Giving the People of Israel a gift: Hamburg Head Coach Benka Barloschky readies for Hapoel Tel Aviv

Oct 23, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

Hapoel Tel Aviv visits Hamburg Towers on Tuesday (20:30) in EuroCup action as the Reds will look to add another win to their record. Head Coach Danny Franco’s team returned to action last week in the shadow of the war with Hamas, but they handily defeated Venice 97-81 in a very emotional matchup that took place in Italy.

While Hapoel still does not know where they will play their home games during the war, a number of locales including Latvia and Serbia have come up as options. While Hamburg was listed as a road game from the get go, next week’s slash with London Lions will no doubt take place outside of Israel.

But before the Reds can even think about home games, they have to contend with a Hamburg team that diners themselves mired in last place with a 0-3 record.

Juts before tip-off, The Sports Rabbi’s Lukas Feldhaus sat down with Hamburg head coach Benka Barloschky to discuss a myriad of topics from the bench boss’s rise through the ranks, his philosophy, thoughts on what Hapoel Tel Aviv is going through in the Iron Swords War and how his career began.

You used to play basketball was becoming a professional a goal for yourself?
It was definitely the goal. I had played at a relatively high level in Bremen before, but I was still very young. When the BBL was founded – my 1988 class was the first – Oldenburg recruited me from Bremen, so to speak. That was exciting especially being connected to the Bundesliga and the second team was still in the 1st regional league. It was just a good overall product. I already had the goal of becoming a professional athlete.

This didn’t happen because of your pelvic injury. Is this something that still affects you today?
Yes, yes. This is something that I believe will affect me for the rest of my life. I’ve got it under control quite well with physiotherapy […] and stuff like that. That doesn’t bother me in everyday life, but if I were to increase the amount of sports I do a little more, play a little more basketball myself – I can’t really do it anymore, but in the summer I can do it a little more consistently, then I notice it.

You then started coaching very early on. It’s actually very unusual to get a head coaching job at a relatively high level at such a young age. You began coaching in the 3rd division at Stade. How did that happen?
At that time I played with Stade, which I then took over as coach, and my coach at the time, Matthias Weber, who is now the 3×3 national coach, had already informed me during the course of the season that this would be his last season because he wanted to slow down a bit. He then asked me if I could imagine taking on that role because he saw that in me and I didn’t see it that way myself. But he had a lot of trust and repeatedly confirmed to me that I could do it well and that I had talent. Things then developed like this over the course of the year and then the injury happened. It was clear that I couldn’t continue playing forever and that I had to shut it down. The timing just worked out well. I dared to do it and it was – of course – diving into ice cold water: 3rd league, promoted as a player, then the next year as a coach and I still had lots of friends on the team. That was a special constellation. That was fun. Of course we went straight back down. That was a jump into ice-cold water, and it was probably too fast. But I was allowed to do it, I gained experience, I tried it out. That was definitely cool.

How did your basketball philosophy evolve?
Of course I was totally influenced by Matthias [Weber], who was and still is a big influence on me. It was always very much about speed and the reaction from the transition game – gaining advantages from the first moment of the transition, the speed of action. I think if you asked him now, he’s actually bored with systems and stuff like that. For Matthias it was always about this, it has to be bang, it has to be quick, you have to be able to act quickly in your head, make decisions – learn to play the game and not run systems so much like a robot. That was always very, very important to him back then, and of course that also influenced me back then. I tried to do that back then, but I didn’t have the know-how back then to teach it in the details that I might be able to do today. But the idea was already there: basketball that serves the team, moving the ball.

Not all that different from the basketball you want to play today in terms of the very rough idea.
We’re still a bit hesitant about the result, but yes, the idea is already there.

