Bostjan Nachbar Uses Platform To Help The World


Making all of the transitions necessary for success in the NBA is hard enough, but it’s only amplified when a player is moving into an entirely new country with its own culture and set of customs.

This was the case for former first round pick Bostjan Nachbar, a native of Slovenia who made the jump to the NBA as a 22-year old.

While his transition to the NBA would be one that took big adjustments both on and off of the court, the challenges that he had to overcome in his childhood were much bigger than basketball. As Nachbar tells Nothin’ But Nets, his family was required to move due to a war happening in his own backyard.

“Without having the Internet and all the information that we have now, you weren’t really as aware of everything that was going on. The Soviet Union falling was obviously a big deal, but the war in Yugoslavia was much closer to us. Those were not easy times and I remember some fights in my hometown and my family had to move to a different part of town to get away from the fighting. Those were scary times and it helped me understand the fear of war early in my life and I wouldn’t want anyone to experience it, even though many people are living through it today,” Nachbar said.

With the move to the new area, Nachbar was able to follow his passion for basketball and at just 17 years old, he made his professional debut for Union Olimpija in Slovenia.

“I didn’t feel overwhelmed at the time, but as I look back it was an interesting time and a very strange time for me. To be able to be a 17-year old playing in the Euroleague was an incredible honor and it ended up giving me a big boost in the rest of my career. When you’re young things go by so fast and you just live in the moment, but now that I look back I certainly feel back that time was special for me.”

As the years went on and Nachbar passed his 20th birthday, he began to envision making the jump to the NBA. He chose to enter his name into the 2001 NBA Draft but given that he was projected to go in the second round, he rescinded and chose to return to his team for one more year.

“I went back to the team that I was playing with where Mike D’Antoni was coaching and he gave me the chance to start and I really took full advantage of it. It was only a matter of time before scouts were showing up to practices and games to see me play and by that point I knew that I would be a first round pick the following draft.”

Though he wasn’t certain where he would end up, he had received enough interest that he was confident he would be a first rounder. The mere thought of that would have sounded crazy as he was growing up in a war-torn country, but Nachbar was making it a reality.

“I had heard that I could go as high as 10 or 11 or as low as 19 to Utah, but I was just happy to be able to achieve my dream of playing in the NBA. I had told my friends in elementary school that I would play in the NBA when I grew up and they probably thought I was crazy, but it happened for me.”

Draft day had finally arrived and while he had spoken with some teams, there was still a sense of uncertainty as to where he’d be headed. Clarity finally came when the Houston Rockets chose him with the 15th overall pick.

“Even though they had promised me before the draft that I would be picked 15th, I knew there was a possibility that things would change so I was prepared for that. I went into draft night hoping to get picked by Houston, but at the same time I was ready to go anywhere because I just wanted to play in the NBA. When Houston finally did pick me and I got to walk up and shake hands with David Stern, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Before he had even had the chance to get started with the team, Nachbar had to make the huge transition to living in the United States.

“The adjustment to the United States was pretty big. I had been to the US before but only for a week or so to play in the Nike Hoops Summit, so the move to living there full-time was a big one. Whether it was the food or the culture or just living in a city of Houston with so many people, it took about a full year to really fully adjust. With that being said, I loved the people there and loved every minute of it and never had regrets about coming at any moment.”

With all of the off-court happenings going on in the background, Nachbar was ready to get focused and after a long training camp and preseason, he made his debut in a game against the Indiana Pacers.

“I think I was definitely overwhelmed the first time that I had stepped on a court. It was something that really seemed unreal to be playing against the players I had watched on TV just a few months before. There isn’t much time to think about it though, because you have to be a professional and focus on doing your job.”

A star during his time in Slovenia and across Europe, Nachbar played a grand total of 77 minutes throughout the entirety of his rookie season, a fact which was another adjustment within itself.

“It was frustrating, but I understood that I needed time to adjust. I was not a person who cause problems in the locker room or tell the coach how disappointed that I was. The team explained that because they didn’t have a first rounder the next year, next year would basically be my rookie year and that I would use this one to get adjusted and I was fine with it.”

