The players in blue and white, led by the star Lauri Markkanen from the NBA, went around Prague’s O2 arena and applauded their faithful, of whom probably five thousand arrived in Prague. What with the fact that they just lost to favored Serbia. The Finnish national team, which calls itself Susijengi, i.e. the Wolf Pack, enjoys great popularity in its country.
You may remember it. At the 2014 World Cup in Spain, even over ten thousand Finnish fans arrived and caused an uproar. Even in the fan zone near the Libeň Arena and in the center of Prague, you will not miss the Finnish fans. They have their base in the Občanská plovárna restaurant on the Vltava embankment, where a regular all-day program including visits by the national team takes place.
“It is one of the best places in Prague. Czechs are also invited here to find out who is better at drinking beer. Czech or Finnish? It would be a big competition,” smiles Henrik Dettmann, the greatest figure in Finnish basketball history.
You don’t even want to believe that a hockey-obsessed country with almost six million inhabitants has fallen in love with basketball so much in recent years. And also Henrik Dettmann, who has been with the team with a break for 23 years. With a bit of exaggeration, he can be reminiscent of the football coach Alex Ferguson, who led Manchester United for only four years longer.
“Since the beginning of building our project, we have had an excellent group of capable people together. We also understood that if we want to be really good at something, quality education is the basis. We really invested a lot in the education of the coaches and the same was true of the players,” explains the 64-year-old creator of the Finnish miracle under the basket.
“Furthermore, there was a kind of hidden demand in Finnish society for something other than hockey. Nothing against him, there are the biggest stars that people follow, but something more was needed and basketball filled this hidden hole in the market and reached the people. Even here in Prague during the tournament you see a lot of families with children and grandparents. Now, at the end of August, we played the world qualifier in Estonia and took a picture of the family there, even with four generations, who came to see us for the match. That was incredible,” says Dettmann.
Recipe? Attract children’s attention
This bald hottie was the head coach of the Finnish national team from 1992-1997 and then from 2004 until this year. Meanwhile, in the years 1997-2003, he led the German national team, with which he brought bronze from the 2002 World Championship.
He took advantage of the arrival of Dirk Nowitzki, and with a “multi-cult” line-up, he not only overtook his German colleagues from the football fields, but also gained media attention for the team. The few hundred spectators who came to his first match in Duisburg became 18,000 within five years. So many came to Cologne to prepare for the 2002 World Championship.
A native of Helsinki with German ancestors growing up in a Swedish-speaking family, he also has ties to the Czech Republic. He married a Czech wife, Mirka Jarchovská, with whom he is raising two daughters. She is also involved in coaching, she is the assistant to the head coach of the Finnish women’s national team.
However, Dettmann did not take his family to Prague. “Unfortunately, it was not possible, Mirka did not want to interrupt training at our academy. Otherwise, we try to be here at least once a year. We came here in August last year and now our children were here. We love it here and I feel at home in the Czech Republic.”
Mirka and Henrik Dettmann in Český Krumlov
But back to Finland’s basketball rise. According to Dettmann, the key was to attract the attention of children and youth through positive role models. “And those were and are our best players. These Lauris (Markkanen), Petteri (Koponen) or Hanno (Hanno Möttölä, the first Finn in the NBA)… Another thing for which we are very happy is that the former players, who together with me were at the birth of the whole basketball project, they are now on the bench as part of the implementation team. And at the tournament in Prague, there are newcomers in these positions.”
And how does star Lauri Markkanen stand among sports celebrities in the Nordic country? “If you ask someone from basketball, they will tell you that Lauri is by far the best. But if you ask a hockey player or a skier, they will certainly have a different opinion. For me, Lauri is now the best Finnish athlete. About the steamer. There is no doubt about that,” says Dettmann with a smile.
Czechs, a good role model
All about the championship
He could have been satisfied even before the start of EuroBasket. Finland became the first European team to advance to the 2023 World Cup. Susijengi defeated Slovenia and Croatia twice in the first stage of qualification, before winning at home over Israel and in Estonia.
“The fact that we advanced first is a surprise. But we have played very well in the qualification so far and we are happy about that. Basically, we are following in the footsteps of the Czechs. You were the fairytale Cinderella in the last qualification and made it all the way to the Olympics. And that was a good example for us.”
At EuroBasket, he would consider advancing to the playoffs in Berlin as the first accomplished goal. “It’s also a beautiful city, but not as beautiful as Prague, even if it’s close,” says the coach of the Finns until this year.
Why did he even decide to quit the team, even though he allegedly didn’t have to? “Finnish basketball has always been a big personal thing for me. But now I have come to the point that if we want it to continue to grow and develop, someone else has to gain experience.
“Of course, it would be great and exciting for me in Prague as a coach, but at the same time, I know very well how much you learn at such an event and it would not be a properly used opportunity if I were the only one to gather all the experience. It’s time for the next generation to learn it and we could have a successful future as well. I had two positions until this year, and as sports director I fired the coach.”
Finnish coach Henrik Dettmann (right) and his assistant Lassi Tuovi direct their men.
The choice of successor was clear. He became Dettmann’s long-time assistant at the team, the only 35-year-old Lassi Tuovi, who had already replaced his colleague in the position of coach of Strasbourg. For the last two years, he also led the Czech national team player Jaromír Bohačík here.
“He is a great worker, open-minded. And that’s the way we like to work. We have worked together for a very long time and Lassi is well prepared for this position. He started with me as a video analyst in 2010 and even then we knew he could have a bright future if he gave it everything he needed.”
Now they will give Fini everything they need in the match with the Czech team. Both teams have the same record at EuroBasket so far: three matches, two losses, one win. Wolves versus Lions, today from 17:30.