Other than Dayton, he’s really seen just two places since coming to America this summer.
“I’ve been to Washington, D.C. and I went to St. Henry,” said Matej Svoboda, the Dayton Flyers 6-foot-7 freshman forward from Ostrava, Czech Republic. “Oh, and I did go to Columbus for a concert of ‘The Weeknd.’ “
The trip to D.C. was orchestrated by UD teammate Joey Gruden, who also brought along Flyers forward Ryan Mikesell.
“The only place Matej had ever seen was Dayton, Ohio, so I figured he needed to see something else,” said Gruden, whose dad, Jay, is coach of the Washington Redskins.
“One day we took a Segway tour of the Capitol, the White House and a lot of the monuments. And then I took him to his first American football game. It was the Baltimore Ravens and the Redskins. We were down on the sideline and he said he loved it.”
Svoboda did, though he doesn’t think he’d want to play in the NFL:
“American football is not that popular in Europe, so I’d never watched it before and didn’t know any of the rules until they explained some of it.
“I don’t think I’d want to do any of that, except maybe the guy who kicks the ball. But it was fun watching and I shook hands with Coach Gruden.”
And how about Mikesell’s Mercer County hometown of St. Henry?
“I saw cows,” Svoboda deadpanned.
“It was fun really. He showed me his high school gym and we played golf.”
Yet, neither of those trips — to the nation’s capital or up there in the middle of God’s Country, as they call it — offered the sight Svoboda really wants to see.
That will come in 19 days — not counting the Flyers’ exhibition game Nov. 4 — when UD opens its regular season against Ball State on Nov. 10 at UD Arena. That’s when Svoboda and his teammates will run out of the tunnel and onto the Arena floor to roaring support from some 13,000 fans.
He’s been to one other UD game. He made his recruiting visit early last February and sat behind the bench as the Flyers thumped Duquesne, 90-53, in front of 13,455.
“It was crazy for me, really crazy,” he said. “A crowd with 13,000 people? I can’t wait for a game. For our (pro) games back in the Czech Republic, maybe for the final game, we’d get 1,000 people. But regular games, especially against the worst teams, there’d be maybe 300 people. That’s it.
“The team I played for has won like 14 (Czech Republic) championships in a row. I kind of feel like people might be a little tired of all the winning.
“But here the basketball means everything to the people. I like how they really care about basketball.”
By now you realize Svoboda is not the typical UD freshman.
He’s 21. He’s played four seasons — as an amateur — on the pro team CEZ Basketball Nymburk, which has won the National Basketball League title in the Czech Republic every year from 2004 through 2017.
The team also plays in the primarily Russian VTB United League and in the EuroCup.
Svoboda also has represented his country on various age-group national teams in tournaments across Europe.
Asked the countries in which he’s played basketball, he rattled off a list that sounded as if he were reading from an Atlas: “Finland, Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. I played in Spain, Poland, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia, Serbia … and some more.”
Yet all those travels haven’t gotten him quite where he wants to be either.
He first played for his hometown team in Ostrava when he was 14 — “I was the youngest Czech player ever to play on the men’s league,” he said — and then when he joined the more powerful team from Nymburk, which is just east of Prague, he found himself on a roster of grown men, including a couple of American imports each season.
“All of the other guys were older than me and sometimes they treated me like a kid and made fun of me,” he said with a shrug and a bit of a laugh. “But they were cool. They made me feel a part of the team.
“Sometimes, though, teams and coaches prefer to play with the older guys and they don’t care too much about the young players and how they develop and grow. And the other teams (opponents) usually look at me like I’m just a little kid and they try to play tough with me.
“Last season I couldn’t play for the junior team because I was too old. But I was just getting to play the last five minutes of our games. I didn’t like it that much.
“I just wanted to play.”
A shooter now
Ostrava is an industrial city of some 300,000 in the northeast corner of the country, not far from the Polish border. It once was in a major coal producing area, but now the city has transformed into a modern cultural center with theaters, galleries and several major musical festivals.
Just as Gruden and Mikesell did with him, Svoboda would like to show off his hometown to his teammates: “I’d take them to Stodolni Street where there’s like 60 bars (and restaurants and cafes) and I’d take them to Prague, too.”