The team had a plan in place to find a bigger role for Nachbar heading into his second season, but plans took a massive shift when head coach Rudy Tomjanovich had to leave the team due to a bladder cancer diagnosis and Jeff Van Gundy was brought into the fold.

“I think that Jeff Van Gundy would agree that I wasn’t really his type of player. I think I kind of fell into his lap and he did what he could to fit me into his style of playing that relied on veterans and physical playing and it was just a big adjustment. I have to say, even though my game may not have meshed with his system, Jeff Van Gundy is one of the people who taught me the most as far as being a true professional and how to be mentally ready. I wasn’t able to give back to him on the court, but the things he taught me helped me tremendously later in my career.”

Along with Nachbar, the team had standouts like Yao Ming, Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis on the roster, but they were unable to get over the hump as a collective unit.

“I really think that the team was being built together with Rudy T in mind, who had a different style of coaching than Van Gundy. When Van Gundy came in, he played slower basketball and focused on getting it in to Yao under the basket. He took the ball away from Steve Francis a bit and it was a tough adjustment for some of the key players. The team ended up making some trades, but I kind of wish that the team stayed together for a few more years to see what we could have done.”

Through his two and a half-year stint with the Rockets he managed to play less than 1,000 minutes, but the experience that he gained under their coaching staff was invaluable. With Tomjanovich and Van Gundy at the helm and Steve Clifford and Tom Thibodeau as assistants, there weren’t many better situations out there for a young player.

“It was not easy to play for them because they were extremely hard workers and made us work hard, which at that time I didn’t really appreciate but it’s something that I appreciate now. They knew their stuff and I worked a lot with Steve Clifford when it came to individual techniques. Coach Thibodeau and helped elevate my defense to NBA standards and it doesn’t surprise me at all that both have become good head coaches.”

With his playing time being sporadic at best with the Rockets and him not being a great fit for the style of play that Van Gundy was looking to play, Nachbar was shipped off to the New Orleans Hornets in exchange for David Wesley.

“I knew that I was going to get traded sooner rather than later. I wanted to be traded and felt it would be best for me and Van Gundy told me that if it was possible, I would get moved. I was working hard every day, but I was not surprised when he told me that I had been traded. Even though I knew that it may be coming, it’s still pretty crazy that you can get a phone call that changes your whole life and career within a couple of minutes.”

He welcomed the move to New Orleans, though he was leaving a relatively successful Rockets team for a Hornets team that was in the midst of a season in which they would go on to win just 18 games.

“For me it was great because I knew that I would have an opportunity to play and I did play well. There was a lot less pressure on that team than on the Rockets, who were definitely in win-now mode. No one is every happy to be losing games, but it was nice to have the opportunity to play and show what I could do.”

Averaging just over 8 points per game on 37% shooting from three-point range, Nachbar had done enough to prove that he belonged in the NBA for a longer stay and the Hornets agreed by giving him a three-year contract at the conclusion of the season.

As the following season rolled around, Nachbar looked to further cement himself within the rotation. He had started over half of the games that he had played in throughout the first half of the year, which made it even more surprising when they turned around and traded him to the New Jersey Nets.

“That was definitely a big surprise because I was in the first year of my three-year contract. I knew that the Hornets were going to make a trade at that time because we had a few big men injured and we wouldn’t have been able to continue on without making a move. On the day of the trade deadline, I came home from practice and was shocked that we didn’t make a move, but when I turned on the TV I saw on the ESPN bottom line that my name was mentioned in a trade to New Jersey. I called my agent and he said it was true, but I was really just taken by surprise.”

He took some time to get settled in and only played 12 total games during his first year with the team, but going into his second year in New Jersey he was ready to fight for his role.

“I knew going into that second year that I wouldn’t earn minutes in the playoffs unless I played well into the regular season, so I came in prepared to take minutes and do anything that I could to get on the court. I ended up earning more minutes and for a majority of that season I was the sixth man, so I knew going into the playoffs that I would have a big role.”

His biggest role in the NBA also came on one of the more successful teams that he had played on, playing a crucial part of the Nets teams that were led by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.

“We had a great first series against Toronto and played well against Cleveland, but there was really no stopping the Cavaliers. I took that loss very hard and it took me awhile to realize that we had a great season even if we didn’t accomplish everything that we had set out to do.”

