With almost no media attention for basketball in Holland, it was and is hard to find money for the (pro) clubs and the association. Basketball in the Netherlands went in a negative spiral – no success, no media attention, no sponsors, no money, no success. Everybody in-and outside of the Dutch basketball scene lost faith that Dutch men’s basketball would never ever rise back to the top again.

On top of this, over the past decade several financial disasters occurred at the Dutch Basketball Association. The association’s last financial setback came three years ago. The association presented a shortage on their balance of 830,000 euros. The continuation of the association was on the line. The association had two choices: A bankruptcy or very drastic cuts in the budget.

The association fired about 35% of their personell and cancelled the national men’s basketball program for two years, together with the U20 men’s basketball team. Yes, you did read that … No national men’s basketball team! It’s hard to imagine, but it was about to happen.

Everybody in the Dutch Basketball scene was shocked. Not only because of the next financial setback, but because of the decision to cancel the national team program for the coming two years. How could they do that?!

Fortunately, the professional clubs, united in the “Federation Eredivisie Basketball”, found a way to adopt the national men’s team and the national U20 men’s team. With a sponsor (Sport1 Television), they managed to save the team for the next two years.

The coaching staff, the players, the doctor, the physio, the manager and all others involved had to do everything for free. Only a small travel bonus was given to the players and staff. The pro clubs provided their training and playing facilities and tried to do everything within the small budget to save the national team.

But more big problems and setbacks would rise soon for the just saved national team…..

In the first qualification round of EuroBasket 2015, in 2013, the Netherlands played in Group B, together with Estonia and Portugal. Everything went well. The Orange Men managed to win the first two games, beating Estonia at home 74-71 and winning in Portugal 59-57. Only one more win was needed for a place in the Semi-Finals of the Qualification Round.

But then there came very bad news from FIBA. The Netherlands played with two nationalised players (Mohammed Kherrazi and Sean Cunningham) in their team, where only one is allowed.

It was an administrative error, wich nobody at the Dutch Basketball Federation, nor the team management and staff had knowledge of. A terrible and stupid error with big consequences. FIBA changed the results of the first two games into 20-0 losses for the Netherlands. With two loses, the Dutch could forget about the semis, despite all the efforts and the good results (with no budget!).

The national team managed to win another game against Portugal and had a loss against Estonia in the last two games. But that didn’t matter anymore. It was Estonia who qualified for the Semi-Finals. And on top of that, it was Estonia that finally won the Qualification Tournament and secured a spot for EuroBasket 2015.

A year later, a second chance to qualify.

In the qualification tournament of 2014 the Dutch national team was ranked last, because of the results in the qualification round in 2013 – as if they were not punished enough because of the administrative error. The Netherlands team was drawn into Group B, together with Israel, Montenegro and Bulgaria. A hard job you might say.

Coach Toon van Helfteren invited in February 2014 42 players for the national team. Soon after that he was confronted with the low morale of the majority of the Dutch players. About 30 of the 42 players said no to the invitation. Some of them had good reasons for that, but most of them had just had no motivation to work all summer for free, with probably a next disapointment at the end…

At the first practice, the coaching staff had only seven (!!) players on the floor. The management and the coaching staff also started thinking of quitting. Wasn’t it smarter to just pull the team back? Withdraw from the qualification round and take the FIBA fine. They thought about it, but no, they decided to go on. Against all odds.

The coaching staff called every Dutch player who could hold a basketball in their hands. They waited for the U20 players to return from their European Championship. They asked around in other countries to look for Dutch players. Slowly the team was filled – with young players from college who are still U20, with players that have only 60 minutes experience in the pro league, with players who usually wouldn’t be near a spot in the national team.

Did you ever here of Dexter Hope, Kevin Bleeker, Leon Williams, Ralf de Pagter and Thomas Koenis? Fortunately also a few seniors, like Arvin Slagter, Nick Oudendag and Roeland Schaftenaar showed up. But also Schaftenaar and Oudendag maybe wouldn’t be on the team if everybody did show up.

With a B-team (some say C-team) the Dutch national team started their Qualification games. Nobody in the world thought that this team would win a game.

Just before the first qualification game the Dutch Basketball Association had some more bad news for the team.

Two years after the association decided to quit the National Men’s Basketball Team program, they now announced that they still have no money and that they don’t want the national men’s basketball team back. Another dagger in the back of the Internationals and the coaching staff. Again, the association had some financial setbacks and again they decided that the men’s program should be the one who has to bleed.

In the meantime, the Dutch association is running 17 other national team programs, from streetball 3×3 to wheelchair, girls and boys U14 and so on, including full time coaches and many, many trips abroad.

But what the hell, on August 10 the Dutch national team played their first qualification game against and in Bulgaria. To everyone’s surprise, they won: 62-53! Three day later Israel came to Holland and managed to beat the Netherlands with a 62-53 score. At that time everything still looked normal. The Netherlands probably wouldn’t make it to EuroBasket again.

On August 17, the Netherlands went to Montenegro (on the cheapest airline connection possible, and that’s no fun for big basketball guys!). A mission impossible? No! The Netherlands stunned Montenegro! They managed to steal the game, with some perfect hard working defense 65-60! In the third quarter they managed to make a great 20-5 run, wich sealed the game.

The Dutch team had to travel back to the Netherlands to play Bulgaria at home. This game against Bulgaria was another defensive exhibition from the young Dutch squad. They kept Bulgaria under 60 points and managed to win 66-57. With two games left, the Dutch squad only needed to win one more game.

The first game, against Israel, was terrible. A few players had minor injuries and couldn’t play. Israel was hot and blew the Dutch away: 83-60.

So August 27 became decision day.

A win against Montenegro was a must. And not only a win, but a win with at least 5 points was needed to be with the six best numbers 2 in the qualification round.

For the first time in a few decades a game of the Dutch national men’s team was sold out! Some 2,200 supporters came to the Vijf Meihal in Leiden to watch Dutch basketball history in the making. At halftime, things didn’t look good, with a 33-30 score on the board in favor of Montenegro. But just like in the game in Montenegro, the Dutch managed to put a 20-5 run up in the third quarter. In the last period they were for a moment 16 points up and again the defense was superb. This game, Montengro only scored 55 points! The final score was 68-55 and for the first time in 25 years the Dutch national men’s basketball Team qualified for a European Championship!

With this qualification this Dutch national team set an example for every sports team… Even if you’re the biggest underdog, and all odds are against you, hard work and commitment makes everything possible.

The national team now has to go to EuroBasket 2015. So the Dutch Basketball Association, which still has no money, has a new problem. But … maybe more important, also a big chance! They just can’t stop the nationals men’s basketball program now. They are forced to find money for this team. Luckily, media is reporting about the team now and the sport, even on television and on the radio. Maybe this could mean a turnaround for Dutch basketball.

If they can’t manage it not now, then probably the Dutch have to wait another 25 years for the next EuroBasket.

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