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One on One with Geert Hammink

One on One with Geert Hammink

Geert Hammink is one of the best basketball players in Dutch history. He has played professionally in Italy, Greece and Germany. Furthermore, he is one of seven Dutch players to ever make it to the NBA. The others are Rik Smits, Francisco Elson, Dan Gadzuric, Sven Nater, Henry Beenders (played in the predecessor of the NBA, the ABA) and Serge Zwikker (only played pre-season games with Houston). Today, 14 years after his active career, Geert Hammink is a co-owner of Court Side, one of the oldest and biggest basketball agencies in the world.

The Netherlands is a small basketball country. How is it possible that Court Side is known worldwide?

That’s a long story, and it all started in 1996. That’s when the Bosman-rule was introduced to European basketball. Before 1996 each European team was only allowed to employ 2 ‘foreigners’ – mostly Americans -, the rest of the players had to be locals. Within the European Union freedom of trade had long been established but a severe limitation to the freedom to seek employment across borders was still enforced for people. Soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman didn’t agree with this much and he went on to the highest courts making sure people – athletes in this case – could seek employment freely within the EU. The legal process took forever and took a huge toll on Mr. Bosman’s finances, but in 1996 he managed to open up the borders for a lot of players in different sports.

The 1995/96 season I played in the NBA and Mike Nahar played in Portugal as a ‘foreigner’. From the minute I left college until the moment he passed away before my last season as a pro, I had the same representation; Harry Kip. From what I heard later, Mike Nahar hadn’t signed with anyone but was in contact with all three of the big Dutch agents. Eventually those agents, Dejan Vidicki, Jan Lugtenburg and Harry Kip realized it didn’t make sense to compete for Nahar’s services but working together on him and all clients made a lot more sense. So the founding of Court Side did have a lot to do with Nahar. The big three founded Court Side, combined forces, and over the years that followed created the largest network around the American and Bosman market worldwide.

Has the world of basketball agencies changed over the years?

Absolutely, several things have changed. Every competition changes its rules almost every year. The way the DBL (Dutch League) raised the maximum of non-Dutch players from 4 to 5 on any roster this past summer and added that only four of those foreigners are allowed on the court at the same time is an example of that. Other countries do not even have uniform rules between their first league and second league. These rules changes largely affect the market and therefore affect and changes the agency business constantly.

Secondly, the two major worldwide financial crises of the past 15 years have had major influence on the pro-basketball landscape. Within the basketball world we like to elevate the importance of pro basketball but to others it’s merely a form of entertainment. So, if an individual’s money decreases he has to make tougher choices; “do I go to a movie or a basketball game?” That influence affects a pro team directly but also indirectly in that potential sponsors have less to spend on name branding and other reasons to invest in pro sports. The decrease of the average wages for players across Europe is a logical result of all this. At times it is hard to explain to a player to expect less in salary, especially if he is coming off a great season.

Lastly the mentality has changed. I do not want to sound old or philosophical, but society’s mentality has changed over the years and pro basketball players are part of that society. Like I said before, I built my entire career together with the same agent, Harry Kip. Among this generation’s players the loyalty factor seems to be on a steep decline and the distrust factor appears on the rise. Again, not wanting to come across too philosophical but these trends do not manifest themselves in pro players only, to me it appears to be a trend seen through all levels of our society today.

So yes – things have changed quite a bit during my 14 years as an agent.

Photo: LSU

Do you think players are still in need of agents?

Absolutely. There’s no denying that more and more dealings happen online, rather quickly taking out the human factor. Yet there is a difference between having an agent and doing things through the internet and not having a middle man to help you. Our business will also be automated at one point, as a matter of fact that is already happing. But several segments of the agency market will remain subject to human interaction and expertise. Having said that, it is already clear that the number of agents is in decline, some of it due to the financial crises and some of it due to automation and the internet. But that automation also enables the remaining agents to take on more players and still provide all of them with similar or better service.

