After a very nice career in Europe and the NBA, Bostjan Nachbar has been a key member in the recently created Euroleague Players Association, the first union exclusively dedicated to defending the rights of players in the top professional competition outside the United States.
On May 25, the Euroleague decided to cancel the 2019-20 season after two months of suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A big factor was the vocal opposition from players to resume the competition.
HoopsHype caught up with Nachbar to discuss his new role as the managing director of the ELPA, the season cancellation, parallels with the situation in the States and more.
What are your duties as the managing director of the Euroleague Players Association?
Bostjan Nachbar: In the beginning, we went through a couple of different stages. The first one was obviously to establish the Association, to travel around Europe to talk to the players and get all the knowledge on how we could do this on an international level. The Euroleague is combined out of teams from 10 different countries. So whenever you’re doing something on an international level it’s much more difficult than doing it on a national level in one country. So this was the first time we gathered together. The guys felt really strongly that this is needed, so we took it to the second step and established the Association officially and started talking with your league about making the first steps of changing things for the better. The players were mostly very excited about this, with a lot of questions on how this could be functioning, especially understanding the culture in Europe where the players don’t have the power as they do in, for example, the North American leagues.
So this is a long process that I’m leading on trying to change the mentality of people in European basketball, not just to give players all the power but to find the balance between who makes the main decisions and who is involved in making decisions. So this is obviously most of the process that we do. But besides this, negotiating with your league, dealing with various issues that players encounter, whether it’s injury-related for players requesting second medical opinions through us, whether it’s salary-related with clubs owing salaries… Some basic things that we changed earlier on were, for example, getting players to single rooms on their trips or priority passes for coach flights, because most of the teams in Europe don’t have private planes. So just trying to help players in their careers on and off the court. But the main thing is still pending, which is the collective bargaining agreement. And it’s something that we definitely want to do, in the shortest time frame possible, to secure even more rights and more rules for players and for the clubs on the other side.
Everything has changed in the last month because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Euroleague officially canceled the season on May 25. How was the process of dealing with the league?
BN: It was actually a very long process. We started with the players in Milano feeling very insecure about what’s going on, because that’s where the first outbreak was. So we started feeling a big need to suspend the season during the second week of March. There was a lot of talk with players, a lot of misinformation and a lot of unsureness on what to do, but we decided to notify early that the players were wishing to suspend the league because they didn’t feel safe anymore to travel and play. After the competition was suspended it started two months of long process communicating with the Euroleague and really making them aware of the players’ stance throughout this process. The first thing we wanted to secure were the minimum salaries that players must receive because there were no “force majeure” rules in players’ contracts. So we were able to achieve the minimum standard for players today which is 80 percent of their annual salary. Then the next step was talking with the players about whether they would like to continue or not, whether they felt safe enough to continue with the competition.
The Euroleague has a proposition to finish the season with a tournament in July. But the issue started mounting because players had difficulty traveling back the players and getting back on the court. So the biggest fear from players, interestingly enough, was not as much the virus itself but the injuries. They felt that having two to three weeks of training camp and then jumping right into the most important part of the season of playing up to nine games in 22 days was simply too much risk involved from the injury standpoint. So our communication was daily with the Euroleague, leading up to a meeting with two players from each team and the management of Euroleague in which the players were very direct and very honest about how they felt. And two days later the season was canceled.
That’s a big difference between the Euroleague and NBA, because the NBA is willing to adjust its schedule to the new situation.
BN: Yeah, this is the big thing. People sometimes forget that the NBA operates on their own schedule and on their own timeline. In Europe, you always have to adjust whether it’s to European competitions or to domestic competitions, depending on which side you’re looking from. So this is why it’s so difficult to be your own boss. You always have to look for permissions or look for adjustments and agreements. And that makes it much more complicated.
Have you been in touch with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) during these months?
BN: They have been very supportive since our beginning, which we really appreciate. We already started collaborating and some of our players went last summer to their off-the-court seminars. So we are collaborating tightly. They have given us a lot of advice especially in the year when we were getting established.