You came to the Towers when the club was founded.
In the year it was founded, I was still at Stade, but I was an intern. Without having any connection, I simply trained a lot with Hamed [Attarbashi] because I was studying and I was able to combine that with university quite well and I always had training at Stade in the evenings. So it all worked out quite well. That’s how the contact came about. At some point in the summer we played an exhibition game: Stade against the Towers. Hamed came over to me and asked me how I wanted to continue my career and offered me an opportunity at Towers for the next season, the second season as an assistant coach. I actually still had a contract with Stade, but asked if I could get out of the contract because it was a huge opportunity for me. I say this again and again at every point: I have a huge heart for Stade. I’m still grateful for that. Those were my first steps, and I met a lot of people who supported me and let me out of the contract in this situation and said: Boy, go. This is a chance to coach in the second Bundesliga. That was also the right step because I could then look over the shoulder of a trainer and not just have to do everything myself and swim freely. That was good.

You were an assistant coach under several coaches and said on the Talkin’ Basketball podcast that Pedro Calles was a big influence on you. What aspects fascinated you most about him?
I think that we have a very, very similar idea of basketball, without ever having spoken about it before. We are very close in terms of content, and we noticed that very quickly. That’s why a really nice chemistry emerged from it. We both have a bit of a defensive obsession. This aggressiveness and these basic virtues in basketball are simply very, very important to both of us. That was a good fit. I also learned a lot from him about what it means to lead a group: that there are different leadership styles, how you can press different buttons as the leader of a group and how you protect and lead the entire team. I think that is one of his great strengths. That was very educational for me.

Regarding leadership style, I wanted to bring up another point that you mentioned earlier. You studied law. Can you somehow use this for what you do today? Are there any attitudes you may have acquired through this?
That’s an exciting question. One thing that is probably an added value for my entire life and not just for my career is structured thinking. Legal thinking is its own subject, its own language, its own sentence structure, its own culture. There is usually a case, some kind of legal problem, and then you have to solve that case. It is then completely structured as to how you can then get to the result. That does help me. My notes for training still look like they would be structured as a legal term paper. This looks exactly the same as how the structure is constructed. This structure helps me.

Were you serious about tackling this at the time? Did you expect to go into coaching back then? Of course, it’s very difficult to plan – especially in Germany – to go this route to the top.
Unable to plan at all. This career path simply does not exist in Germany. You can see that just by the fact that Christian [Held], Anton [Gavel] and I are in the league and no one else is. There is also no career path on how to get there, not in the classic sense. We all worked our way there in different ways. But that’s not a blueprint for the next coach. I didn’t expect it to be like this. I definitely took studying law seriously. My father is a lawyer. He also had a big influence on it. I have good feelings about it anyway – being with him in his office in the law firm as a child and being allowed to come along sometimes. Of course that was really cool. Studying law gives you a certain breadth of options. This is a good basis for doing other things. I was also very interested in going into journalism – sports journalism – and television. I was also very interested in the direction. That’s why it was my course of choice.

Now you’re where you probably most wanted to be – with a team that’s also playing in the EuroCup. You mentioned the start, which has been a bit rough so far. You have a very inexperienced team, I have to say – especially for EuroCup. You have signed a lot of players from the second division. Maybe you even have to say that the years under Pedro Calles (two BBL playoffs, editor’s note) were taken for granted – even by me – and they were very successful. How do you see the development of the club in general?
This has several components. First of all, the years under Pedro were special years. I was part of this success myself and was right in the middle of it. We must not forget – especially for small locations – that the first year was the Corona year, in which the structure of the entire league looked different and salaries were much lower. I think it was a bit easier for the smaller teams to get into the playoffs or to over-perform. In the second year, I think we did it again with an incredible feat of strength. In the second year I find it even more impressive than the first year – that we did it again. We had – also one of Pedro’s strengths – the axis with Maik Kotsar and Justus Hollatz, these two incredible players that we had in the squad – this luxury.