Agents are of great help. Take the negotiations part for example. It is a slanted playing field if a player were to start negotiations with a club for the first time in his life while the GM across the table brings with him the experience of a thousand of those situations. Agents level that playing field. Another example, look at college seniors in the US. They have no clue where to start. They have no network and an agent is definitely an added value. The agent provides a buffer between the player and the team as well. Imagine going in yourself, negotiate with vigor, squeeze out a great deal, and then play badly 5 games in a row two months into a season. We as agents take most of the brunt, haha. But that’s good! These of course are just some of the many aspects we bring to the table.

In the end it is important to remember the player is the CEO of his own enterprise, makes the final decision on everything, and the agent is there to provide opportunity and give advice.

Photo: Martijn Veenhuizen

You’re also a TV-commentator. Is it hard to talk about a player you know or represent?

Good question. I don’t think I have ever commentated on a game where I didn’t know at least one player on the court personally. But is that difficult? No. As a person I try to stay as positive as possible. Basketball is a fantastic sport and it deserves more attention in this country. Being negative doesn’t help to increase the attention I believe. Having said that it is also unfair to the viewer to not call out bonehead plays. I make sure I do both, positive and negative, fairly across the board, with players I do know or do not know alike.

For example, at Court Side we know we’re doing a great job for our players but we are not immune to dissatisfied players who occasionally fire us. I see those guys on the court as well when I do the commentating. But it doesn’t matter, I consciously make the effort to seek out the positive first.

Simultaneously I try to sneak in little tidbits about the intricacies of our beautiful sport, whether those are about coaching tactics, advanced skill levels, plays, or the mental side of certain game situations. This may sound odd to some of your international readers but not every Dutch fan or potential fan knows the rules of the game or the basic tactics. I am convinced that viewers will enjoy the game more and more if they are gradually exposed to the complexity of the sport, the different layers that make basketball so appealing. That understand of the game will make a casual viewer a fan.

Do you think it’s an advantage for your children that you’ve played at a high level as well?

I’ve always tried to keep parenting and basketball, or coaching, separate. Once I started coaching my kids at the club level here, I stressed hard work, tried to make them and their teammates better players, but we didn’t really discuss basketball outside of those hours in the gym. We moved back to the Netherlands when my kids were about 7/8 years old. In 2004 I still played professionally in Cologne Germany. After the 03/04 season I retired and settled into the routine in a small town in The Netherlands. At that time the boys played a little basketball with the club in the city on Sundays, along with playing tennis, soccer and other activities.

When they started organized practice, and I mean this with the utmost respect to the coaches, I thought I could do a better job, haha. I was driving them to practice anyways and sat there waiting and wasting time. So I put on my daring shoes (stoute schoenen) and asked the coach if I could assist him. He agreed and everything went fast from then on. We won several Dutch Championship u12/14/16/18, I believe four times in all. Then, the boys reached an age where I felt I shouldn’t coach them anymore. Shane was 16 and Ryan and Nick were 15. Besides that – and more importantly – I felt there was not enough room in The Netherlands for them to further develop as they just finished the u20 season on a high note, stranded in the semi’s of the playoffs with a team comprised largely of 15 and 16 year olds.

That summer the boys left for CBA in Spain.

How was their time at the CBA?

It was a tough time for them, the days were long and hard, but they got out of it what they wanted: they improved as players and got their degrees! No pain no gain, right? Manager and boss Rob Orellana helped them tremendously. After a year, Shane went to LSU and after one more year at CBA and another in the NBDL in Germany, Nick and Ryan went to junior college. So they were quite successful. Did they have a good time? All in all I think they did and I am sure they made friends for life at CBA.

Photo: LSU Sports

Did you influence Shane’s choice to go to LSU?

Yes, I’ve definitely influenced him, but not intentionally nor verbally. Let me explain: Shane played very well during his time at CBA and at one point about 25 schools were interested in him. I wanted to be neutral and I made a list of pros and cons with him over the phone. My wife and I went to one of his tournaments at the end of the season in the north of France and sat down with Shane after the last game. Rather quickly we narrowed it down to 10 possible schools but I could not escape the notion that Shane did not seem excited about the process. In the car on the way back home I figured he was just really tired at the end of the tourney.