It was during that series in Toronto that Nachbar experienced his best moment in a Nets uniform.

“I would say there’s on-court, playing in the playoffs against the Raptors and winning in Toronto with Vince on our team and knowing how much it meant to him was great. Me having a big role was part of it, too. Off of the court, being friends with those guys and being on the road you remember those things and those stay with the team, I’m sure if i saw those guys they would remember right away. the staff were really good people.”

Even with that level of talent, much like in Houston, the team was unable to achieve their full potential. With just 34 wins the following year, the Nets were seen as a big disappointment.

“Nenad Krstic was very close to becoming an All-Star, but he got injured during the season and it was a huge blow to our team. Any team would struggle with that and we had a couple of players trying to fill his shoes and I think we suffered because of it. We struggled against teams with top-level bigs and he would have really helped. We had tons of talent, but we were kind of incomplete without Krstic. I feel like that group would have stayed together longer if they had stayed healthy.”

Although the team didn’t accomplish all that they could have, Nachbar had taken a big step forward in his development as an NBA player during his time in New Jersey.

“I think I was more mature and ready to take on a bigger role. I had worked really hard in previous years to become better, whether that had meant being a better shooter, or better defender, or better passer, I just thought that I was good as I could be at that time. I think Lawrence Frank saw that, too, so when he gave me the opportunity I just grabbed it with both hands and didn’t let go. I thought that as a forward who could shoot, I was a perfect fit to play with Jason Kidd.”

Though he had established himself in the NBA and was just 27-years old, Nachbar made the decision to leave the league and head to Russia to play for Dynamo Moscow. Though they offered him one of the largest contracts in European basketball history, it was still a heart-wrenching decision.

“That was probably one of the hardest decisions in my career. It was a very strange summer for free agents, teams were reluctant to give out contracts not just to me but to others because after the previous offseason with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, teams were holding out on giving big contracts.”

He continued, “Even though a lot of teams were interested, I didn’t feel there were any full-value offers and to be honest, it bothered me. I was looking for a long-term deal even if it meant less money because I wanted stability and I wanted to build with a team. Dynamo came at me hard and with David Blatt being their head coach and the money that they were offering, it was just something that I couldn’t pass up and looking back I would have done that deal 100 times out of 100.”

While he stuck with Moscow for a season, he has been all around Europe playing professionally since leaving the NBA. He has been featured on numerous All-Star teams and has won a variety of championships. With all of the success that he had, the NBA has come calling quite a few times.

“I had the opportunity to go back to the NBA for a smaller deal or stay in the Euroleague and sign a more lucrative contract and since my daughter had just been born, I wanted to be closer to home. Along with that, I didn’t want to take the chance of going to the NBA and not playing. When I look back, I definitely don’t regret leaving the NBA originally, but I think that maybe I should have risked it and went back the year after because the window as open for me. I have had regrets about it, but I could have ended up worse off and I’ve have a very good career in Europe, so I can’t be too upset.”

Now 35-years old, Nachbar has already made the decision to step away from international play, retiring from the Slovenia National Team in 2013 so that he was able to spend more time with his family.

“I just think it was the right moment. Being able to play in the European Championship for Slovenia in front of our home fans was incredible and as the years went on my generation of players had mostly retired, so I didn’t see a point of staying on with the team. It really opened my eyes when I was leaving for a mini-camp with the team and my daughter, who was around four at the time, asked me if I liked my teammates more than I liked my family. Obviously she didn’t really mean it at that age, but I took it hard and knew that it was time to stay with my family.”

His retirement from the National Team was not necessarily a sign for his professional career, however, as Nachbar continues to keep chugging along until his body has had enough.

“Honestly last summer was the first time I thought about retiring. I had finished my two-year contract with Barcelona and I thought about ending it there. After having played for one of the top teams in Europe, won championships around the world and played in the NBA, I didn’t know how much more was left to accomplish. After speaking with my family and talking with players that had retired when they were relatively young, everyone told me to play as long as I could because I wouldn’t be able to experience it ever again if I retired. I’m feeling better this year than last and I’m playing pretty well, so I’m just going to keep going as long as I can play at a high level. I’m not going to be a guy that’s limping around the court just to prove something, but as long as I can contribute to a team I’ll keep playing.”

