I sat down on Wednesday with Sacramento Kings starting guard Beno Udrih. Strangely enough, after 16 days of training camp, 3 home pre-season games and an official media day, it was the first time that we had met. Of all the Kings, Beno has been the least visible, the least available to the media and always the first to leave the courts in the practice facility. Now, don’t get me wrong, he is working hard to get ready for the season in his own way and on his own time, but to the media, he is a phantom.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. And certainly, I did not expect to get such an amazingly honest, articulate and intelligent player like the one I got. I must warn you, Beno answers every question to it’s fullest so this is a marathon, not a sprint. Here is Beno Udrih with The Purple Panjandrum:
TPP: You’ve had an up and down career both in the league and as a King. Do you feel like your career has finally leveled out?
Beno: Here in Sacramento, it was up and down. A lot of coaching changes, a lot of different thinking, so basically we didn’t know what exactly they were expecting from us. It was tough, but not just for me. It was tough for everybody. But you know now, we finally have our coaches set up and everybody is happy. Here, these coaches now, they give us sets but they just let us play basketball too, the way we know how to play. They aren’t so uptight. Reggie was really good too, he let us play a little bit too in the first year. In the second year, we were just not clicking as a team. With Natt, I don’t know, he was trying to do a lot of things and a lot of players didn’t feel comfortable you know. Here with Paul and all the assistant coaches, everything is great. It’s working out and he lets us play.
TPP: How do you compare Coach Westphal to Coach Popovich from your time with the Spurs?
Beno: It’s hard to compare coaches. Coach Pop has been there for a lot of years in San Antonio. That was the team where he started coaching as a head coach and he is probably going to finish his career as a head coach there. He was there when Tim Duncan started and he’ll be there to the end of his career, so he basically has the same team, all the same plays are the same for like 15 years now. He is a tough coach too. He and Paul, they kind of both have the same personalities. If you have any problems you can talk to them about basketball or off the court stuff. They are kind of the same that way. Coach Paul, he was in Phoenix and in Seattle so he moved around a little bit but they’re both successful coaches.
TPP: What is it like playing in the same back court with Tyreke Evans versus playing with Kevin Martin?
Beno: I don’t know, they’re totally different players. Tyreke is a combo guard- a one two, while Kevin is just a two guard. A lot of times with Kevin, I was handling the ball, trying to look for Kevin. With Tyreke, a lot of the time I’m handling and a lot of the time he’s handling, so I don’t have to look for Tyreke all the time. He creates for himself, but then he creates for me too. Before, I was creating for Kevin, and now we just exchange, so I create for Tyreke and he creates for me and and other players.
TPP: In my research, I found out that you began your professional career in Europe at age 15? Is that correct?
Beno: Yes, at 15 I started practicing with the first team and then 16-17 I started getting a chance to play for basically my home team Polzela, and then when I turned 18, I signed with my first team in Slovenia, Ljubljana Olimpija.
TPP: What is the biggest difference for you between playing European ball versus playing here in the U.S?
Beno: The first time I came to the NBA, it was just the speed of the game. I had to get adjusted a little bit to that, especially on defense because a lot of guards are fast and I’m not used to that. And then of course, the three point line is way out, so there’s a lot more space for penetrating to the basket than in Europe. Also, you have three seconds on defense here. In Europe, they can basically camp under the basket and stuff like that. It’s harder to go from the NBA to Europe than it is to go from Europe to the NBA. It’s easier to adjust to the NBA game than it is to adjust to the European game.
TPP: You had a falling out of sorts with the Slovenian National team. Are you done with the Slovenian National team?