When it comes to the pandemic on one hand, we have the same problem, of course. But on the other hand, different solutions. The NBA is a different world and it has a different way of operating than the Euroleague. You could see the difference, for example, between the mentalities of Euroleague and NBA players. NBA players are, at least from what I hear, mostly in favor of continuing to play, especially the main players. You didn’t see that in Europe. And the main issue was the shorter training camp than in the NBA, where gyms are opening and they’re going to have time to practice. They’re going to have time to prepare the season and to get it pushed back even more, whereas in Europe this was not a possibility. A lot of players had to travel and would face quarantine upon their return back to Europe, especially American players. So to jump from quarantine right into a two-, three-week training camp, and then to play this tournament is definitely different than what players are seeing in the NBA. Plus the motivation from the players in the NBA is also to save the season from the business standpoint, because they know what that means for their future even though European clubs are suffering just as much as the NBA clubs. Of course on a different scale but we don’t have salary cap here, we don’t have these rules about revenue sharing. So from the player’s perspective, that is a little bit different.
The NBPA and the ELPA have an interesting dynamic, considering some of their members will go back and forth between NBA and Euroleague. How does it define the relationship between them?
BN: This is actually the main motivator why we started to collaborate. The NBPA felt when players went overseas a lot of times they tended to lose touch with them. On the other hand, they have also noticed that they received players from Europe who didn’t really understand the role of the Association. So having the ELPA as a partner means a lot because they know when players leave they are in good hands, and when they receive a player they know he already has an understanding of why the Association is necessary what it does. On the other hand, we can say the same. So there have already been quite a few cases where we have given up a player, and we have notified the NBA this player is coming, and we have told the player that the NBPA will be contacting them, and vice versa. So that makes the whole transition for the players less painful because for a lot of players, especially for young players It’s a pretty big shock when players go from Europe to the NBA. So to know they have an ally on the other side of the ocean, I think it helps them.
You’re an example of a player who went to the NBA and returned to Europe. And coincidentally you were a teammate of the current president of the NBPA, Chris Paul. Does it help the relationship between both organizations?
BN: Honestly, I didn’t have any discussion with Chris on this topic. But I had a great experience playing with Chris. He was a rookie the year that I played with him and it would be great to see him again and catch up, especially in the roles we are now. But I have to say that Michele Roberts has been extremely supportive of what we do. And she is the one we keep in touch director to director, so to say. Same goes for Matteo Zuretti who is their international department director and he’s been amazing in this process.
Having played here for six years and three different teams, how do you remember your NBA experience?
BN: It was a dream come true. I always wanted to experience the NBA. Going there in 2002 was a big difference compared to going there in 2020. The one thing that I noticed is that a lot of players, really the majority of NBA players, had no idea who I was and what I did in Europe before. And that just didn’t go for me. I was still a first-round pick, but I’m sure that it also happened to Pau Gasol, Andrei Kirilenko or Tony Parker. Everybody made their names in the NBA after but there was still this gap between European and American players, mostly because the lack of connectivity between the two continents as far as social media, access to videos and interviews. They didn’t know what we’ve done in Europe, who we are, where we come from, or how we look or play That was the big difference. This was quite an adjustment for me and it took me a year or two to really get adjusted. Then I started playing bigger minutes, especially with the Hornets and later with the Nets, and that was the time that I enjoyed the most. So I lived my dream during that time I was in the States and most importantly I made some contacts that are gonna last for life. These are also the people that I stay in touch with today.
You actually left the NBA after your best two years, at least individually, with the Nets. Do you regret leaving the NBA at the peak of your career?
BN: I get asked this question a lot. I cannot say that I regret it because it was a very interesting time. A lot of European players came back to Europe so it’s difficult to talk about regret because for me that was the best option at that moment. Sure, I wish I could have prolonged my career in the NBA but at the same time it’s not like I had equal choices that summer. Gordan Giricek returned home, Carlos Delfino went back to Europe, also Jorge Garbajosa and Josh Childress. A year later, Linas Kleiza went back… A lot of European teams were willing to offer solid contracts to Europeans or Americans who wanted to go. Unfortunately, the crisis of 2008 hit them a little bit after and that changed a lot of things in Europe. I wish I could have extended my career in the NBA, but it just wasn’t the case.
BN: I always thought that there’s one thing that Slovenia had that many countries don’t… When you talk about Slovenia, it really is kind of a mixture between the East and the West. It’s a mixture between the old Yugoslavian school of basketball and the Western school of Italian and Spanish influence, because it kind of lays in the middle. When our generation was growing up, we were lucky enough to have that mix of mentalities from our coaches, looking at both sides of the basketball wall. We were looking East towards Yugoslavian basketball, and looking west towards Western European and NBA. This is the biggest advantage that Slovenia has. And that’s why we were able to see so many players being produced in such a small country. But at the end of the day every player’s story is different. Every player has its own career. We were just lucky enough to be a part of a really strong generation of players that grew up, and that generation got now stretched or prolonged all the way to Luka Doncic.