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Hoop dreams lived out in Pezinok

When Slovakia's best professional basketball team, BK Pezinok, takes the home court in the town's Športová hala, it seems that anything is possible.
An elderly man dishes out high-fives and winks at the athletes while dancing an intoxicated jig behind the players' bench during all time-outs. Hulking six foot ten inch Croatian centre Aramis Maglič prefers launching long-range bombs over banging down low with the other bigger men. And the undisputed star of either team is Devon Lake, a relatively diminutive (six foot two inches) African American who left a job as an anger management counsellor at a US prison to pursue his hoop dreams overseas.
"It's a different world," says the soft-spoken Lake after yet another victory, this one a 108 to 68 thrashing of the league's fourth best team, BK Prievidza. During the February 24 game, Lake scored 24 points on eight of 11 shooting, including three 3-pointers and several darting drives past athletically inferior defenders. He is Pezinok's spark plug, leading his team to an 18 and 1 record, outscoring opponents by an average score of 99 to 66.


Devon Lake has played basketball in Taiwan, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Pezinok.

When Slovakia's best professional basketball team, BK Pezinok, takes the home court in the town's Športová hala, it seems that anything is possible.

An elderly man dishes out high-fives and winks at the athletes while dancing an intoxicated jig behind the players' bench during all time-outs. Hulking six foot ten inch Croatian centre Aramis Maglič prefers launching long-range bombs over banging down low with the other bigger men. And the undisputed star of either team is Devon Lake, a relatively diminutive (six foot two inches) African American who left a job as an anger management counsellor at a US prison to pursue his hoop dreams overseas.

"It's a different world," says the soft-spoken Lake after yet another victory, this one a 108 to 68 thrashing of the league's fourth best team, BK Prievidza. During the February 24 game, Lake scored 24 points on eight of 11 shooting, including three 3-pointers and several darting drives past athletically inferior defenders. He is Pezinok's spark plug, leading his team to an 18 and 1 record, outscoring opponents by an average score of 99 to 66.

Lake's path to this 'different world' - to Pezinok, a small town of 22,000 inhabitants 20 kilometres east of Bratislava - has been unorthodox. After finishing university at Southeast Missouri State University, where he was the school's fifth all-time leading scorer, he turned down an offer to play in the Continental Basketball Association in 1994, and headed to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to begin his foreign basketball career.

"It just took off from there," he says. Indeed, to date he's played in Rio de Janeiro, Taiwan, Venezuela, Mexico, and Slovakia, first in Svit (a town near Poprad in northern Slovakia) and now in Pezinok. There were also two breaks from basketball, one in 1996 when he worked at a youth club as a computer and gym instructor, and the second in 1999 at the US correctional facility, counselling prisoners awaiting their release.

His eclectic past appears to have served the 30 year-old Lake (he turned 30 on March 3) in adjusting to Slovakia, a country with little experience of tall, confident black men. Although he stands out on the street for his skin and on the court for his skill, Lake says he manages to feel like an average resident.

"We've got guys [on the team] that have played in the Olympics and who have played against the 'Dream Team' [the US's collection of NBA stars]," he says. "I just go out and try to help the team win. I don't feel like I have to score 20 points. I don't feel any pressure."

Opponents, though, certainly feel the pressure of playing against him. At the Prievidza game, Lake dropped in a first quarter 3-pointer which pushed his team's lead to 27 to 12, and gave him 10 points over the game's first eight minutes.

The opposing coach threw his hands up in frustration, while his players' shoulders collectively slumped. Two male spectators on the Prievidza side, who moments before had been shouting profanity-laced insults at refs and players, let out a sigh of resigned admiration.

"He's good," said one of the tamed fans.

"Umph," his companion grunted. "He's very good."

Lake's former university coach Ron Shumate, who has since retired from basketball and now lives in Kentucky, agreed with the fans. Shumate recruited Lake out of a highschool near Memphis, Tennessee and coached him for all four years of his eligibility.

"What attracted me to Devon was that he's a good, fine young man to start with," said Shumate February 27. "And on the court, he's strong and powerful. When we recruited him and got him to come [to Southeast Missouri State University], we felt like we really got an outstanding young man and player. He was so easy to coach, smart, a team leader."

Before recruiting a player, Shumate said, he and his coaching staff conducted "background checks to see if the player had any problems academically or socially. Devon had no such problems. Off the court, he was very helpful to the younger players in getting them adjusted to college life and college basketball."

The coach also spoke of Lake's "intelligence" and "level head"; required characteristics in dealing with the unsavoury aspects of any culture, and traits which Lake said he had occasionally had to draw on in Slovakia.

"I've had a few experiences with skinheads in Bratislava," Lake says, adding that Pezinok citizens "wouldn't tolerate" such thugery. "The thing about it is, I go out and I see people having a good time, partying and dancing. And a lot of times I see them dancing and listening to black music, and they ask me about the clothes, and I see them dressing like black people in America.

"So what I'm saying is, if you like those things that some black people do or the music they listen to, then I think I deserve a fair chance to be accepted as well because I'm black. Don't take my customs and what I like and use it for your enjoyment if you can't accept me. That's the only problem I have.

"Sometimes I get looked at harsh by some people, but then at the same time I look at them and they're enjoying the black music and they're wearing the saggy pants or whatever. So, if you can accept that, then I feel like you should be able to accept me."

Overall, he says, he has been accepted, especially by his teammates and the Pezinok fans, although he adds with a smile: "Basketball is basketball anywhere in the world. When you're playing good they're going to pat you on the back, and when you're not playing good they're going to rip you apart."

One reason why he says he has been so well accepted is because communication between he and his teammates is so easy.

"I understand Slovak," he says, thus settling a fan debate at the recent game. As Lake took instruction from the bench, one spectator asked another, "What language are they speaking?"

"English," came the response.

"What are you talking about?" countered the first. "The coach is from Pezinok - he doesn't speak English!"

Head coach Milan Černický, indeed, does not speak English, but he said communication had been no problem. "It would be better if I spoke English," he said. "But I draw diagrams, and he can understand Slovak."

Coach Černický said this was fortunate because Lake "is a very important part of the team. He is fundamentally sound and tactically strong."

Lake agreed that communication was no problem. "I understand more than I can speak, but I am able to speak Slovak and the players are able to understand what I say. The players from other countries speak English too, and the basketball terminology over the years has been taught in English."

"Fortunately, having been in Svit and now back in Slovakia again, every week it gets better and better for me in terms of speaking the language. It's not a problem."

With the language barrier overcome, Lake says that besides being away from his wife and three kids who live in the US, the biggest drawback to living in Slovakia is the cold winter.

"I prefer hot countries. I like to dress, how can I say it, 'cool', and a lot of times I'm not prepared for the weather, so that's the biggest thing. Your muscles stiffen up on you. I'm used to it now, but after playing in Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and places like that, you know, the weather can be a small problem at times."

But judging by fan and teammate response, he's had few other problems in adjusting. It's been a fun process, he adds with a smile.

"You know, I like to party," he says as he excuses himself from the interview to have a 'meeting' with his teammates. "I'm a married man, but I like to get out and have some fun, you know, mingle a little bit."

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