Two-time Euroleague champion and one of the best basketball players of all-time from Belgium, Tomas Van Den Spiegel has recently announced that his 18-year professional career has come to an end.
More than five years ago most athletes in the United State were already in love with Twitter, while at the same time in Europe the 7-foot big man from Belgium was a true social media pioneer. Van Den Spiegel was one of very first Twitter users among European basketball players who used the social media platform to share his thoughts.
Van Den Spiegel, who played in Euroleague for eight years, unsurprisingly used Twitter to announce his retirement.
RealGM recently caught up with Van Den Spiegel to talk about his retirement, career highlights, Belgium basketball and much more.
RealGM: First of all, how did you know it was time to retire and what were the main reasons that led to this decision?
Van Den Spiegel: When you feel that you are basically killing your body trying to keep up at the level, I think it's time. My daughter is a 4-year-old and all she wants to do is play with me in the yard but some days that was not possible. That's when you realize there is more to life than just basketball.
RealGM: Some time ago a new attendance record has been broken for a basketball game in Belgium with 15,500 spectators. Does it mean that Belgium basketball is on the rise or was it the result of marketing?
Van Den Spiegel: The team of Antwerp has a very good product that they sell very well. It is not the first time that they've attracted a huge crowd. In general we cannot complain. We have nice arenas, pretty good crowds and decent budgets for the actual market. And most teams pay on time and are very correct, which sometimes seems an exception to these days. The only thing missing is competitiveness since we only had eight teams this season. We will probably have nine next year, but 12 would be ideal.
RealGM: In your opinion, where does Belgium stand now in the context of European basketball and what is the country's potential?
Van Den Spiegel: We have some good players and our national team will hopefully show that in Slovenia this summer, but we don't have any depth at certain positions. Our youth programs have never been top notch, but I do see some improvement there lately. Our generation of 1995 has some good potential and these kids now must make the extra step. Also, the fact that next year each team will have to have six Belgians will in my opinion help young players to develop better. On a team level, teams like my Oostende and Charleroi should achieve more at Eurocup level if you consider their rosters. I am convinced that a last eight place is realistic for them.
RealGM: What are the capabilities of Belgium in EuroBasket 2013?
Van Den Spiegel: Surviving the opening round would be good. Everything after that is a bonus.
RealGM: Do you believe that Belgacom Spirou or any other Belgium team could become a permanent member of the Euroleague?
Van Den Spiegel: I think it is possible but for that we must start taking Germany as an example. Long term investing in youth, in capable people and in logistics. Everything that is short term is doomed to become a "one year yes, three years no story."
RealGM: You had a chance to play and stay in many different countries - Italy, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Spain and Belgium. Could you compare the differences between playing in Eastern and Western Europe? Do you think those differences are disappearing?
Van Den Spiegel: I think level wise there was not too much of a difference. Ok, some leagues were better as others but that has to do mainly with financial resources. What I did see was a shifting from Italy (when I was there the league was incredibly strong) to Spain, then the east got involved and now even Turkey. Sports is a good mirror for economics. Maybe the west was already more tactically focused while the east was more about physical abilities. Bringing foreign coaches in Eastern Europe certainly was added value.
RealGM: You have been also playing for three top European organizations - CSKA, Real and Armani Jeans. Is there any difference between those teams in terms of working culture?
Van Den Spiegel: CSKA was, despite the budget, a real family club, a real joy to play there, mainly thanks to Mr. Kuschenko and his staff. Real was more political, a lot more people wanted to have their say about how things should be done. Organization wise they were great and wearing that emblem on my chest made me very proud. Milano did not come near these two organizations, although I have to say Mr. Armani put a lot of heart and effort into getting the organization off the ground.
RealGM: From when you were a rookie in Belgium to retirement this summer, what is the state of European basketball? How did it change?
Van Den Spiegel: Since 1995, it's level has improved a lot. It's much harder for young kids to step up. The Bosman rule has made the game more physical and athletic, allowing more foreign and better imports to enter the European markets. I was around 90 kg (195 pounds) back then and getting decent minutes at 17 years old. Hard to imagine the same thing today.
RealGM: If you would have to name three things you have learned through basketball (outside playing the game), what would those be?
Van Den Spiegel: World citizenship is the best religion possible. I really enjoyed living in different countries and meeting new cultures and all types of people, no matter what nationality, skin color or beliefs. Secondly, I consider the chemistry between people the most important condition to be successful as a team, even more than individual talent added up. And thirdly, living the life of an athlete is a privilege, don't forget you will be only more or less halfway through your life when you retire. Take your experiences with you, keep learning and you will be fine in the second half of it too.
RealGM: You have been played in the Euroleague Final Four four times and you have mentioned that the Final Four 2006 in Prague was the most special moment for you. Could you take us back to that season and explain how did it go for you?
Van Den Spiegel: I went from not playing almost any minutes due to some unforeseen circumstances in December 2005 and January 2006 in Rome to winning the Euroleague a couple months later with CSKA. It was pure joy, being part of a team with great friends, and also a small revenge on people that hadn't believed in me only few months earlier.
RealGM: What are your near future and long-term plans?
Van Den Spiegel: I will work now for a bank and financial planning company called Optima, based in Belgium and Spain. For them I will guide athletes through planning their careers while still playing but also after they have retired. As a former athlete I think to know the specific needs and goals of my colleagues and I'd like to help them to achieve them in the long run.