Justus Hollatz is hardly mentioned enough to me, having had him in the squad over the years. Then you lose that player because the player has outgrown us and replacing him is impossible with the financial resources we have. That’s one thing. Then it’s like this: This EuroCup venture is a huge challenge for me and for us on the sporting side. We want to compete with the big clubs and clubs in Europe – with the best players and the best coaches. And the EuroCup is very, very close – and please always leave the church in the village; Don’t forget who we are and where we come from and where we are as an organization. We don’t come in with the same weapons as our opponents. That’s okay too. We also know this internally and it is our job to remain calm despite this. The 36 point defeat against Paris that we just experienced was David against Goliath.

I always look a little bit over to Berlin. They compete in the EuroLeague with a team that is not a EuroLeague team on paper. They will lose a lot of games in the EuroLeague this year, but there is never any panic. There is always calm there. That is our goal. That’s our job and my job to broadcast that. This is a league in which we want to learn, we want to compete and in which we also want to progress and win games. But we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot if we lose games. That’s okay even if we lose them – if we play the way we want to play. The big challenge with the start we have right now is that the calibers are Bayern Munich, Ulm, London, Paris and Prometey. These are very, very strong opponents. And right now, we’re not at the level of performance that we can keep up with these teams for 40 minutes. It was us against Ludwigsburg at the beginning. We had a very, very good game there. We also played a very good game against Bayern. We were close against London. Then I think we let the defeats make us a little too uneasy and we were a little too negative, too unsettled. You really saw that against Ulm. We had a real slump for three minutes. Nothing worked anymore. That’s our job now, to work our way out of there. We have an inexperienced team, but they have a lot of potential, work incredibly hard, and that’s why I’m absolutely sure that we’ll work our way out of it. If we just keep maintaining this level, everything will be fine. We are not there to win the EuroCup with 20 points. We shouldn’t expect that. We want to be competitive, we want to hold our own. Then the results come – when we play our game. We have to get this done. We didn’t do that well against Ulm.

Is there a set goal that you have in the BBL?
Process goals. This year – we’ve heard this again and again – the league is basically divided into two. It’s basically about getting into the top ten now more or less through the new mode. I’ll be completely honest – here too: We have a player budget that we can’t yet assume that we can say that we’ll get into it. That’s just how it is. You have to be completely honest about that. We have a good chance. We have a good team together, good guys, but there are completely other factors that come into play to end up there. First of all, we want to play good basketball, inspire the fans, be there for each other, get better every day, and develop. This always sounds so boring, but that’s really my goal. Above all, I want to have a good time with the players and be successful for us so that we can really take the year and say at the end of the year: That was a great year, that was a lot of fun . We’ve gotten a lot better, we’ve gotten so much out of it. The place on the table at the end – that’s what the others can interpret, which then means success or failure.

I have the feeling that it’s not that easy in Hamburg because there is of course a very aggressive media landscape.
I don’t read it, I have to be honest. I have my opinion about it. I respond politely and professionally and simply don’t read the articles. It’s also just – with all due respect – so far removed from reality. That’s how it is there. As soon as a point is not taken that – from the outside – needs to be taken, there is a mood of crisis. I do not like that, I am not like that. I always find it a bit populist and looking for headlines. That is not my style, but I can’t influence it either. I can only concentrate on my work.

Do you see a bit of a risk that players will be influenced by this? For example, Jonas Wohlfarth-Bottermann made a statement to Rupert Fabig that it was simply not enough and that there were people in charge who had to be asked.
Of course we talked about that too. I just spoke to Jonas today. Jonas is a real competitor. Anyone who knows him knows that too. He wants to do everything he can to win games. He puts himself at the service of the team, but due to his style of play he’s not the one who saves the day with 25 points. He never will be, and that’s okay. We know that too. But he’s caught up in this thing, and I think he felt it very strongly in or after the game: ‘I want to help somehow, but I just don’t know how.’ He then let out the frustration – it has to be said – somewhat carelessly and in a way that wasn’t really wise for such a veteran – these ‘I don’t know anymore’, these question marks, but he’s a fine guy. Nobody takes this seriously. We all know what makes him tick, what kind of competitor he is and what he puts into it. That’s all fine. Of course the press picks it up too. That’s just how it is here in the media city of Hamburg. You just have to know that. He has to do a bit of the job and keep it within himself, even if he feels that way.

