heinnews’s David Hein this week caught up with Tomas van den Spiegel, center for Spanish basketball giants Real Madrid. They discussed getting used to playing with three great point guards; switching teams and proving yourself; the impact of Josh Childress and Brandon Jennings on European basketball; winning and losing Euroleague finals; and Real Madrid’s chances to win the Euroleague.
heinnews: First off, Happy New Year, how were the holidays?
Van den Spiegel: Alright, I stayed in Madrid to work out. Since I’m new to the team I needed some extra work to speed up the integration. I’ve only been here three weeks and I’m trying to get used to everyone, the new system and my new team-mates.
heinnews: How does it feel to be in the decent weather of Madrid? I see it was minus-6 degrees Celsius in Ukraine this week.
Van den Spiegel: I am very happy to be here, even if it’s still a bit cold here in Madrid. But the life here is a lot better.
heinnews: How has the team Real Madrid received you?
Van den Spiegel: Very well. But I didn’t expect anything else from an organization like this one. Everything is fine in the games and in practice. And the team-mates have been great too. Plus I have a fellow Belgian on the team, Axel Hervelle, and he’s been taking care of me.
heinnews: What’s it like playing with and having Axel around?
Van den Spiegel: It’s great. It’s also a great achievement for Belgian basketball to have two guys on a team like this since there are not a lot of top players from our country. But he helps me with some practical stuff and makes things easier off the court.
heinnews: How for example?
Van den Spiegel: He had me and my wife over to his house for New Year’s Eve. We were still in the hotel and didn’t have anything to do. So he had a small party with us.
heinnews: You’ve played two games so far for Real in the ACB and averaged 15 minutes, 5 points and 3 rebounds per game. How do you see your role on Madrid?
Van den Spiegel: I’m just trying to fit in still. They are basically just asking me to be a defensive presence, block some shots and get some rebounds. I just want to do what I can to help the team. And I need to work hard to find my positions and read the new guards. And I can do more offensively. But I’m not here to do that necessarily. Basically what will help the team do best and get some results.
heinnews: Besides your time with Axel in the Belgian national team, you have not played with any of the Real Madrid players before. Was there anyone on Real who you really wanted to always play with and if so, why?
Van den Spiegel: Well Raul Lopez and Pepe Sanchez are two of the greatest passing point guards in Europe. So I was looking forward to that. The point guard-center connection is always something really important on a team so you need to get used to each other. I’m trying to understand and read them and trying to let them know where I like the ball. I need to find out what they’re best at and the opposite as well.
heinnews: How long does that usually take?
Van den Spiegel: Well, I guess three or four weeks. So by the end of January or so we should be on the same page, which is exactly what we want – to be in sync for the Top 16.
heinnews: Real Madrid also has the 21-year-old point guard Sergio Llull. How impressed have you been with Real’s young playmaker?
Van den Spiegel: He is one of the greatest point guard athletes I’ve ever seen. Everyone says he has improved his shooting. But he lacks a little bit of experience. But that will come. You can tell that he can play at a higher speed. And he jumps higher than everyone else too. Everything looks easy when he does it. He has good passing skills and is improving his shooting. He’s still young. In three or four years he will at his best. And that will be great.
heinnews: You have played in Belgium, Italy, Poland Russia and Ukraine, which has been your favorite country to play in and why?
Van den Spiegel: That’s hard to say. In Russia there was a great organization (CSKA Moscow) and great results. And there is a positive atmosphere because of that. Italy is great. I spent many years there and the quality of life is a little bit higher than in Russia. I was there for five years and really enjoyed it there. But none of the choices I have made have I regretted.
heinnews: Spain is considered by many as the best domestic league outside the NBA, what are your thoughts about playing finally in the ACB?
Van den Spiegel: Of course I am really happy to be here. It took a while to get this good opportunity. And my objective is to stay as long as possible.
heinnews: Your move to Madrid is the third time you’ve switched teams during the season in the past four years. Why all the mid-season changes?
Van den Spiegel: Well, it’s never the plan to make that kind of change. Three seasons ago in Roma, things had kind of came to a dead end and the Moscow opportunity came up and I took it with both hands. Last season I went to Prokom because I wanted to have more responsibility. And I was really enjoying my time in Poland. And CSKA was really the only team I would have left for. And it turned out good obviously.
