By Cesare Milanti / firstname.lastname@example.org
MILAN, Italy – Only behind Bayern Basketball (Niels Giffey, Isaac Bonga, and Andreas Obst) and tied with the Orlando Magic (Franz and Moritz Wagner), Olimpia Milano was the club with the most representatives among the German national team that conquered gold at the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
It may sound surprising, but that was possible since Johannes Voigtmann, already with the Italian side since September 2022 – averaging 4.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game in last year’s Turkish Airlines EuroLeague -, was joined by his countryman Maodo Lo, who will now start his first European experience out of the German borders, where he has played with Bamberg, Bayern Munich, and ALBA Berlin.
Talking about his newest teammates in the red-and-white backcourt, Johannes Voigtmann has nothing but great words. “I have known Maodo [Lo] for a long time. We’ve experienced a lot on the national team, the good and bad times. I have a very good relationship with him, he’s a guy who I like to talk to off the court, and he’s a great basketball player. I’m very happy he joined us, he can bring a lot to the team. I’m happy he finally made the step out of the BBL”, the power forward said to Eurohoops during the EuroLeague Media Day.
The connection between the two, who both debuted with the senior national team in 2015, is recognized by the 30-year-old point guard as well. “It’s good because we have a certain understanding and comfort level with each other. We achieved something historical in Germany with the World Cup. This bond together is a deep understanding of each other, trust, and confidence. In the midst of a competitive EuroLeague season, this could be a fundamental part, something that supports our relationship and can help us hopefully on the court”, Maodo Lo expressed later on to Eurohoops.
This could lead the Italian side to good results also for what they are both able to express on the court. “Maodo [Lo] knows how to create his own shot, I think that’s one big strength of him. He’s a very elegant player, he knows how to move on the court. He’s very creative, which is probably good for us”, Voitgmann said about Maodo Lo’s abilities before the former ALBA Berlin playmaker described him.
“He’s able to do things at his position that players at his position usually can’t do. He’s able to open up the floor with passes, and he has a good understanding of the game, so he can create spacing with a smart cut by making a sprint to the rim, and coming up to a drag P&R. He understands when to do what, and he spaces the floor with shooting. He has skills and a vision of basketball which usually smaller players have”, he commented on the former CSKA Moscow player.
Starting from (different) bottoms, now they’re here
While Johannes Voigtmann and Maodo Lo are now wearing the same jersey in Mediolanum Forum, they come off very different experiences in their growing basketball trajectories.
If the first one started to spread his name at home, establishing himself as one of the most promising bigs in Europe under coach Gordon Herbert – with whom he won the 2015-16 FIBA Europe Cup – with the Skyliners Frankfurt before moving out of Germany, Maodo Lo has a whole different background.
“We’ve talked about it sometimes, and you can see that it works for some people to leave Germany early, and it works for others to stay”, Johannes Voigtmann said when asked if they share their experiences to take something out of it. “I think it’s a matter of the right fit. If you find a club or a college that is willing to put work into you, to invest in your time and manpower to let you grow as a player, living with your decision. That’s important”, he added.
His newest club teammate, in fact, experienced something totally different before deciding to come back home to represent Brose Bamberg in 2016 to share the court with Nicolò Melli. Named “Maodo” – which means “The Great” in Senegalese – after the religious figure of Malick Sy, he’s the son of Elvira Bach, a German post-modern artist whose paintings are shown all over the world.
Including New York, where the playmaker established himself as a promising figure from 2012 to 2016, at Columbia University. “Maodo [Lo] enjoyed his time in New York, it was good for him as a human to go out of his comfort zone to see what life is there, it helped him to grow”, Johannes Voigtmann continued on his countryman.
“What matters is where you land at the end. You live in the present. You can learn things from looking at the past from different players, you can gain strength. Sometimes you look at different paths and maybe you see some parallel things, some things that are different. Sometimes you do compare career paths”, Maodo Lo himself added on the number of different stories that can be shared in a locker room like the German national team’s, where every player has something unique to share.
Talking about Germany, they caught the world’s attention at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, ending the most anticipated tournament of the year on an unbeaten 8-0 run which includes the semifinal’s 113-111 win against the United States and the final victory against Serbia to capture the first-ever gold medal in this kind of competition in the country’s history.
Considering the growth his group has had throughout the past few years, it’s fair to say the bar is getting higher and higher. Johannes Voigtmann, however, likes to “not go too high with the emotions”, remembering where they are coming from. “I often remember back to times when it didn’t go well, when we almost didn’t qualify for EuroBasket for example, or when we went out in the first round in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. I often think about those moments to not go too high with the emotions, because you know how low you were when it was really bad”, he said.
“I’m proud to be part of it, I’m proud to be on the team. I think it’s great for German basketball in general to have this upward project. That helped us a lot to set high goals. I have no idea what the future will reserve for us. I’m still processing everything that happened”, he then added about the golden achievement his national team found at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.
