USK Praha: A women’s basketball club with both Czech and global talent

Women’s basketball was significantly popular in the 1990’s and early 2000’s in Czechia, but a slight dip in popularity made the sport take a hit. The USK Praha team and their head coach Natália Hejková are changing the face of the sport as we know it here in Prague.

On a Friday night, fans came with their drums and banners to support the women’s basketball team USK Praha. In the midst of a playoff run, the team is doing exceptionally well. Made up of players from the United States to Spain, the USK squad is diverse and brings together women who have played high-level basketball all over the world.

Brionna Jones is one of those players, originally from the United States, Jones played competitively in Russia before being scouted by USK, which she describes as a totally different playing environment.

Brionna Jones  (right) | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

“I played two years in Russia, and I played against this team [USK], and they recruited me to come and play here after, so that’s how I ended up in Prague. The biggest difference was travel, because in Russia travelling to other countries or within the country was always difficult. Here, we just take the bus everywhere, and travelling to other countries is easy too because the airport is right here. Other than that, the league in Russia was a bit tougher than here, that’s a big thing. But playing for this club has been amazing. They take care of us, anything we need, that’s the best thing for sure.”

The Czech league is also a stepping-stone for players moving on to play more competitively. Alyssa Thomas, another player on the Squad from the United States, is moving on at the end of April to play for the Connecticut Sun, a WNBA team. Playing in South Korea before, Thomas has valued her time playing in Czechia after years of tough training in South Korea.

Alyssa Thomas | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

“It’s a lot different- in South Korea, it’s six teams and you play seven rounds, usually done in March, but it’s a hard season. Culturally, it’s very different- they practice three times a day. Here, I’ve been able to rest my body playing Czech league and Euro league, so it’s been nice.”

The diversity amongst players is something head coach Natália Hejková prioritises. After a decades long career in basketball, Hejková is well connected and is constantly on the lookout for new players who bring something interesting and unique to the game.

“I've been in basketball for a long time, and that’s why I have a lot of friends. This is very important, so if I want to choose some new American player, I contact my friends in the States where I have some agents and coaches, and I ask about the player. Of course we can see what she can do on the court, but what is in her head, what her mentality is, is very important to know, and that’s why I contact these friends.”

The increase in foreign talent in Czech women’s basketball also came as a response to less interest from Czech players, which Hejková explains came in the 2000’s.

Natálie Hejková | Photo: Agáta Faltová,  Czech Radio

“Maybe 10 years ago, women’s basketball was more popular than men’s. In 2007 or 2008, the World Championship was here in Czechia, and the Czech women were in the finals against the United States. It was a really great national team, but step by step, things went down, and that’s because the nation is only 10 million people, so it’s not always a good generation of basketball players. But now, I think it could be getting better because many younger players are coming to the national team, and it could be a good story again.”

Of course playing in a new country comes with culture shocks, but for Jones, she’s loved seeing the Czech fans and the passion they bring to each one of their games.

“Here, everyone brings their drums and noisemakers, that’s the main difference from the US. At home there’s fans and everyone has their clappers, but the loyalty people come with here; with their drums and chants for each team we’ve played, I’d say that’s the biggest difference.”

Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But although Czech fans may come with their chants and noisemakers, Hejková believes that more work needs to be done to build societal support around the women’s basketball community here in Prague.

“You know, you can see it was the final game in the Czech championship and there were still not that many people here. So this is a problem, and the problem is we are too good, and fans feel like it won’t be a real competition, it will be a clear win - even if we move like we did tonight, because the team is totally mentally and physically tired.”

Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

Going forward, Hejková hopes to increase the retention and recruitment of Czech players, no easy feat for a team that keeps improving and raising their standards of playing.

“This is a problem now, because we’re moving into a higher division because we want to keep Euro league level. Czech players are a bit scared about the work you need to put in at this level, so many of them give up. It’s a long way and not everyone is so patient. We want our team to be half foreigners, half Czech players, but step by step we go down and down in terms of Czech players. For example, today we only had one Czech player on the court and four were injured. But we still try to find some talent and try to implement them into the team.”

As Thomas gets ready to close this chapter of her career with the USK squad, she said it’s her teammates and the bond they’ve built together that she will miss the most.

“Just my teammates, I’ve been playing with most of them for five years, and it’s a family here. When you play with people for so long you get accustomed to playing with each other. When I go home, I’ll definitely miss them.”

Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But as new players come and others leave to level up their game through new opportunities, what grounds the women is encouraging the next generation of female basketball players, whether that be in Czechia or in their home countries. Jones describes how important taking the time for fans is to her and her team.

“I think it’s always a great thing for me, and I always try to take time when I can to see the fans. Even after our Final Four game, we were rushing to get out, but I was still trying to take time to sign everything. Because for the fans, to see us play it’s very inspirational. For me when I was young I was watching professional athletes play and it was always something that made me want to do it. So I’m just trying to be that role model for them, it’s always a good feeling for me.”