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The mood inside Capital One Arena on a rainy and frigid fall evening in late November feels buoyant, even playful. The tense drama that has enveloped the Washington Wizards this season is absent. About half an hour after Washington defeated the New Orleans Pelicans, 124-114, on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving, Tomáš Satoranský walks from the shower toward his locker and immediately asks for forgiveness from teammate Jason Smith. “Apologies, please,” says Satoranský, a sheepish smile across his face.
In a pre-recorded video played on the Jumbotron during a timeout in the game, a Monumental Sports & Entertainment employee asked Satoranský who on the team has the worst style. “He’s going to hate me, but Jason Smith,” replied the 27-year-old guard.
“A teammate can’t do that to a teammate,” jokes Smith in the locker room. “We’re beefing right now. We might need to mediate this.”
This counts as a teammate controversy for Satoranský, who is in his third season with the Wizards and has earned a reputation as a positive presence on a team not known for its chemistry or camaraderie. Reports of dysfunction among the Wizards and publicly vented frustrations from head coach Scott Brooks and players have dominated headlines. Reporters have speculated about which players are on the trading block, and the Wizards have at various points had the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
But amid the chaos, Brooks and Wizards players have repeatedly praised Satoranský and stressed how his energy and professionalism have helped Washington in ways not entirely visible on game days. Satoranský, a celebrity in his native Czech Republic but a relative unknown among American sports fans, is a crucial part of the team’s success, those on the team say, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheets.
“He’s a point guard that gets people into positions, gets the ball moving,” says Smith, one of Satoranský’s closest friends on the Wizards. “He plays basketball the right way and he goes out there and plays with a lot of heart and effort—the kind of stuff that you really can’t teach.”
Nearly everyone in Satoranský’s family played volleyball. But the sport, with its rigid formations, and stop-and-go plays, didn’t appeal to him. Basketball better suited his personality.
“I always like creative things,” he says. “I think basketball is more creative than volleyball. I always said that to my family. They don’t like to hear that. I just always liked the action … and I feel like there’s always something going on in basketball. It’s not boring at any point. That was for me the biggest thing about it.”
Satoranský started playing in elementary school around age 7, and within a few years he was competing against boys two to three years older, he says. For Christmas one year, his family bought him a book of NBA history, which he devoured. He loved the movie Space Jam, featuring several of the league’s superstars, and stayed up late (due to the time difference, the games would air in the early mornings) to watch Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, his favorite team. He idolized Manu Ginobili.
The young boy from Prague also decorated his room with photos of NBA players. There was one of Michael Jordan, a large framed poster of Kevin Garnett, and another of Dwight Howard winning the 2008 NBA Slam Dunk Contest dressed as Superman.
Howard, 32, is now his lockermate in Washington.
“Yeah, I was obsessed,” Satoranský says. “Then when the internet came, I watched a ton of highlights. I loved it.”
Satoranský laughs at how he used to talk so much about the NBA that friends and family members had to tell him to stop. His friends at school didn’t really understand his obsession. In the Czech Republic, a country with a population of under 11 million, soccer, ice hockey, and tennis are all more popular than basketball, and only four Czech natives, including former Wizards player Jan Veselý, have suited up in the NBA.
But Satoranský continued to dream. Even at a young age, he dared to imagine playing against the best in the world.
Professional basketball shooting coach Stefan Weissenböck remembers first seeing Satoranský in action over a decade ago. At that time, Satoranský was on his way to becoming the youngest player to join the Czech senior national team at 16.
Weissenböck, whose mother is Czech, visited the country to recruit young players for his club team in Germany and was immediately impressed by the confident and explosive playmaker.
“He’s a point guard in the body of a [shooting guard-small forward], so tall, and dynamic, and such a creative person,” says Weissenböck, the head of player development for Brose Bamberg, one of Germany’s top teams, and a consultant for the Brooklyn Nets. “He has played point guard his whole life, and that motor that he has, the openness to lead and connect, that was impressive already at an early age.”
The two started working together before Satoranský’s first season with the Wizards in 2016 and meet for about a week each off season to work on various shooting drills. Weissenböck watches all of Satoranský’s possessions and provides video analysis after games.
