Conversation with Johannes Voigtmann: 10-year climb to top

Nov 14, 2017 by Andy West, Print
Conversation with Johannes Voigtmann: 10-year climb to top

Ten years ago, if you had told Johannes Voigtmann that he would become a key player for one of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's most prestigious clubs, he would have responded with a very doubtful expression. Because 10 years ago, he had only just started playing basketball.

During his youth, the 25-year-old Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz center focussed nearly all of his sporting energies on handball, the favored sport of his hometown, Eisenach, in the middle of Germany. Basketball did not even feature in his thinking.

"My dad played handball professionally so it was the obvious choice for me," Voigtmann says. "I was five when I started and I carried on playing with Eisenach until the under-16s. We played in state competitions in Thuringen, but also bigger competitions sometimes. It was never the German championships but we got pretty far.

"I wasn't one of the best players. I was OK, and maybe I could have developed, but I don't think I had a really bright future in handball. I don't think I'd be playing professionally now."

As often happens in life, an unexpected coincidence signalled Voigtmann's introduction to basketball, a sport he had played occasionally with his grandfather – who was a youth coach – and barely even watched on television.

"My grandma was a head teacher at a school in Jena," he says. "That was about an hour from Eisenach, and when I was 14 she was given some places at a basketball summer camp. So she gave a couple of the places to me and my younger brother Georg, just to have some fun in the holidays.

"The camp was run by TUS Jena, the sports school in the town, and at the start of the week they put me into the lower group because I had never played basketball before. But I was bigger than most of the other guys and playing pretty well, and at the end of the camp they asked me if I wanted to join the sports school in Jena full-time."

Although there were obvious temptations for a sports-mad teenager to move to a specialist sports school, Voigtmann was reluctant about leaving home and chose to defer the decision for a year, heading back to Eisenbach and his old handball team as basketball returned to the back of his mind.

But a year later, at the age of 15, Voigtmann took the plunge and accepted the move to Jena's sport school, reasoning that if things didn't work out he could always go back home. A major factor in his decision to move was the quality of the facilities at his new school.

"The complex is great," he recalls. "All the facilities – the school, the dormitories, the dining hall and the training gym – are in one area close together, and it was really professional, even at the age of 15. We practised nine times a week and all the organisation was great, so it was a really good opportunity."

The question that springs to mind is why the coaches at the school were so keen to recruit Voigtmann when he barely understood the rules and had not mastered even basic basketball techniques.

"I think they saw I had a good feeling for the ball, and even though I didn't know the game, I kind of understood how it could work," he says. "I was also tall, so maybe they just wanted a big man. But I think they saw my height and my court understanding. And I was always able to pass the ball."

Voigtmann's transition from handball to basketball was far from easy, and at the start of his time at Jena he felt distinctly out of place.

"I was so far behind!" he laughs. "I was really, really bad, and coming from handball it was tough to adjust. I went for a week's training camp before school started and I remember my first coach. He hadn't been involved with the decision to recruit me and when he saw me he was like…'Wow! What is that?!'

"So he told me to go with the assistant coach and we did some really basic moves: catch the ball, one dribble, cross-step. Really basic stuff, just to get a feeling for it.

"I had a lot of trouble with the travelling rule because in handball you can take as many steps as you like. And fouling also was a problem – in handball you can have a lot more physical contact."

Although Voigtmann worked hard to quickly develop his technique and his understanding of the sport, he still had to suffer through difficult moments.

"I felt uncomfortable because I was so bad," he says. "All the guys I was playing with had been there for at least two or three years and I had never played before.

"I didn't know what I was doing, and in my first four or five games I always had five fouls – always! I didn't shoot much. I was just setting screens and rebounding."

The key phase in Voigtmann's development came, however, at the end of that season, when his coach, Lars Masell, devoted his summer to turning this talented but extremely raw teenager into a top-level player.

"At the start of the summer Lars asked me: 'What's your goal? Because if you just want to play in the German Bundesliga, you can do that. You don't have to practice much because you're tall, you will learn the game, and you already have good court vision and basketball IQ'.

"I didn't know what my goal was, because I hadn't even thought about being a professional basketball player. But I asked him: 'If I can already play in the Bundesliga, what's next?' And he said: 'You can become a really good basketball player in Europe. But for that, we will have to work'.

"So I spent that whole summer practicing with Lars. All summer long we went to the arena. It was hard because the arena was so hot and there was a swimming pool right next door. You could hear everyone in the pool having so much fun!"

"But Lars said: 'We're going to make a point guard out of you.' I thought he was crazy because I could barely dribble the ball! I was having trouble doing everything. But we practiced, practiced and practiced. We also watched a lot of videos, especially Dirk Nowitzki, and I really developed well. I felt so confident at the end of the summer."

Indeed, the work undertaken with Masell turned Voigtmann into a new player. The next season he had improved beyond measure, started to make a name for himself with Jena, and his path to the EuroLeague had been truly opened up.

All that word paved the way for his impressive EuroLeague debut last season with Baskonia. Voigtmann showed how far he had come in only a decade by ranking fourth in total rebounds, sixth in offensive rebounds, 12th in two-point shooting and 14th in performance index rating among all EuroLeague players last season.

Fittingly, Voigtmann continues to work closely every summer with Massel, now an assistant coach with German club Bayreuth.

"I've had a different coaches since then, but Lars was the main guy who pushed me in the first place," Voigtmann says. "He gave me my start in the professional game."