In addition to his accomplishments on the court, Nachbar has been very active in his pursuits off of it. He has started the Life is Basketball project, a program that helps people with disabilities integrate into society.

“The Life is Basketball Project is something that I had started with my friends in Slovenia based on some of the work that the NBA has done in the past. What we do is connect schools and other organizations to institutions that help people with disabilities to help them integrate into society. We help these people with disabilities use basketball as a tool to interact with each other, play games and eliminate the stigma of mental illness. Quite a few schools in Slovenia are using Life in Basketball as part of their curriculum, so it’s great to see that the program is impacting lives and is continuing to grow.”

He has also chosen to take a step into the other side of the media, creating ‘The Details Podcast’ that delves into a wide range of topics that go far beyond the typical podcast from a professional athlete.

“I started listening to podcasts five or six years ago and one of my favorites is the Joe Rogan Podcast. He talks from people in all sorts of different professions, from scientists to athletes to politicians, and I felt that it was a great tool to be able to learn from. In Slovenia, they only had a few podcasts but none were all that popular, so I thought to do something similar to what Joe Rogan had done.”

He went on, “We became really popular quite quickly, of course it helped that I’m a professional athlete, but people were surprised to hear that basketball is really a minor part of it. Just recently we had talked to a journalist that was traveling with refugees through Syria and we’ve had tons of different guests on from all walks of life. It’s something that I enjoy doing because I learn something from every conversation and I like to think that the listeners do, too.”

Growing up in an environment that was not necessarily conducive to development, Bostjan Nachbar has managed to defy the odds and has made a footprint all across the world with his basketball ability. With projects like ‘Life is Basketball’, he’s using his platform in a way that many would have never thought possible.


Quick Questions

Why #7?
It was my favorite number in elementary school and I’ve just taken it whenever it’s been free. Tony Kukoc wore it, too, and I really looked up to him so that definitely played a role in it.

What advice would you have for international players moving to the NBA?
My advice would be to really make sure that you’re ready to make the jump. It’s one thing to listen to agents or parents about it, but the important thing is to feel inside that you’re ready to go. We see a lot of players that try to make the jump to the NBA that aren’t ready and they end up failing.

Another thing is that you need to keep your focus on basketball. It’s so easy to get your mind on things other than basketball because so many things are going on at once, but they need to remember that they’re there to play basketball.

How well do you think Juan Hernangomez will do in the NBA?
I think nowadays it’s so hard to say how well who’s going to fit because each situation is so specific. Each player needs to feel ready and have confidence, but then it comes down to which team picks you, who their coach is, whether their play style fits how you play, whether they have an established starter ahead of you on the depth chart and a countless amount of other things.

If you don’t play well in that first or second year teams will write you off, too, so that works against them. We’ve seen high picks move from Europe to the NBA and not make it even though they seemed like they would have great careers, so honestly its hard to give predictions on anyone. I will say that playing in Spain and playing in the Spanish League is very tough and a very technical league, so players that come from there definitely have an edge.

What do you think went wrong with David Blatt in Cleveland? What is his future?
Without being there it’s hard to judge because you don’t know what’s going on in the locker room, but from what I’ve seen and heard, I don’t think he got a fair opportunity in Cleveland. David is a coach that would still develop and grow as he spent more time in the NBA because he knows basketball at the highest possible level and he knows how to deal with players.

It was strange that they let go of a coach that had led them to the Finals the year before and then had them in first place, but there had to be more to it than what we can see. I hope he gets another chance in the NBA because I think he’ll do great. 

What is your All-Time starting lineup?
PG: Jason Kidd
SG: Michael Jordan
SF: Kobe Bryant
PF: Tim Duncan
C: Shaquille O’Neal

Who was your favorite player growing up?
Tony Kukoc was one of them, but i liked guys that were versatile; Grant Hill, Scottie Pippen and Jason Kidd even before I started playing with him. I had the opportunity to play against Tony and Grant and that was pretty nice.