I don't understand why Czech coaches look down on America

Petra Holešínská

I didn't dream about America when I was a child, but when I started playing basketball in Kyjov and later transferred to Brno, I started discussing with my parents the possibility of going to the US to study while playing professionally, as it is very difficult to do so in the Czech Republic.

Coaches from American universities often travel to youth European and world championships to scout talent. They were at the U17 World Championship, which was held in the Czech Republic a few years ago. At that time, a coach from the University of Illinois came to watch a Canadian player, and I happened to have a good game against Canada. So my story also involves quite a bit of luck. 

After the tournament, I received an offer, and since the University of Illinois plays in Division I, I didn't hesitate to accept it. They invited me for a campus visit, which I liked a lot, so I signed with them and received a scholarship. However, as the start date approached, I didn't really want to leave home. But my parents gave me a suitcase, plane tickets, and said they would see me at Christmas.

Maybe I didn't want to leave because, at the time, I was the only European on the basketball team, and generally, not many Czech women have experience with American college basketball. It's a bit risky for universities to offer scholarships to players who don't have much experience. But it worked out great for me in the end - I liked Illinois, and everything went smoothly.

The coach believed in me, so the school helped me with everything related to the admission process. I managed to pass all the tests, and even though my results may not have been the best for the school, the coach stood up for me. In the end, I finished school with the best grades in the whole team, so I'm glad I lived up to the coach's trust.

Before leaving, I struggled with the dilemma of whether to stay in the Czech Republic and start playing professionally right away. In the basketball community, I heard that everything in America is bad, that no one would help me, and that I would worsen as a player. During my last year of high school, even my club was trying to discourage me from going.

As a teenage girl, it naturally made me insecure, but in the end, I am really glad that my parents put a suitcase into my hand because I had great basketball years in the USA and I also studied marketing at a great school.

Honestly, I don't really understand why the basketball environment in our country has such a negative attitude towards the American university league. I was sorry that most of the people who were negotiating my departure had no experience with American university sports at all. I understand the perspective that they don't want Czech players to leave with the quality of the Czech league decreasing. On the other hand, players can improve significantly at the university.

After all, the quality of the American university competition in the first division is, in my experience, even higher than in the elite European leagues. So when young Czech players ask me, I always recommend this step to them. Nothing better could have happened to me, and I would do it again immediately.

Of course, we are not a big country, so not many Czech players have experience with the USA, but I believe there could be more of us. It is risky for big schools to reach out to Czech players when they haven't been tracking them for a long time, but it seems to me that this approach is changing. Even my former coach at the University of North Carolina, where I did my graduate program, sometimes calls me asking if there are any players in the Czech Republic who would fit into her team.

I would like to help other Czech girls have the chance to experience what I did. At the same time, I know the whole admission process is not easy, and I myself would have appreciated someone helping me back then.

During the last national team meeting, younger players asked me about college basketball, and I actually had already helped one Czech player with the whole process, so I'm up to date. I think players from youth national teams have what it takes to play in the highest division in the USA. Plus, playing in the second division and getting a prestigious education is not something to be wasted. Compared to the Czech Republic, where it is very difficult to study and play professionally at the same time.

After finishing school, I was considering starting to work in America, but I couldn't resist pursuing my dream of playing professionally. I played my first season in Hungary and now I'm playing in Spain.

My agent arranged the engagement in the Canary Islands, and I'm thrilled about it. Life there is great, and the Spanish league is one of the best in Europe. I appreciate that they gave me a significant position on the team, and I could show my skills. The only problem is that we fly for at least three hours for all the matches, but I'm willing to exchange that for going to practice in shorts and a T-shirt all year round.

Back when I was studying in America, I was disappointed that I wasn't getting invitations to the national team. Actually, they only noticed me after I finished studying at the University of North Carolina, and Chicago from the WNBA invited me to a preseason camp. Only then did they contact me from the national team.

However, I must admit that even though Chicago invited me to camp, I was still quite far from the team because the WNBA is a tiny league, and most teams only have eleven players on their roster. Even drafted players don't make the roster immediately. On the other hand, I gained another great experience. I played with Candace Parker, who is an incredible player. Chicago also won the title afterward, so it was a great experience.

I definitely wouldn't have made it to the camp from the Czech league, which proves how high the quality of the American college league is. The players are extremely skilled individually. When I arrived in the USA, I was amazed at what they could do with the ball.

Just looking at the WNBA rosters, 95% are American, and most of the best players in European teams are American... I don't understand why Czech coaches overlook America. Maybe that will change in the future.