Jiri Welsch is a 37 year old 199cm guard that is playing his fifth season for CEZ Basketball Nymburk (NBL). He started his basketball career in 1990 with Holice and then moved to Pardubice in 1994 where he played until 1998. He then played two seasons with Sparta Praha and then two seasons with Union Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia). In 2002 he was drafted by Philadelphia 76ers (NBA,1rd(16). He played in the NBA from 2002-2006 playinbg a total of 247 NBA games for teams like Golden State, Boston, Cleveland and Milwaukee. He then played with Unicaja Malaga (Spain-ACB) from 2006-2010. He then played with teams Asefa Estudiantes Madrid (Spain-ACB) and Belgacom Spirou (Belgium-D1). He spoke to German Hoops about his basketball career.
Jiri you played in Frankfurt against the Fraport Skyliners this season. I can´t recall that you have ever played a professional game in this arena. What kind of feeling is it for you at age 37 to come to new basketball places?
You know what, I did play in this arena – 15 years ago, season 2001/2002, with Olimpija Ljubljana, Euroleague game. I shared that memory with my younger teammates as soon as we entered the gym. It’s a nice feeling to travel to new countries, new cities and arenas at this stage of my career, it makes it fresher and more interesting.
The club has won 13 titles in a row. That is something that is difficult to believe. How proud are you to be playing for such an elite team like CEZ Basketball Nymburk (Czech Republic-NBL)?
It is a unique streak to win 13 titles in a row and I am very proud to be part of the last 4 championship runs. But it doesn´t happen on its own, there are couple of teams in the Czech league that can challenge and push us. We always have to work for it and earn it, so no matter how dominant it may seem – being a champion at the end of the season is always a rewarding feeling.
You finished 31-1 in the NBL league. How does one go about accepting a record like this when it isn´t really out of the ordinary?
We approach the games of the Czech league with the same mentality – it is always about us and our performance. If we are focused and work hard, we win. But you know, its a sport and we are not machines. If we lose our concentration and on a bad day, we can get in trouble.
When a team starts so well, how does one in general grow as a team as the season progresses?
Well, team growth is a process that happens as the season goes on, you play better opponents and you get under pressure. That is when character is built. We were waiting anxiously for the start of the Basketball Champions League because we were winning all games easily and didn´t really know how strong we actually were. Now, after the first 2 losses, we can be more honest with ourselves.
Your teammate is Petr Benda. You could call him the Czech Bill Russell as he is going for his 10th league title. How valuable is it having him in the locker room?
Wow, I have never thought of Petr Benda as Bill Russell! Petr is a more of a quiet guy but he is very, very valuable to our team on the floor. That is why the club has kept him here for all these years.
Your teammate Howard Sant-Roos might only be 26, but he has been around for some years and is kind of living that basketball cinderella story as he came from the Italian third league and played two seasons in the German Pro B with NBA player Dennis Schroder and has continued to move up the level ladder and developing. How special is this guy and what amazes you about his play?
Well, I think coach Ginzburg was very smart in bringing Howard here and signing him for 2 years. He had a great season last year in VTB League and if he wasn´t under contract, he probably wouldn´t be here anymore. I admire his versatility and his will to play on both ends of the floor, offense and defense. He has very good work ethic and I believe in the near future, we will see him playing in top teams in top leagues.
Your teammate Eugene Lawrence was in high-school when you were in the NBA. He calls you legend. What kind of a feeling is it for you being the elder statesman on the team? What special tips have you given him?
Hahaha Geno is a funny guy, I like him a lot. He started calling me “legend” since the first day he arrived, it´s much better than the Czech National Team where guys have been calling me “grandpa” for the past 3 years.
You are playing your fifth season for Nymburk and it took you 11 years to win another title there after winning your first and second in 2001 and 2002. You you have won 6 titles in four seasons. Is it difficult to remain hungry to win when your suddenly used to winning so much?