A few days later I called him and out of nowhere he said: “I’m going to LSU”. I was taken aback a bit by his conviction. I asked how long ago he had made this decision, he said: “I’ve known for about two years, you and mom went there, I was born there, I’m going too”. I was, jeez, I wished I would’ve known, could’ve saved me a bunch of time – haha.

Which of your kids’ basketball skills would you like to have?

Well, I am old now and none of their skills would do me any good in the present time. But back in the day I played, I would have enjoyed all three boys’ skills and all of them! I played in a different era. Today the players can do everything, back in my day players were more specialized in certain aspects of the game with a couple of superstars on each team who could do more and carried the load.

As a big man in my youth practices I was not allowed to dribble or even shoot from distance. But that was how the game was played, it was normal. We always joked that bigs had to pay the same amount of money to play (in The Netherlands amateur athletics require a financial contribution to the club) yet were allowed only half of the things the other players were allowed to do.

Alright, in summary, all three of my kids have a skill level that far exceeds the one I ever had. I couldn’t really dribble, I only later developed an outside shot, and I am embarrassed to say that I do not remember making a basket with my left hand in my entire pro career..

What is your vision on Dutch basketball, and do you want to play a role in it?

I think I’m already playing a role. I give advice when I can and when I am asked, I do most of that somewhat in the background. What people do with that advice or opinion is up to them, I just hope it helps curve the development trajectory of Dutch basketball a bit towards the positive. As a matter of fact I think Dutch basketball is on the right track. We had a bit of a dip three years ago when the federation contemplated scrapping the Dutch men’s National Team as well as the men’s U20 National Team. They argued they had to because of financial reasons. Can you imagine? But a group of able enthusiast grabbed the bull by the horn and saved those programs.

Since then the National Team has outperformed expectations and possibly more importantly, the powers-to-be have streamlined the national youth development system and are centralizing talent through a limited number or RTC’s and the addition of a CTO. Let me be clear, I am a big fan of centralizing talent. Of course, it will take 8 to 10 years before the 14/15 year olds that start that program this summer can contribute something to the senior National Team. We have to exercise a bit of patience.

Photo: Marshall Farthing

Do you think Matt Haarms can make it to the NBA?

Matt did great this past Sunday. This is truly an incredible experience for him I imagine. It reminded me a little bit of my LSU days, we were on the road in a hotel and coach called me down to say Shaq was injured and I was going to start tonight. Jeez, my stomach knotted up. Let the record show that I stepped up to the plate and did really well, haha. Plus we won. But it was back to the bench and limited minutes when Shaq was healthy again. I imagine Matt went through something similar last weekend. But the NCAA Tournament is a different stage, different sort of exposure, possibly compounding the nervousness Matt felt as opposed to my experience which was a regular season SEC road game. I was happy to see Matt also stepped up to the plate and that they also won the game.

Now back to your question, Matt definitely has talent, has extreme length and has great coordination. That combination is rather unique. I hear of the comparisons to Kristaps Porzingis and I am afraid that is a bit premature. Porzingis isn’t called the unicorn for nothing. In the past decade I’ve seen many super talented German players who were compared to Nowitzki early. That is the sort of hype that is impossible to live up to and inevitably has an adverse effect on the young kid’s development. I think Matt has a shot at making the NBA, but that depends on the next three years. I hear he possesses a great work ethic and has great focus on the goal.

That said, I made it to the NBA, but not without a healthy dose of luck involved along the way. I’ve never discussed this with Francisco Elson but I’m sure he’ll confirm that luck is a factor that is beyond influence. Dan Gadzuric may confirm that as well. Rik Smits on the other hand may diminish that notion. If you’re the second pick, there’s no luck involved, you EARNED IT!! haha. But yes, Haarms has a chance and we’ll see how he develops and increases his chances over the next three years.

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