With this season and Ukraine, I took the job at Azovmash because I didn’t have much of a choice. I had signed a contract with Pamesa. But they backed out because they were not sure about my fitness after my ankle surgery. So rumors were spreading that I was hurt. And that was the only way to show everyone that I was healthy. That was the plan – not to stay too long. I just needed a place to play.
heinnews: Your latest team Azovmash Mariupol has not received the highest praise from players recently. One player told me last season that he was shocked how poorly the team was run and its facilities. What were your thoughts about playing at Azovmash?
Van den Spiegel: The Ukrainian league was not bad at all. Having two leagues which are smaller – 10 and 8 teams does not help. But a team like that running out of money should never happen. I guess they over-estimated their own financial capabilities. And I guess other players are not even returning there from the holiday break. It’s kind of a pity. But it’s not that important because the plan was to leave anyway.
heinnews: Did you have other offers for your services?
Van den Spiegel: I had other others from Euroleague teams. But we had been talking to Real for a while and were waiting for things to work out with them. Playing in Spain was important. But I also had the feeling that they really wanted me here. So I signed until the end of the season with a team option and buyout for me next season.
heinnews: There were two big transfer headlines before this season, Josh Childress leaving the Atlanta Hawks for Olympiacos and Brandon Jennings deciding against going to college to play for Lottomatica Roma. Which do you think is a more important headline for the world of European basketball and why?
Van den Spiegel: I’m not sure. I would say the impact of Childress coming to Europe is bigger because it shows that people are seriously thinking about it. I don’t think a lot of high schoolers will be thinking about it, knowing they will be in the lottery after one season in college. But with the NBA, I can imagine there are a lot of mid-level NBA guys not receiving the big money and would consider coming to Europe.
heinnews: And what do you think of the other news item?
Van den Spiegel: It’s hard to tell. It’s just such a big step between high school and top level basketball. So I think for him it’s harder than anybody else. It’s not like a high schooler will automatically be a factor. He still needs to learn his team. High school most of the time is run and gun. And here, things are so organized. But Jennings has great potential and a great cross-over. Still, it’s hard on him. I am very curious to see what’s going to happen with him. I’m curious to see if he will declare next year.
heinnews: Many players and coaches say they remember big losses more than big wins. You have been in four of the past five Euroleague finals. Which do you remember more – the 2006 and 2008 titles with CSKA or the 2004 and 2007 losses with Fortitudo and CSKA respectively?
Van den Spiegel: I remember the wins more for sure. But it’s way easier for a player who has played in more than one to just forget about the losses. I would remember the big loss if I had only been in one final. But of the two losses, I remember the loss in Athens to Panathinaikos (93-91) more, definitely. The other game was such a blowout (118-74 against Maccabi)
heinnews: Of course both the 2006 and 2008 Euroleague crowns are precious. But do you look back more fondly on one than the other?
Van den Spiegel: I remember 2006 more because we went to Prague as the underdogs. Maccabi still had Anthony Parker and was just such a great team. And we really only had an eight-man rotation. And we didn’t have David Andersen, who was out for the season. And nobody expected us to win. In 2008, everyone expected us to win. Madrid was hard for me because I had just returned and was still battling an injured ankle and didn’t have a lot of practice time. I just concentrated on helping a little bit and get into the game and just do something to help the team. All the other things around the team kind of went past me.
heinnews: Back to your current team. Real Madrid have not won a Euroleague title since 1995. What are the team’s chances to win this season in Berlin?
Van den Spiegel: The difference is so small in the top 10 teams in this league. Everyone can win it. The hardest thing is just to get to Berlin. Once you’re there anyone can beat anyone. But it’s hard to tell. We just have to play at our best in the important moments.
heinnews: Madrid is in second place in their group at 5-3. What must the team do to hoist the hardware in May?
Van den Spiegel: Team chemistry is so important. Once everyone knows their roles, it’s easy to play. That’s the hard part. And once you get to the Top 16, you cannot afford to give away one game.
heinnews: Real face AJ Milano on Thursday. What are your thoughts on the game?
Van den Spiegel: It’s a must win for us. We have to go into Milano only thinking about winning. But it is the last chance for them too. We just have to try to take care of business.
heinnews: Okay, good luck then against Milano and the rest of the season
Van den Spiegel: Thanks a lot