But I also notice again: I have already experienced ‘Winning Seasons’ and also experienced ‘Losing Seasons’. I’ve been doing it for three years – and before that too. Consecutive defeats – no matter how well you can explain them – do something to athletes. That eats away at you. I always look at it like this; This has two components: On the one hand, you lose confidence in your own abilities and doubt yourself, and on the other hand, there is a great danger that you no longer trust your teammates. The trust in yourself, but also in the structure, crumbles a bit. That’s the difficult thing and we have to fight it. This is only possible through hard work, training and constantly refocusing. But it’s completely okay for players to feel frustrated after a game like this and don’t know what to do next. We are all people, we can say something about it and then we can move on.

One problem that I think is relatively obvious is that you don’t have a real point guard on the team. The only one is Terrell Gomez, who doesn’t actually get much playing time and is having a relatively difficult time. Is there any possibility of making further improvements? I do believe that this is an issue for you because you are now playing there with a player, Aljami Durham, who has not actually played this position in recent years.
He’s played there, also last year. He’s also a point guard and I think he plays like one too. He’s obviously a type of point guard that has a very, very strong drive to the basket and is very much looking for those rim finishes and now not the pick-and-roll computer player. That is definitely the case. That’s how we recruited him. This is a player who is developing in the position.

There is no superior point guard.
We already know that. Of course we see it that way too and Terrell is having a hard time adjusting to the new league, to the new level. You can honestly say it like that. He comes from France from the second division, had a very successful year, but also played a completely different style of play. He’s still struggling with the change, but he’s doing well in training, trying to implement details and working on himself. And as long as we keep calm and don’t press the panic button, developments will continue. But I think you can also see from the outside that we are increasingly trying to structure our offense differently – not through the pick-and-roll, but also putting the ball in the post, using Mark Hughes, etc in a few off-ball situations, to involve our two most athletic players – Will Christmas and V. J. King – in dribble hand-offs and to have a different point of creation than just the pick-and-roll. We just have to adjust that. Even if you had a different idea in the summer, you have to see what it looks like in the hall and react to what you have and what strengths and weaknesses you have. Especially Olek Dziewa in the post is something that gives us an incredible amount. There is actually always peace there. He has the ability to score there, but is also a good passer. Above all, he also wants to pass – even against teams like Paris. Whenever the ball goes into the post, something good actually happens. It is also important for us to know this.

Is there still a consideration or possibility of improving this? That would probably be the eighth import player.
There are always options. Of course, there always have to be considerations, we analyze step by step. Ultimately, of course, we must not forget that we are already moving in a world of results. Of course we know that too. We’re not naive either. I don’t think bringing anyone in makes any sense. Only so many can play. If so, then that would involve a change. But this is work that is of course all internal. If this happens, we will send you a message. But right now we are focusing on training.

One thing I’ve read a lot about in the media [especially social media] is squad composition. I know Matt Haufer quite well, who also helped you. How is the overall squad composition going for you? Who is actually involved?”
We did a lot both last year and this summer – especially in the early summer – with Matt, who, as an external scout, simply worked through European basketball for us in the form of lists. There are a huge number of players. Keeping track of it is almost impossible. We need experts and professionals who are extremely knowledgeable at the level – and especially at the level at which we recruit players. This is a very specific area. We’re in the Bundesliga, we don’t have the biggest budget. We can’t just choose players we think are great. We can’t do it like that. We have to go into the niches a little and know the leagues, and Matt is incredibly strong because he can assess the level of the individual leagues, which is not easy. Matt helped to prepare it, and then it was us in communication: Fabian Vilmeter with me and Marvin [Willoughby, note d. Ed.]. The three of us exchange ideas. We look at the lists and look at our favorites. We watch games, use our network. We ask when we really have someone in mind and make sure we get as much intelligence as possible about their personality so that we sign a good person and not just a good basketball player. That’s always in the foreground, and that’s how we exchange ideas. But in the end I was allowed to choose the players I wanted. I didn’t say to any of the players who are there now: ‘I don’t want him, but Marvin forced him on me.’ And not the other way around either. That happens [elsewhere]: There are also situations in which the sports director says: ‘He’s there now, you can’t do anything about it.’

