Is Estonian basketball really 15 years behind rest of Europe, according to the coach Priit Vene working long-term in Lithuania? Is the international level totally lacking and the team a bunch of good-for-nothings as hundreds or even thousands of fans opine in social Media? Painful questions, and hard to answer to the backdrop of emotions created by initial games at European Championship.
Perhaps, the assistant coach Andres Sõber is right in comparing Team Estonia to country bumpkins accidentally stumbling into Oscars Gala? With no prior experience at such levels, the tough reality makes hands tremble and denial sets in. With all of that, Czech and Belgian players are well used to.
Just two years ago as Estonia secured its way to European finals, everybody was overjoyed and praised our might. The ego was boosted by the occasional nice wins at qualifiers. At that, it was forgotten that these were the games where strong opponents weren’t back against the wall. And at the additional qualifiers finally securing our way forward, the games were mainly against such as qualified not.
The contrast between those who failed to qualify and the 24 best is greater than we knew to expect. In this regard, Mr Vene is right – indeed, Estonia is lagging behind the tops of Europe.
For onlookers and insiders, things do feel different. Mr Sõber concedes, that the team has not fulfilled the hopes but says it’s no time now to dissect the losses – that’s for after the tournament.
«We had very tough teams to play for very starters and that unglued the guys a bit,» he said. «Every loss has its reasons. All sorts of experts have it easy to say we are bad in this or that. But I have been thinking it all over … the environment where we found ourselves is a bit new for our players. In a difficult situation, however, the snowballing effect is created and it is very difficult to stop.»
According to Mr Sõber, it’s too soon to say that our tactics are wrong or obsolete. He said the team made it to the finals by this very tactics and movements and this ought to be appreciated as an achievement in itself.
«It’s like you come from the small town in a jacket slightly creased and find yourself at Oscars Gala. Then, it may happen your hands begin to tremble and you pour the soup in your lap,» he said, serving a word picture. «We have seen our share of nice wins over the years, but this is some totally different level around here.»
Mainly it is the Estonian’s attack that is criticised. Head coach Tiit Sokk still says defence is more important. «If we let them get to 18 points in five minutes... then the games where the opponents get over 70 are not our games ever,» he noted.
Mr Sokk declined to publicly comment on performance of any player, but suggested that people watch the game against Belgium where it is clearly seen against whom the points were being scored. «It’s a team, so we got to keep going with the 12 we have,» said Mr Sokk.
The choice of players being scarce, coaches must use such as have not been able to prepare too well due to injuries. No training spells bad game and sour mood. «Perhaps we ought to do as the great basketball countries do – failing to make it to training camp on time, nothing doing,» mulled Mr Sokk.
Let not the reader think that the players took it easy. As confessed by Gregor Arbet, a pillar in the team, he felt lousy going to bed and is hard pressed to point out an explicit reason for what happened. The depression will have to go, however. «We have to let the [inner] animal out. We have to fight and give it our everything,» said Mr Arbet. Preaching to the team last morning, basketball association president Jüri Ratas echoed that by bringing a message of teamwork and giving it all.