“I’m Very Optimistic”
Martin Muursepp, known in his days in Estonia as “The Baltic Kukoc,” is on his way to Phoenix after Dallas, his team for the last year and a half, traded him to get Steve Nash. The 23-year-old ponders his American Dream so far with Guy MacPherson
FIBA Basketball magazine, August 1998
Most of the foreign-born players in the NBA either played in college in the States or in the big European Leagues. You played in Sweden and Israel. How did you manage to get to the NBA?
“I played one year in Estonia the year before I came to the NBA. I played pretty good there and they happened to notice that. There are a lot of basketball players there. I think people should go out there and look for players from these countries: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia.”
But you’re not as well known as a lot of the other foreign players…
“I’m not because I’m very young – I came out early. That’s the thing with these other guys: they’ve been around a long time.”
You’ve played for a couple of high profile coaches in the NBA in Pat Riley and Don Nelson. How do those two compare?
“I think they’re very different. They’re very good coaches, but they both have very different styles. Riley, maybe he knows more details and stuff. But Nelson gives you a lot of freedom and independence. The system is a little different.”
Is coaching that much different or advanced in the NBA as it is in Europe?
“Basketball here is so much different. It’s a different style of basketball. The shot clock and the rules are different. This no-zone defence here in the NBA, for one thing. In Europe you can play zone – always double-teaming. It’s so much different. In Europe it’ smuch slower and not that physical.”
Are you in favour of allowing the zone in the NBA?
“I don’t know. It could make a slight difference. One year we should try that. Let’s see what happens!”
When did you first think you had a chance to make it in the NBA?
“I was always hopeful, I always thought, ‘I’m gonna make it.’ Like every kid probably right now who’s in college or high school, everyone thinks they’re gonna make it. I’m very optimistic. I’ve always been very optimistic.”
How difficult have the adjustments been to make?
“I get along everywhere. I mean, I’ve been in Israel, Sweden, I’ve been away from home since I was 17 years old. I make friends everywhere. I didn’t have a hard time with anything. It’s been easy for me.”
How about on the court?
“Oh, yeah. I mean, everything was new for me. I really didn’t expect to get drafted. But it happened fast, so I had to learn really quickly all these different rules, illegal defence. I hadn’t even thought that I’d have to learn that much. Because in Europe you only have a couple of plays. Here, when the point guard comes up the court, without him signaling anything, you have to already know the play. It was really kind of hard the first half of the season in Miami to learn all that. Plus, it’s just quicker, faster basketball.”
What do you miss most about home?
“Friends. But every summer we get together and have fun. My homeys!”
Do you have any good friends in the NBA?
“Yeah. A really good friend of mine is (Vitaly) Potapenko. And (Zydryunas) Ilgauskas. Ilgauskas is from my neighbouring country (Lithuania) and we’re very close. It’s one of the Baltic states. And with Potapenko, I played on the Soviet junior national team when I was 16, 17. We played two years together. And it was really fun. So we got together here at the – how you call it? – the transition programme, where all the rookies go before every season. We were really happy to see each other. We hadn’t heard from each other in a long time.”
Do you see yourself ever returning to play in Europe?
“Who knows? I have one more year left. Hopefully I’ll get better. I want to improve myself here. If not, I’ll go back and I’ll play there. But I don’t really have any plans right now.”
At Dallas, you were playing many positions. At times you even brought the ball up the court.
“That’s the Nellie system. He likes to create all kinds of mismatches. He wants every player to play different positions.”
What are your strengths?
“I think I’m a little quicker than other fours or fives in the league, so I can play four and three. It depends what three man I’m guarding.”
What do you think you need to work on?
“I need to lift weights and just get consistent. Every game, get five rebounds and 10 points.”
Dallas beat the Bulls after trailing by 19 in the fourth quarter and you also beat the Pacers, the Sonics twice… Why do you think that is?
“We didn’t have a lot of pressure on us. Everybody went out there and tried to have fun and play as well as they could. Everybody was just happy – the whole bench had started to play. Maybe it should have been that way from the beginning of the season.”
Dallas got a reputation as a team of distractions. Especially when Nellie arrived and made all those trades. Everyone thought he was crazy…
“Yeah, a lot of people think he’s crazy. But crazy in a good way! He gave us a lot of freedom and we can’t really be sad or mad about it.”
A lot of Dallas fans didn’t want you guys to win, because they want to get a higher draft pick…
“That was tough for the players – we couldn’t think like that. Every year there are so many changes so we couldn’t think like that. We just wanted to win. We couldn’t go out to lose. We didn’t really care about that. We wanted to make ourselves feel good. When it comes to draft picks, it really doesn’t matter if it’s a three or a six. There are a lot of great players coming out.”
Were you expecting to stay in Dallas?
“I’d already experienced this before. I was at Miami and we had a morning practice. And at lunch time I had a phone call and had to take a plane and go and play in Utah with the Mavericks.”
Was that a big shock for you?
“I didn’t even play that much. So I thought nobody knew me. So why should they take me? But you’ve got to be happy. You have to take it like somebody wants you. So you turn up and try to give them what they want.”