I left Ljubljana in 2002 after winning Adriatic League there and the next 9 years I had spent between the NBA and Spanish ACB – as you probably agree, its not easy to win championship in these 2 leagues. I really regret losing the championship in Belgium with Charleroi, 5th decisive game of the final in overtime against Oostede, that was a shame and not its 4 championship in 4 years! Winning never gets old because like I said before – you always have to work hard for it. Nobody is giving them away!
You have a limited scoring role. What is your biggest asset that you give the team on the court now?
I think its leadership, experience and control of the game. That´s what coach expects from me.
Lets look back at your career. You played 10 seasons in the Czech Republic before moving to Union Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia) in 2000. In your second season you made a huge jump playing Euroleague stats: 20 games: 15.9ppg, 3.2rpg, 2.3apg, 1.3bpg; Slovenian League: 11games: 12.8ppg, 3.5rpg, 2.2apg, 1.6spg; Adriatic League: 20 games: 15.2ppg, 2.0rpg, 1.7apg, 1.3spg. During that second season when did you know that the NBA might be in your future?
It was some time in January 2002, in the middle of that season, when NBA scouts started to come and watch all of our games. They were coming to see me, that´s when I realized it was serious.
You played for the Boston Celtics from 2003-2005 and in your first season played 81games: 9.2ppg, 3.7rpg, 2.3apg, 1.3spg. How was that experience for you. How was it as the only European playing with only American players?
I have great memories of being part of the Celtics organization. During the summer before my first season in Boston I worked very, very hard, probably the hardest I have ever worked in my life, and it paid off. I came to Boston one week before the season started and shortly after that I was already in the starting line up. It was a long and tough season but in the end it was all worth it.
You had had experience in Europe, but were a rookie in the NBA. What special experience is still crystal clear in your mind with Paul Pierce?
Paul is one of the best players I have ever played with. So so talented individually and able to make players around him better. He was very competitive, always challenging people to play one on one after practice.
In 2004-2005 you finished the seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA): 16 games: 2.9ppg, 1.8rpg, 1.2apg. What special story do you have with a very young Lebron James?
It was the very last game of the season, we still had a chance to make the playoffs, playing in Toronto, and Lebron scored 56 points. Amazing individual performance, even if we lost and didn´t make the playoffs in the end.
You played your last NBA season in 2005-2006 with the Milwaukee Bucks averaging 4.3ppg, 1.9rpg, 1.1ap. Why did you return back to Europe? Had you had enough of the NBA and do you feel you could have been a journey man in that league?
I returned because I had great offers to play in Europe and few not good offers to stay in the NBA. Maybe I could have been journeyman, maybe I couldn´t, who knows. I know that I never regretted coming back.
You played four seasons with Unicaja Malaga (Spain-ACB) reaching three ACD semi-finals and a cup final, but no title. Despite no titles, how satisfying was it playing in the best league in the world at that time?
When I came to Spain, the ACB was absolute top in Europe. 18 very strong teams and anybody could beat anybody. To be honest, I was a bit surprised about the level of quality after being 4 years in the US and it took time for me to adjust.
You played with Belgacom Spirou (Belgium-D1) for a season and in the second briefly in training camp before moving to the Czech Republic. How much did the unending work ethic of Derrick Allen rub off on you in the short time you were there with him?
I was with Spirou one season only, the second year we were talking about coming back but in the end I returned home to Czech Republic to sign with Nymburk. Ive never played with Derrick Allen.
You played at the European championships in 1999 as a 19 year old, at the 2007 Euro Championships and 2013 European championships as a 33 year old. How much has European basketball in general changed from 1999-2013?
It has changed A LOT. Especially the athletic part of basketball has changed incredibly, todays game is played a lot higher, faster and more aggressively than 15 years ago.
If you had to construct your own NBA Rushmore which 4 heads would you chose?
Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade in the NBA, Juan Carlos Navarro in Europe.
Thanks Jiri for the Chat.