I wanted to ask this question because I think there is a bit of a wrong image in the media: that Marvin Willoughby has often imposed pressure on the players in recent years. That’s actually not the case, judging from what I’ve seen.
No, there isn’t. I can only speak for myself, but there is an exchange between all the trainers who were there before. But in the end, Marvin is smart enough to know that the coach has to work with the team and that it has to suit the coach. Nobody benefits if the sports director likes the player but the coach can’t do anything with it. Then not everyone will be happy. Fabian Vilmeter has been a great support over the last year and a half. He really added something and added know-how and, thanks to his work with the youth national teams, is of course extremely knowledgeable about German youth basketball. Niklas Krause is now with us and he is growing extremely well into his role. You could almost say he dug it up. You really have to take your hat off to that. He really knows his stuff.

The Towers always has an identity of bringing players up and developing them. Justus Hollatz started out in the ProA and was able to work his way up there. But is there just a lack of talent there at the moment so that someone could take the step straight away? For example, Linus Hoffmann was there because there were a lot of injuries last year.
Yes, the jump is now simply huge from youth basketball to the third division to a EuroCup team. The jump is incredibly big. The personnel of Justus Hollatz is probably not fair for the young players who come along. We are now seeing this in the long term. He’s a special talent who doesn’t just come out every year – not just with us, but also with other clubs in Germany. Players come along. Leif Möller is the next one who is now starting to get his minutes after recovering from injury and is working his way into it. But the normal career path of a Bundesliga professional is not to have a rocketing impact like Justus Hollatz. That’s not normal. It’s about continuous work, continuing on the path, working your way into it, getting closer to it little by little. I think Leif is in a good position to do that too. There are some very exciting players coming especially from the years that are coming up – the 2005s, 2006s in particular. A lot is really happening here in the youth sector. I always look into the teams and see them too. We had a lot of young players with us in the first two weeks of preparation. There’s a lot there and I’m looking forward to when they get to the top – but step by step, don’t rush anything. With Justus it was also timing: we just kept growing together with Justus. Everything worked out.

Most of the time it takes a change of players like in the ProA and then things go up.
Just as proud as I am of Justus that he has now reached the top, I am now of Jürgen Rich [BG Göttingen, note d. Ed.]. I am incredibly proud of Jürgen that he has now managed to become a Bundesliga professional. Now he has got the next Bundesliga contract and is trying to assert himself in Göttingen. He was always floating in the wake and no one talked about him. But he also became a professional through very hard work. I’m incredibly proud that he achieved that.”

What are your thoughts on Hamas’ attack on Israel? You posted a support post on social media.
This is still a sporting event [tomorrow’s game, note d. Ed.]. Without getting too political: This game is of course under extreme conditions. This is a very special game – on so many levels. We can already see what kind of police presence is necessary to allow this game to take place – and in such a way that it is safe for everyone involved. We can already feel it. Then we will play a game against Israeli basketball professionals, Israeli coaches and team supervisors, physiotherapists. They are at war and have family in Israel who are directly and immediately affected by the war. There’s nothing we can do. We can’t put ourselves in that position. No one can even begin to imagine what that feels like. We can’t do that. The only thing we can do is maybe give these people the gift of getting some normalcy in for two hours and playing a basketball game and really focusing on basketball, and that can be a gift for these people. That’s what we plan to do. That’s why we have a duty to do our best and not to become hesitant or timid, but to go into this game with the greatest respect, with our full potential and to give these people this gift, because as I said, I believe that it’s unimaginable what’s happening right now, like these terrorist attacks. It’s hard to put into words and war as a whole is incomprehensible. That’s why it’s the only thing we can do.

Thank you for your time.

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