Before joining Washington, Satoranský starred for Baloncesto Sevilla in Spain from 2009 until 2014 and then FC Barcelona Lassa from 2014 to 2016. (The Wizards drafted him 32nd overall in the 2012 NBA Draft with the intention of letting him develop in Europe for a few years before bringing him to D.C.) Well known NBA players who hail from Spain, including Pau Gasol and Ricky Rubio, have also played for Barca Lassa.
In the 2013-14 season, Satoranský led Sevilla to a 18-16 record and was the team’s co-scoring leader, averaging 12.4 points per game. In his last season in Europe, Satoranský was the starting point guard for Barca, which finished with a 29-5 record in the Liga ACB, Spain’s top professional basketball division.
Growing up in the European system, Satoranský learned how to share the ball. Coaches did not expect one star player to take over like in the NBA, and European teams provided more camaraderie, says Satoranský. Teammates ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together on road trips and players always had a roommate in hotel rooms.
“I kind of like [that],” Satoranský says. “It brings the team together. I felt like I spent more time with my teammates back then.” But, he adds, the European routine would be difficult to replicate during the far-longer NBA season. In Washington, Satoranský has been able to find his own close group through mutual interests and similar personalities and says he often goes to dinner with Smith, Ian Mahinmi, Otto Porter Jr., and Jeff Green.
It also helps having another European player on the team. Satoranský and his wife, Ana, who’s due to give birth to the couple’s first child in February, also hang out with Mahinmi, a native of France, and his wife, outside of basketball.
“If you’re going to be around somebody for so long, it’s important to have fun, it’s important to like each other,” says Mahinmi. “Tomáš is definitely my guy.”
Satoranský arrived in the NBA with a clean slate. He says he felt that none of his accomplishments in Europe mattered in his new country and city. For the Wizards, he went long stretches without minutes on the floor. His confidence dropped, and doubts crept into his mind. His friends back home would send him screenshots of them playing as Satoranský on NBA 2K. At least he was getting court time in a video game, he thought.
Satoranský also had to stop some of his old habits. Even though he’s known as a positive teammate, his competitiveness has occasionally boiled over. In Europe, he would often kick the ball across the court after frustrating practices. “It was hard to be around me when I lost,” he laughs.
The only reason he stopped doing that in D.C. is because the Wizards, according to Satoranský, have a rule that punishes such behavior: Players who have an outburst must buy a suit for each assistant coach. “It’s too expensive,” he says. But Satoranský still curses in his native language and brings his own unique personality to the team. “It’s too expensive,” Satoranský says. But he still curses in his native language and brings his own unique personality to the team. During a practice in Dallas last month, Satoranský shouted, “Detlef Schrempf!” and names of other European ex-NBA players after taking jump shots to test his teammates’ knowledge, and to bring some levity to the workouts.
“Tomáš is a clown. Tomáš is one of the funniest guys on the team,” says Austin Rivers, before pausing. “He probably is the funniest guy on the team.”
Last season, a John Wall injury thrust Satoranský into a starting role. The Wizards began to play with improved ball movement, which led to Bradley Beal’s infamous quote that “everybody eats.” (Beal later clarified that the comment was not meant as a shot at Wall, who missed 27 games.)
Asked if last year’s results and his teammates’ praise means that the team is better with him on the floor, Satoranský is quick to emphasize that Wall is the best player on the team. “I mean, you want me to say we were better without John or what do you want me to say? I’m not going to say that cause I don’t think it’s true,” he says. “But we just found good style of basketball, which we should play all the time and John’s been doing it a lot.”
His impact, teammates say, is not always noticeable, though his hustle plays and instant energy provide a boost for the Wizards. He is, in other words, the type of selfless player that Brooks has been looking for in what has been a frustrating season. Through 24 games, Satoranský is averaging 5.0 points and 2.7 assists in 15.7 minutes per game.
“Anytime you have someone out there who just has that solid foundation, you can just trust him,” Rivers says. “If he’s on the floor, Tomáš ain’t going to do nothing to fuck up the game. That’s an asset, just having someone solid out there all the times.”
When Green was ruled out with an injury earlier this month against the Brooklyn Nets, Brooks inserted Satoranský into the starting lineup for the first time this season. The team would go on to win, 102-88, and Brooks called Satoranský “a great part of our win.”
“He does everything that when you first started playing the game, you did,” Brooks continued. “You share the ball and you play as hard as you can. And when you do that, I needed to reward him. And I think it’s well deserved. The team loves it because he plays hard and you celebrate his effort.”
Photos by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.