Ružomberok's women's basketball team won 61-57 over Bourges.
photo: Courtesy SCP Ružomberok
It was standing room only in the cozy Ružomberok basketball hall which seats 4,500 spectators (roughly 15% of the town's population). There were swirling groups of yellow home jerseys, shouting men in Viking helmets, air horns, base drums, and plenty of stomping feet.
After dominating the first half, Ružomberok came out flat after the break and a three-point play with six minutes left pulled the French to within two. The rest of the game was a tense barnburner until a last minute turnover by Bourges sealed a victory for the home team. On the verge of eruption, however, the crowd was silenced when a French player nailed a jumper to pull the team within four - meaning that although Ružomberok had won, 61-57, the margin was not large enough to take the division crown.
Although the departing crowd was oddly quiet, the result was a minor setback for mighty Ružomberok. Consider: the women have won every Slovak and Czechoslovak championship since 1990, have not lost a Slovak league game in six years, and have outscored their Slovak opponents 1,891 to 909 this season.
What is behind this extraordinary dominance? On the surface, Ružomberok seems an unlikely locale for one of Europe's most dominant sports teams. Sitting 50 kilometres north of Banská Bystrica on the river Váh, its mountainous landscape is pretty but the city itself is dilapidated and shows the signs of the region's difficult economic times. Many of the town's buildings are old and run down, and aside from a paper mill there is precious little in the way of employment.
But according to the team's general manager Jozef Smolek, the area is steeped in women's basketball tradition dating back to the 1930's when the town was peopled mainly by female workers at the paper and cotton factories. "At times there were 10 women for every man," he said. "There were few other sports in the area, so a tradition was started."
That tradition has resulted in a remarkable run of basketball dominance. While their first year of European League competition in 1991 saw them manage only one victory, Ružomberok quickly rebounded and finished with an even record the next year.
The wins steadily mounted and they qualified for the European Final Four in 1996 and 1997. The run was capped last March when they won the European Championship game by an lopsided 15 point margin. "We have always believed in building our program step by step," said head coach Natália Hejková. "If you look at the past 10 years everything has led to this."
Hejková herself was also an unlikely candidate to lead the talented national champs. Following their first place finish in the Czechoslovak second league and subsequent promotion to the first league in 1988, their former head coach abruptly resigned. In a jam, Smolek phoned a former player living in Prague fresh out of law school and invited her to coach for a few months until a replacement could be found. Hejková accepted and surprised everyone by leading the team to a sixth place finish in the first league. She's been the Ružomberok head coach ever since.
Nowadays, the consistent success attracts players from around the nation who want to play for one of the best teams in the world. Captain Iveta Bielková, whom Hejková calls the best guard in Europe, says that the main appeal for players is the team's environment. "I'm in Ružomberok because of the tight-knit family atmosphere," she said.
That supportive atmosphere has also spread to the team's fans. And if the team qualifies for this year's Final Four in early April, the fans will be able to showcase their affection as the games will be played in Ružomberok. Beyond that, eight Ružomberok players and their coach will be one of four European teams representing their country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.