Hoops Around the Globe - Switzerland

Particularly since the turn of the century, it's quite clear that basketball has become a global game.

The last three MVP awards went to players born in Canada (Steve Nash, twice), and Germany (Dirk Nowitzki). Three of the last six No. 1 overall picks in the NBA drafts came from outside of the United States: China (Yao Ming, 2002); Australia (Andrew Bogut, '05); and Italy (Andrea Bargnani, '06). The last MVP of the NBA Finals (Tony Parker) is French.

Kids from all over the world are now growing up with basketball more than ever before, with heroes like the aforementioned players, not to mention Manu Ginobli, Pau Gasol or Peja Stojakovic. Here on timberwolves.com, we wanted to explore how different it is growing up in basketball in other countries. Accordingly, this interview with Chicago guard Thabo Sefolosha of Switzerland kicks off our "Hoops Around the Globe" series of conversations that take you through countries like Argentina, Spain, Serbia, Belgium, Russia and so forth.

Special to this interview is a chat we had with the Wolves own Stanley Jackson, a former Timberwolf who starred in Europe and actually played with Sefolosha in France. Up next we'll take you through Argentina with Fabricio Oberto ... But we begin in Switzerland.

Thabo Sefolosha is in his second year in the NBA after being drafted 13th overall in 2006 by Philadelphia, and traded to Chicago for the draft rights to Rodney Carney. Now 23-years-old, Sefolosha's South African father and French mother left South Africa for Switzerland shortly before he was born in 1984. His professional career

Bulls Guard Thabo Sefolosha
MT: How old were you when you first picked up a basketball?
Sefolosha: I started when I was 11 or 12 in Switzerland.

MT: Born and raised in the middle of Europe.
Sefolosha: Yes, close to Geneva, about an hour away. I'm from a city right by Geneva Lake called Vevey. My dad is from South Africa and I have family there, but my parents moved before I was born.

MT: So what language did you grow up with?
Sefolosha: French. Mostly French. But my mom and dad were also speaking English, so I learned that as well.

MT: So you had roughly five or six years to learn the game before you turned pro.
Sefolosha: Yes, I played until I was 17 in Switzerland. The last year I was there I played with first division team, like the semi-professional team. Then I moved to France and played there three years, then played one year in Italy. Then I got drafted and came to the U.S. two years ago.

MT: But you did most of your schooling in Switzerland?
Sefolosha: I did most of it Switzerland and then I did two years in France. My mom was really into studying and all that so I had to finish it before I could do anything else.

MT: Youth basketball is obviously shaped much differently in America than elsewhere. Of course there is the traveling AAU circuit, but the educational system is also intertwined with sports as most kids go to school all day and practice with their school's team afterwards. How do things work in your country?
Sefolosha: That was the difficult thing for me, especially in Switzerland, because sports are not as big as they are in the U.S. I really had to struggle at first just being able to either go to school, or to play basketball and stuff like that, because they were in different places. I wasn't really focusing on basketball as much as I wanted to. That's why I went to France, because there they have a program where you have a little less hours of school so you can practice with the team in the city and things like that. School was fewer hours during the week so I could practice with the preparatory team there, and then I started playing during my second year there with the professional team.

MT: You're listed at 6-7, but look more like 6-9. Was length always an advantage you had, or did you have a late growth spurt?
Sefolosha: Actually, I kind of always was above the average, but I wasn't really that tall. I was playing the one, two and three.

MT: Thus the handle. Just as we suspected. Now, were you always one of the better players on your teams growing up or did it take you awhile to develop? Of course, one would guess the level of competition in Switzerland isn't the best.
Sefolosha: Right, when I was in Switzerland it was kind of easy for me and I was always one of the best players on the team. But when I went to France it was different, because I was playing with the youngest team that you can play with at my age and then I was practicing with a professional team. That was really a challenge for me trying to get some playing time. It took me like a year to get into the starting five and really get some (minutes).

MT: When was the first time that you met an NBA player over there?
Sefolosha: Actually, it was Stanley Jackson, who played for the Timberwolves and works for them now. He had a little NBA experience, so I was practicing with him all the time in France when I was 17, 18. He used to always tell me that I could make it if I kept working. That was really helpful for me, just to see those kind of guys and be able to talk to them.

