Dutch big man Henk Norel has shown exceptional strength of character ever since, as a young teenager, he was branded by many the ‘new Rik Smits‘, in a foreign country quite different to his own.
Unlike Smits, Norel did not cross the Atlantic to go to the NCAA but arrived in Badalona, Spain when he was still under-age and after posting a near tournament double-double at the U18 European Championship of 2005.
The Dutchman convinced coach Aito Garcia Reneses that he deserved minutes on the still revered Joventut side that was packed with talent and went on to win the EuroCup (EuroChallenge), the Copa Del Rey and the ULEB Cup.
That strength of character, which Norel has continually built since his youth, served him well in the years that followed, most recently at hearing the news of the death of José Luis Abós, the coach he had worked with since arriving at CAI Zaragoza in 2012.
It was by far the saddest, the most heart-breaking event to affect Norel in the last 18 months or so, which had already been marked by a sequence of unfortunate occurrences that the Dutch center had explained in his own words to fibaeurope.com in an interview that took place before the death of coach Abós.
“I had two knee injuries, after the first one things went right and I think I had my best season but a few games before the end (of the 2012/13 season) I hurt my other knee and I only came back last year,” Norel explained.
“So now I’ve done both knees and since I only have two I’m done with that, that’s what the doctor said, and I trust the doctor!” he said with a laughter.
“It’s hard to come back in the middle of the season so I had to work hard in the summer with my physical trainer.
“I think we did a great job, I am really so excited to be playing right now and hopefully I will come back to my old level.”
THE UNEXPECTED DUTCH MASTERPIECE
Norel phoned Netherlands head coach Toon Van Helfteren in the summer and explained his rehabilitation plans and how necessary they were if the big man was to not suffer another injury.
Van Helfteren understood of course that it would not be possible for the only Dutch player who competes in a major European league to help out the team in their EuroBasket 2015 qualification campaign, which at that point appeared to be doomed.
But come August, Norel sat back and followed the 2nd Qualifying Round as an avid fan and, just like every other basketball follower around Europe, he was stunned.
Netherlands knocked out Montenegro and clinched second place in Group B to accompany Israel into EuroBasket 2015, which will be their first since 1989.
Norel was so overwhelmed with joy it did not even occur to him to lament the fact he had served the national team for eight years only to miss out on their best moment.
“I watched all the games and I thought it was amazing,” Norel said with a big smile on his face.
“To make it back to a European Championship after 25 years, it’s just wonderful.
“I was surprised when watching, from the way they played, the guys played as a team.
“I am very happy, it is very important for Dutch basketball to make it to EuroBasket.
“I think that for the players who play in Holland it is a big chance to show to Europe what they can do and maybe some of them can make a step up in their careers.
“Also for Dutch basketball, that now it starts growing and kids start playing basketball and not only football, you know? (he laughs).”
Could this qualification be classified as the biggest success in the history of Dutch basketball?
“I think so, it is the greatest success for me,” said Norel, who was born in 1987, the first and only time that Smits played with Netherlands at a EuroBasket.
“Because as long as I have been alive, I haven’t seen anything like that in Holland.
“Sure, we’d won a couple of good games, but before we were in Division B and it was really hard to come out of there.
“Now we had a chance and they [the team] took that chance.
“I am proud, I’m really proud that we made it and I just hope that it’s not a one-off.
“I hope we won’t have to wait another 25 years to make it again.
“Hopefully more sponsors will come along, because last year we had problems and we had to pay for our own facilities, hopefully sponsors will see the opportunity and basketball will start growing in Holland.”
IT DOESN’T LAST FOR EVER
Norel, as pretty much every Dutch basketball player of this generation, is harbouring dreams of stepping out on the court at a landmark EuroBasket next September.
Only for him things are not so simple, not only because of these personally testing last 18 months, but also because of a collision between the sense of duty to his nation and the will to do right by the players who made this dream come true.
“I don’t know if I am going to play at EuroBasket,” Norel admits.
“I spoke to the coach and he also doesn’t know if he is still going to be the coach then, so we’ll see what happens with the Federation.
“I gave him congratulations, I told him how happy and proud I felt for the team.
“And I told him ‘you did it with a group of young guys, so I think the young guys also deserve to play there, so if you don’t take me, I will understand.’
“If my health is good and I feel strong of course I would love to play at EuroBasket, but it’s the coach’s choice.”
So what is Norel’s concrete short-term aim then, since a first-ever EuroBasket participation is something that might not materialise?
“You know, after you get hurt you really value basketball more than before, you value that it’s not forever and that it’s something special to be playing and that you are doing it as a profession.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, I am just really happy to play.
“So I want to have fun doing what I am doing, to help my team, and play the best I can, to help Zaragoza do well in Spain and in Europe (the Eurocup).
“But most of all to enjoy it, cause it’s not going to last forever.”