American basketball player takes Czech citizenship to play for national team
An African-American basketball player called Maurice Whitfield recently received a Czech passport; he has become a Czech citizen in order to play for the country's international team, after already leading his club Nymburk to success in the national basketball league. Radio Prague's Ian Willoughby caught up with Maurice Whitfield this week, and asked him how he was finding life in the Czech Republic.
"I'm loving it. I have a lot of friends here, I've met a lot of new people. My teammates are like family to me, so I'm having a very nice time here. I'm having lots of fun, I'm learning something new every day. I'm studying the language - it's just like being in college again."
Tell us about the language - how good is your Czech?
"I don't know how good it is. I can have a short conversation and I can understand more than I speak. In a few months I'll be very comfortable, because I'm studying hard."
How do you communicate with your teammates at Nymburk?
"Most of my teammates speak English, and they understand my Czech; since they've been around me so long they understand my broken Czech. So that's how I communicate: through my broken Czech and their broken English."
Before 1989 black people were quite in this country, especially outside Prague. You live in a small town called Podebrady - have you had any negative experiences, or how have you found being a black man in the Czech Republic?
"I haven't had any negative experiences, especially in Podebrady everyone accepts me, I've been living there for the last four years, three years, so I know mostly everyone in the stores and things like that."
What about the Czech mentality? How do you find Czech people?
"It's hard to break old habits, that's how I look at it. So I just accept everybody for who they are and what they do. Everyone is different and I just accept their differences. On the basketball court I speak with some of the players about their mentality and I try to change their mentality. Basically it's been a good experience for me, but if they're stuck in their ways I just have to accept them. I can't change who they are and I don't want to change who they are."
Recently you've received a lot of attention here in the Czech Republic because you took out Czech citizenship. Could you tell us about that and how you decided to become a Czech citizen?
"A friend of mine was telling me that if you're here for a certain number of years you can get Czech citizenship, and that would also help their national basketball team. All my friends play on the national team so I just decided to give it a shot, and fortunately everything worked out and I'm very happy about that."
Was it a hard choice for you to make? And I should also ask you: do you still have American citizenship or did you lose it?
"No, I still have my American citizenship. I don't know if it was a hard process because I had a lot of help, but it was just a long process for me."
Do you know of any similar cases of say American basketball players taking the citizenship of European countries, or is your case extremely unusual?
"No, it happens a lot. I was actually offered Croatian citizenship when I played in Croatia but I declined. It happens a lot, because of the simple fact you can help their basketball team, help their country and things like this. So it's very popular."
Have you appeared yet for the Czech Republic's national basketball team?
"No, I just received the passport a couple of weeks ago. There's no hundred percent guarantee that I will play, though I intend on playing. I have to speak with the coaches, and meet with the players before anything is definite."
What does the future hold for Maurice Whitfield?
"I'm not sure, I'm just living day to day. No-one's promised tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes I'll just live it to the fullest."