Finally Home

by April 25, 2014

by Leo Sepkowitz

Jiri Welsch sat inside Madison Square Garden, which was hosting the 2002 Draft, flanked by his agent and his then-girlfriend. He watched as five players were selected into the League, then 10, then 15, without hearing his own name called.jiri_welsh

Then it was the Warriors’ turn to draft at No. 16, with a pick acquired via trade from the Sixers. Just before their selection was officially announced, a woman came up behind Welsch and whispered something into his ear. Already nearly fluent in English despite growing up in a small village in Central Europe, the pale guard with shaggy brown hair understood well what she was telling him: Welsch was about to become just the second Czech-born NBA player ever.

The moment marked an unlikely triumph for a player who was prevented from learning about the NBA during his youth in a politically repressive country.

“When I was born it was still the communism era,” the 34-year-old Welsch begins. “You couldn’t get any news about what was going on in the Western world.”

It’s a typically overcast April afternoon in the Czech Republic, and the 6-7 Welsch is seated in the first row of the empty bleachers at CEZ Sportcentrum in Nymburk, a Czech town east of Prague, the country’s capital. The sports complex is about a 30-minute walk from the local train station through the flat, grassy and taxi-less Nymburk. It plays home to the town’s local team, CEZ Nymburk, which owns a dominant 70-2 record over the last three seasons, and for which Welsch now plays.

Team practice starts in 45 minutes, so Welsch has taped his ankles and thrown on his practice uniform—team shorts and a white long-sleeve shirt.

Born in Holice, a small Czech town with about 6,000 residents, Welsch grew up in something of a sports vacuum. Holice had no “basketball tradition,” as Welsch puts it, until his own father, a volleyball player, started the town’s first-ever team for Jiri and his older brother, Petr. “If it wasn’t for my father,” Welsch says before taking a long pause, “I don’t know, maybe I’d be doing something completely different in my life.”

Within a few years, Welsch was separating himself on the court and dreaming big. “I knew there were national teams, I knew there was the first division in the country—back then in Czechoslovakia—and I thought that was my ultimate goal,” Welsch says laughing, likely at his own youthful naivety. “I was like, ‘wow, it would be cool to one day maybe play at that level,’ so that was it.”

Right around that time—1989, specifically—the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was overthrown, and three years later the country was peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Uncensored news and information started to flood in from the West, and Welsch caught wind of an elite international league.

He was 11 years old when he first laid eyes on an iconic image attached to a 1991 NBA Finals preview: “Michael Jordan in his typical pose: legs spread, going up for the dunk with the red 23 uniform,” as he describes it.

“That was the first article and first thing I read about the NBA,” Welsch says referring to that special ‘91 Bulls/Lakers preview. “And that’s how I learned that something like the NBA actually exists.”

Still, it would be at least six years until he could qualify to play in the L. In the meantime, Jiri (George) Zidek debuted as the first Czech NBA player in ’95, while Welsch developed in Czech leagues for a handful of seasons. He jumped to Slovenia, a country located in southern Central Europe, in 2000, and took home Slovenian MVP honors in 2002, putting him on the radar of NBA scouts.

“All of a sudden, one scout shows up, three scouts show up, five scouts show up—people start talking,” Welsch recalls. Roughly four months before the Draft, he says, there were 20 scouts on hand for a game—each one there to watch Welsch ball.

It soon became obvious that he would head to the NBA, and most draft experts projected that Welsch would be a top-20 draft pick that year. They were right.

“It was a great night; a real dream come true for Jiri,” Welsch’s agent, Matteo Comellini, recalls. The day after he was drafted, Welsch flew across the country to San Francisco before heading to nearby Oakland, where he would begin his career with the Warriors.

The Dubs featured a young roster in Welsch’s rookie season, which he believes made the transition to the NBA much easier. Gilbert Arenas, Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson were sophomores, Antawn Jamison was in just his fourth year and Mike Dunleavy Jr was drafted 13 slots ahead of Welsch in ’02. A large gap in experience between the rookie Welsch and the rest of the roster, he says, would have been harder to overcome than the mild language barrier.

That Warriors team appeared to have major potential, but finished under .500 in Welsch’s rookie season and was broken up in the offseason. Arenas walked to Washington (later causing a rule change regarding restricted free agents) and Welsch was traded alongside Jamison and Danny Fortson to Dallas for a package headlined by veteran guard Nick Van Exel.

It was the first of many trades Welsch would be included in during his career. Dallas flipped him to Boston just before his sophomore season began. He played a year and a half with the Celtics before being traded to the Cavs midway through the 2004-05 season. In the summer of 2005, he was again traded, this time going from Cleveland to Milwaukee, where he would play the 2005-06 season with the Bucks.

Welsch tallied averages of 6.1 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists over those four seasons. He hit free agency for the first time in the summer of 2006, but was unable to secure a lucrative deal. 

With only two non-guaranteed offers on the table for a return to the League, Welsch headed for a “new experience” in Spain. He played for three teams over six seasons there before signing with CEZ Nymburk in 2012 and finally returning home.

Today, Welsch’s games nearly always sell out, according to Tomas Budka, a sports journalist for Czech Television. “The average attendance for a Czech basketball game is about 500,” says Budka. “Right after Jiri’s return it was about 800-1,000.”

Welch’s relative old age may prevent him from handling starters’ minutes in this stage of his career, but he’s enjoying his life as a local hero. “I am probably one of the very few basketball players who gets recognized by non-basketball fans,” Welsch says, referring to his admirers in the Czech Republic. “For me, that’s a sign that I have done something meaningful in my sports career.”