Beno: I want to play for the national team, but I want to be used 100%. I don’t want to go there and a coach is telling me, “oh yeah, the game here is played differently and I can’t give you 30 minutes, you’re going to get tired.” and I said, “I play thirty minutes a game in the NBA and sometimes I play 45 minutes and then I have a game the next night, and it’s my choice to play for the national team so don’t worry about me getting tired”- that’s my choice. If I think that I’m going to be tired when I go to have a season with the Kings, then I won’t play for the national team. I think the mentality in Europe should be, use the best players, play them to win, instead of trying to have a rotation. It’s the Slovenian National team, not the U.S. National team. The U.S. has basically 12 starters. So you can use all of that, but in Slovenia we don’t have 12 starters, we have a couple of guys who are starters and then we have 4,5,6 guys who are not starters that may be on the team. I think you’ve got to use the best players instead of saying, I’m going to start a defensive team. And then again, none of the starting five that are supposed to start this year are defensive players. I don’t think we have any defensive players on our national team in a one-on-one setting. We can have a great team defense but not as individuals. It’s a lot of politics as well.
TPP: Is your brother Samo playing on the national team?
Beno: This year he is playing, but he didn’t have a lot of minutes. Like I said, it’s a lot of politics. I think the head people of the Slovenian National team have the mentality that we have to have a Slovenian coach. And then all the coaches are not top European coaches. And then you have Turkey. I don’t know anyone in Turkey that is a really good European coach. That’s why they hired a Serbian coach, Tanjevic, he’s a great coach, he’s known. Serbia has a lot of good coaches that they (Slovenian National team) could give an opportunity to because they (Serbian National team) have a coach in Ivkovic that has a lot of respect from not only the players but even the fans. I think we need to hire some really good pro coach. You have so many assistant coaches here in the NBA that you could just go to and say, hey look, the Slovenian National team, we have really good players, we have a good team, do you want to be the coach? We probably can’t pay as much to the coach as some of the bigger countries can, but I think a lot of coaches would take that responsibility and take a risk and earn a little bit less but have a really good national team.
Now, why I didn’t go this year? Through the World Championship, we knew we weren’t going to be first. We aren’t qualifying for the Olympics through the World Championships, but next year we have a European Championship, so why not start getting ready for the European Championship through this World Championship and change the team because for eight years, the same starting point guard. Same, same, same, everything is the same. Why not change something and start getting ready for the European Championship? Let’s make sure that we are ready for the European Championship so we can qualify for the Olympics. That would be historic.
But no, we didn’t change anything. Especially after my best year in my career in the NBA, I’m not going to go to Slovenia and play behind Lakovic. Lakovic is basically a back-up point guard now in Barcelona behind Rubio. He’s a great player, I’m not saying he’s not a great player but he’s had eight years and he’s had a chance to do something as the starting point guard, now let’s change something. They don’t see it my way so I will just move away and say look, you have a lot of good players and I don’t want to bring a wrong vibe in there. I wouldn’t be happy and when you aren’t happy, dangerous things can happen and I’ve had that problem before.
TPP: What’s it like to win an NBA Championship?
Beno: It feels great. My first year I played a lot, I had like 15 minutes a game and then the third year we won, I didn’t get much of a chance to play in the playoffs. But still, I learned a lot because sometimes, sitting on the bench, you see a lot of things even better than when you are on the court. I learned a lot. I learned how to win basketball games, so it was a good experience.
TPP: I’m out here everyday and I haven’t seen much of you out on the court with the other guys. Do you like to do your work alone or at other times when we aren’t around?
Beno: A little extra work is always good. I just try to work on little things because a lot of times, little things matter more than big things. Through fixing little things, you basically fix the big things. You can’t just go straight to the big thing and say I want to be better at that, you have to consistently work and then it’s going to get there.
For this being my first encounter with Beno, he warmed up quickly and spoke his mind. He was amazingly blunt about his feelings towards the Slovenian National team and the policies/politics they continue to employ. After really struggling in his second season, Udrih was the most stable King on the roster besides Tyreke last year.
A special thanks goes out to Kings executive director of media relations, Darrin May on this one. Typically, we are only given a few minutes with each player following practice because they have other commitments. A few minutes with Beno Udrih wouldn’t have got me through the first question. So again, thanks Darrin for allowing a slightly larger window of time.