The Slovenia Times

Interview: Jaka Blažič, Union Olimpija, Basketball Club



"I Was Given a Chance"

Can you talk us through the time between primary school and your professional career at Union Olimpija?
In the beginning, I alternated between ice-hockey and basketball but in high school I eventually decided for basketball. I played it because I simply loved it, without thinking about the future. When I joined Slovan (the fourth or fifth highest ranking club in Slovenia), things became more professional. Everyone was highly motivated and this was when I started to think about basketball as a career. Then Olimpija approached me and the rest is history.

Going to a big club like Union Olimpija you took a gamble, didn't you?
Krka's offer was also on the table. I talked to Olimpija's president and coach, they both assured me of their full support and then I made the decision. When the season started, I was the first substitute in my playing position. Soon, the financial situation of the club worsened and five players left the team. Personally speaking, it played into my hands as I was given more chances. I was happy with my part although we failed as a team. The situation was very similar to that at Slovan, where two players in my position got injured and I took over their roles.

There are thousands of basketball hopefuls around the world. How did you make the final step into professional basketball?
Maybe this is what I have just said: I was given a chance. But I believe that I can make further progress. My character probably also helped: I never give up, I have a fighting spirit, it is difficult for me to accept that something is impossible and I try to prove the opposite.

Do you miss "ordinary" life?
It is true that my friends have more time for a social life and time out. I make up for it a bit after the season but even if I dont, I am happy to do my job - if I can call it that. It is never difficult to go to practice, let alone matches.

How do you see the current situation and the future of Slovenian basketball?
Several young guns have emerged in recent years and the situation might further improve. It is true that Sani Bečirović and Beno Udrih(now a NBA star) were Olimpija's key players at the age of 19, which is not the case now but I hope that these times are coming back.

Giving up school and going professional was also a risk. What went through your mind when you were making the decision?
I didn't think at all. While at Slovan, I attended the Faculty of Economics and passed a few exams but now there is no way to do it. Our school system just doesn't make it possible.

Moving to a big club also brought a lot of psychological pressure. How did you deal with it?
Psychological pressure was something new for me. In a turbulent season like last year, you have to stick together as a team despite criticism in the media. It is best to avoid following them and get used to it. Regarding the pressure at matches, playing in front of 9,000 people against Barcelona was a game like any other, only with more adrenaline. It is true that even during the preparation I was asking myself if this was really happening to me - preparing to cover Juan Carlos Navarro and playing against the stars that I had been watching in the Euroleague finals less than a year earlier. I had been waiting for something like this my whole life. But once on the court, you quickly forget about it. The atmosphere can lift you but this can actually be a bad thing and coaches generally don't like it because you play with your heart instead of mind.

When you lose a tight match in the last second, are there any long-term negative psychological effects?
Very little because the next day you are preparing for another game. Playing twice a week allows no time for thinking about yesterday. On the other hand, a shock can make you stronger, you begin looking at things from another perspective. Coaches sometimes even welcome a defeat in order to be able to apply a new approach to preparing the team.

Is it possible to prepare for the nervous last seconds so characteristic of basketball?
You usually do that with a sports psychologist but we didn't have one last year, so I had to deal with it on my own. For example, when I decided last year's semi-finals with four free throws, I felt completely relaxed, like at practice. Everything depends on game preparation. If you are well-prepared this is not a problem but if thousands of other things are rushing through your mind, it will be difficult to score those points. In critical moments it is usually more about your confidence than technical ability and it is important to listen to the coach in those moments.

What is a day in the life of a professional basketball player like?
I get up in the morning, go to practice, have a rest, followed by lunch and another practice. If you have the energy, there might be time for some social activities, but otherwise, mostly rest and sleep. Practice sessions are hard. If you practice well there is nothing to worry about when things are real. After two days without practice, you are nowhere, both physically and mentally. Five days without practice and you have to start more or less from the beginning.

What makes a good coach?
A good coach should take care of the quality of practice sessions. He should motivate the players, be able to work with them at the psychological level. Regarding your personal tricks, you are expected to bring them with you from the junior years; you can only refine them later. This is not the head coach's job but his assistants'.

Being successful and famous also has its negative sides. How do you deal with that?
This is where family and maybe a good friend, come in. You know that they will always stand by you. My father has been my advisor my whole career, which I am very grateful for.

How do you look at your national team colleagues? Some of them were already stars when you were still in primary school?
In the beginning you look at them as idols but you soon realise that they are just like you: they have the same mentality, they are athletes, they are joking, far from behaving like stars although they would have every reason to do so.

The NBA?
I will of course seize an opportunity if it occurs.


More from Nekategorizirano