MT: And Jackson was one of the best players in Europe, right?
Sefolosha: Oh yes, he definitely was. One year he got MVP of the league in France, and he was really a player to be looked up to.

MT: Did he take you under his wing a little bit?
Sefolosha: Yeah, definitely, he and another player named Corey Crowder. The three of us played together on the same team. I had two great veteran guys who really took me under their wing and taught me a lot of things.

MT: Were you excited about seeing him (when the Bulls played at Minnesota)?
Sefolosha: Yeah, we always keep in touch. I knew coming here that I would see him so that's great. That's great.

MT: No question. Now, changing tunes a bit, what was the culture shock like coming to America?
Sefolosha: It was big actually, because it was my first time coming to the U.S. when I got drafted. I came over for a few workouts, and it was really different than what I was used to. Especially being in the NBA, it changed the style of basketball, the environment, and everything was different culturally. At first it was tough. It took me a little while to get used to it, but now I'm more comfortable living in the U.S. and playing here.

MT: Does it help having other guys on your team that are not from America? You have teammates who grew up in England (Luol Deng), Russia (Victor Khryapa*) and Argentina (Andres Nocioni).
Sefolosha: It does. We talk together a lot about our experiences coming here, growing up in other countries, our views on America and stuff like that.
*Khryapa's contract was bought out by the Bulls on Feb. 7 and he can now sign with any team. We talked to Khryapa back in January about Russia and will put that out soon.

MT: What are your views on America?
Sefolosha: It's a great country with a lot of opportunities. It's different from Europe. If I wasn't working in here I don't know if I'd be in the U.S., but I like it. It's a big country with a lot of different things to see and to experience.

MT: What's your favorite city in Europe?
Sefolosha: Maybe Barcelona, I love it there. I like Milan because I was playing next to it quite a bit. I like to travel, and Italy has a lot of history, so I like it there.

MT: What's up with Switzerland always being neutral?
Sefolosha: That's how we do it. I don't know. We're in the middle of Europe and with the bank stuff, I think they are fine just being neutral on everything going on.

MT: So are you the neutral peacemaker on your team?
Sefolosha: Not always, but sometimes.

MT: Your parents aren't from Switzerland, which explains that. Now, was the switch easier because of the fact that in Europe they watch American movies and listen to American music?
Sefolosha: I think so and I already spoke a little English when I came here. It really helped being able to talk to the coaches, players and the people in the streets. That really made a big difference. I learned just my being around guys on the team, by listening to the music and watching TV shows.

MT: All right Thabo, best of luck with the season and thanks for the info on Switzerland and everything.
Sefolosha: No problem, see you later.

Former NBA and International Player Stanley Jackson
MT: Hey Stanley, thanks for taking a moment with us. Thabo Sefolosha just got done talking about how much you helped him in France.
Jackson: Well you know, at first he didn't play that much, and then all of a sudden he got a lot of confidence. I spent a year on the same team with him, and I actually talk to him now sometimes and try keep in touch. There were times he wasn't playing a lot this year, and I just told him to stay focused. Corey Brewer is going through the same thing right now. Most rookies do, except for the superstars. The main thing, like I told him, the reason I didn't stay in the NBA is because I doubted myself for one second. I got there and I had the same athletic ability and when I figured out that I had the confidence, that I could play, it was too late and the opportunity was gone. I told Thabo that no matter if he plays one minute, two minutes or three minutes, just believe in yourself.

MT: Now that he's getting the minutes his talent is really showing.
Jackson: Oh yeah, definitely. Like I said, its just confidence. You can't doubt yourself. Coaches sometimes lose confidence in you, but you can't lose confidence in yourself.

MT: What did you think of his raw skills when you played with him in France?
Jackson: I can remember his first time coming to the team, and Marty Blake had a scouting report on him, along with Tony Parker, Michael Pietrus, Johan Petro and all those young guys. When I was in France a lot of those young guys looked up to me, and at the time it was hard to see them making it to the NBA. But now, I see a lot of those guys who the scouts said were going to make it to the league...

MT: And you used to score 30 on them every night...
Jackson: Yeah, exactly. But Thabo is a great guy and I'm really happy to see him make it.