The three-year project coach Gordon Herbert talked about in the Philippines, starting with Year 1 in 2022, coinciding with the bronze medal at EuroBasket and which continued on top of the World in 2023, has its roots back in the past, according to Maodo Lo. “This success that we are having now as a team didn’t start last year. It began previously, in 2015, with coach Fleming, when he was still the head coach of the German national team. He really started back then with this new generation of players, with Dennis Schroder, Johannes Voigtmann, Daniel Theis, and myself. Johannes Thiemann came a little later, Niels Giffey”, the former Bayern Munich and ALBA Berlin point guard said.
Chris Fleming, who coached the German national team from 2014 to 2017, before handing it to Henrik Rodl, who stepped down in 2021 after the Olympic Games, initiated the whole process. “He really restored a lot of confidence in German basketball culture. He told us to not be afraid of anyone and that we could compete with any team, we could believe in ourselves. I don’t think anyone has said it so far, but he really introduced the seeds. And then we continued with this group of guys, we kept coming together every summer, sacrificing for the national team. We all developed as players. We have a lot of talent, a lot of quality, plus the continuation of always reuniting every year”, Maodo Lo added.
However, without the Canadian head coach, this golden possibility couldn’t have turned into reality. “Coach Herbert came in a moment when this generation of players had reached a certain experience and level, the seeds became a tree. He came with the right mindset and continued introducing a winning culture. This has been the result of not just last year and the three-year plan, but of the last previous years of the German national team. Even prior, when we didn’t win medals, we played some solid tournaments”, he continued before touching on previous accolades.
Even without medals on their necks, Germany brought home several satisfactions. “We played in EuroBasket 2017 in Tel Aviv and Istanbul, we kicked out France and we played good basketball; we didn’t end up on the podium, losing to Spain in the quarter-finals with Marc Gasol playing an incredible game. But still, we were there to compete. Prior to EuroBasket, we qualified for the Olympic Games, we played in Tokyo. German basketball is not on the map in Europe, people don’t really respect it too much, but we’ve been quietly there and now last year with the bronze, and this year’s success came as a result”, Maodo Lo finally stated.
“People don’t care about basketball in Germany”
Despite confetti coming down from the sky to celebrate Germany after the 2023 FIBA World Cup Final and players champagne-showering both head coach Gordon Herbert and the MVP Dennis Schroder, the German captain expressed his disappointment in Manila for how this team was treated.
“We first thought the tournament was going to be on the TV. Only the final was on the TV. Basketball is a great sport and I hope we can get our respect for what we are doing the last two years. I wish that every single game is on TV”, the newest Toronto Raptors guard said right after the win.
Talking about the lack of public communication regarding basketball, Johannes Voigtmann said the World Cup triumph will be beneficial “in the short term, for sure”. However, the former Baskonia‘s power forward has doubts about what the future will reserve. “The thing is how do you manage that long-term, and that’s for other people to manage. We are the players, we can do our part. We can play at a high level and use all of our tools to reach people, but the bigger picture is gonna be handled by other people. It’s gonna be how much basketball will be part of people’s life”, he said.
Keeping it real, the soon-to-be 31-year-old said it will be difficult for basketball to emerge even after this golden accolade. “In Germany, it’s not part of a lot of people’s lives, but it has been for the last month. The thing is now how do we keep it that way? That’s not for us to decide. We can do our part, and we did it pretty well. I hope it gets more attention, but in Germany, every sport is fighting to get that, whether it’s hockey, handball, or whatever. It’s tough to establish something behind football”, Voigtmann commented.
While the power forward remained doubtful, Maodo Lo has his mind clear regarding the way basketball will be perceived from now on in Germany. “Winning the World Cup is not gonna change the status of basketball drastically in Germany. Overnight, all of a sudden, German basketball won’t be broadcast on live television. That’s football: that’s number one in Germany. People don’t care about basketball. People don’t care. I think what we achieved, what we did now with the World Cup, the bronze at EuroBasket, maybe will initiate a change to get more popularity, not for next year, not for the next two years”, he confessed.
Something will actually change, perhaps. “Maybe in ten years, fifteen years. We might have inspired children who want to start playing basketball or switching sports. This is what we achieved: more participation and interest. But to say “Hey, now we expect German basketball to be close to football” is simply not going to happen. It isn’t reality, it’s maybe wishful thinking. But it won’t happen. We implemented the seeds, the first catalyzer for something bigger to happen. And that’s what we can be proud of”, Maodo Lo added.
“Maybe we don’t really have much recognition from the European landscape: there’s a lot of reporting for Serbian or Spanish basketball for example, and there’s a lot of respect there. There’s not much respect for German basketball, but at the same time, we can’t expect to get respect from other European countries if our own country doesn’t even respect it. There are a lot of components to it, towards recognition”, the newest Olimpia Milano player also said.
However, he can start his new adventure in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with certainty. “But regardless of all of this, we were able to win a World Cup. It’s history, it’s written. No one can say anything, no one can talk. It’s done, and it’s an achievement we can really be proud of”, he finally said, entering a new chapter of his career next to his friend Johannes Voigtmann. As World Champions.
🏆🥇 Congratulazioni Campioni del Mondo🥇🏆
— Olimpia Milano (@OlimpiaMI1936) September 10, 2023
PHOTO CREDIT: Olimpia Milano