And like Mikesell, he could point out a few of the places where he honed his own hoops career, which has had some noted highlights.
Last year, playing for the Czech national team in the FIBA Under-20 European Championships in Helsinki, Finland, he averaged 19 points a game, second best in the tournament behind Lauri Markkanen, the 7-foot Finn who is now a Chicago Bulls rookie after a standout freshman season with the Arizona Wildcats.
Svoboda was the top 3-point shooter in the U-20 European Championships, making 21 of the 42 treys he attempted.
Mention of that effort made him laugh:
“I’ll tell you something. When I was 15 I transferred from my hometown team to Basketball Academy Nymburk. I couldn’t shoot a three back then — my form was bad and I didn’t make them, and our coach told me if I ever took one in a game, I would run afterwards.
“They tried to teach me to shoot right and the last two years our assistant coach showed me a lot of things, like using my legs and just feeling the shot. It was a long process, but I practiced a lot and got better and better and better and I became a shooter.”
One day he wants to play as a pro and he soon realized the best way to develop his basketball skills — and get an education, as well — was to get into a college program.
Leaving for school in the United States was made more difficult, he said, because he has a girlfriend of three years, Barbora, back home.
“But me and even she knew it was the best decision for the future,” he said. “So she wants me to go play college basketball.”
And while other schools showed interest, he said Dayton became the frontrunner once then-Flyers assistant coach Tom Ostrom came to Ostrava to recruit him.
“I was really excited that he flew all the way over, spent a day in the Czech Republic just to see me and then flew back. I appreciated that.”
Although other schools visited him, his first recruiting trip was to Dayton and he quickly was smitten:
“Once I came here, I was 100 percent sure this is where I wanted to go,” he said. “I liked the program and the way it’s supported. And I liked it that I would get a chance to play because they were losing four seniors. And I liked the coaches, too.”
A month after he visited Dayton and made a commitment, he got the punch-in-the-gut news.
“I found out on Twitter that Archie Miller was leaving,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’
“Nobody had told me anything. Nobody let me know. I was really confused.”
He said eventually Ostrom called him and told him to sit tight:
“He said he might be a head coach and in that moment I was wishing he got a job and everything would be the same.”
When Ostrom instead joined Miller’s staff at Indiana, Svoboda didn’t know what to do:
“Once Archie left I started getting contacted by other schools again, but I still preferred to go to UD. I just waited for a call. But it was a long time, maybe almost two months until I heard anything.”
When Anthony Grant took over the UD job he said it took a while to reach out to Svoboda:
“Initially, I didn’t have a way to contact him and I didn’t know what his interest still was. I knew he was still playing in the Czech Republic, but once we got ahold of him you could tell he had an affinity for what he’d seen here. He felt like Dayton was the right fit for him and we wanted him to know we still wanted him.”
Svoboda remembers Grant’s call and laughed at his own reaction:
“I said, ‘Coach, I’ve just been waiting for your call!’ ’’
Had Grant been able to see the inside of Svoboda’s upper right arm, he would have better known what he was dealing with. That’s where he has tattooed the oft-quoted saying:
“Blood makes you related.
“Loyalty makes you family.”
When he came to Dayton, Svodoba left Barbora behind with their two Chihuahuas, Merci and Sophie. Although he FaceTimes daily with her and talks regularly to his parents and younger brother, he’s now fully immersed in improving his basketball skills.
He said the game is more physical here and faster paced.
While Grant said Svoboda can definitely shoot the ball, he said he — like many of the players — “has to get a better understanding of what we want defensively.”
And just as he’s learning the differences in the game here, Svoboda said he has noticed a difference away from the game.
“The culture is very different here,” he said. “People are different here. I’d say they are more friendly. People here like smiling and hugging. Everybody asks, ‘So how are you?’ ”
He started to laugh: “Nobody asks, ‘How are you?’ in Czech Republic. And nobody tells how they are either.”
And yet he now has an answer when someone asks how he’s feels.
“I can’t wait for a game here,” he said. “Running out and hearing 13,000 people cheering your team, that’s crazy for me.
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