The time was running out. Between the autograph session and the training session, Johannes Thiemann picked up the phone to talk to WELT about the upcoming European Basketball Championship. The 28-year-old will play the opening game against France with the German team in the Cologne Arena on Thursday (8.30 p.m., Magentasport). Thiemann sees the tournament as a great opportunity for German basketball to gain popularity among the general public, but he also takes the sport and its athletes seriously.
WORLD: Mr. Thiemann, what is it like for you to write autographs?
Johannes Thiemann: (thinks briefly) In the meantime it has become more normal. It sometimes feels a bit crazy that strangers want me to write my name on their shirt. Of course, I love doing it and I’m happy when I make children or adults happy with my signature. A cool feeling.
WORLD: That sounds like it already has a deeper meaning for you.
Thiemann: Just now, for example, we had an autograph session with the national team, where we were presented with 500 jerseys that we all had to sign one after the other. At some point you start to wonder how many there are. (laughs) But when people come up to me after the games and ask for an autograph, then I see that as a sign of respect for me. When I see the children waiting excitedly and then immediately running to their friends and proudly showing them my signature, I’m just really happy. It’s nice when I can give something back.
WORLD: Has the attention for you as a basketball professional in Germany changed in recent years?
Thiemann: Yes, definitely. Especially with the sporting success with Alba (Berlin, third championship title in a row, editor’s note) and the award as the best player in the final series, I feel a different kind of appreciation. In my opinion, Berlin is a very anonymous city, in the sense that you can go for a walk there as a professional athlete without fans circling you. But I’ve noticed that people are now asking for a photo or autograph more often. It’s nice that it’s increased over the past few years.
WORLD: Despite three championships in a row and the increased attention, your club has to look for a new venue because the contract with the Mercedes-Benz Arena has not been extended. A scenario that is difficult to imagine in football.
Thiemann: I’ve only followed the topic marginally in the past few weeks. Certainly, football still has a much higher priority than basketball in this country. I think that will never be the same in Germany and Europe in general. That’s okay in a way, because football is more in focus. I’m not saying that football should be the focus of attention, but it would be nice if other sports were given a bigger presence. It’s immensely important that we as the national team do our part. In order to get more people interested in our sport, we have to play successfully.
WORLD: At the European Championships in Munich, there was a real hype about less popular and successful sports. Is this also possible for basketball?
Thiemann: Definitely. I think everyone did track and field at school, but didn’t necessarily play basketball. Maybe that’s why many people lack a connection to the sport. For me, however, another point is more decisive: it can only work if the types of sport apart from football are also pushed more in media coverage. I think you have to make people aware of other sports in a targeted manner. German basketball has become seriously attractive in recent years. When I watch sports programs and – to put it bluntly – there is no mention that Alba Berlin has become German champion, then I find that a shame.
WORLD: Do you also get this feedback from viewers?
Thiemann: A lot of people come to me who have been to a basketball game for the first time, were impressed and want to come back. They say the energy in the hall was great and there was something happening on the field all the time, they felt an excitement all the time. I am convinced that once you get people into the hall, they will see that basketball is a very entertaining sport.
WORLD: As a team, are you aware of the opportunity offered by an EM in your own country?
Thiemann: Sure! That’s a big possibility because the attention we get as a national team at a home tournament is certainly greater than it would have been abroad. Especially since no major football event is taking place at the same time, which certainly plays into our hands. But everything stands and falls with our performance. We work hard to play and promote ourselves as successfully as possible. I’m overly excited to play the knockout rounds in Berlin. That would be a dream for me.
WORLD: In the preliminary round you will meet Slovenia around Luka Doncic. What does it mean to you to be on the floor with such a superstar?
Thiemann: Personally, I’m definitely looking forward to the duel. They beat us at the Tokyo Olympics, so I hope we can return the favor. Apart from that, Luka Doncic is just an incredibly good player. I would bet on him being voted MVP next NBA season. The guy is really outstanding. We only have a chance if we defend as a team. An outstanding player on the opponent’s side shouldn’t be enough to defeat us.
WORLD: Doncic is considered a quite extroverted player. How much of it do you get in the game?
Thiemann: He talks a lot on the field. You can just see that he can read the game. The way he analyzes rotations in defense and then plays the ball exactly where there is weakness is incredibly clever and impressive. He is usually one or two steps ahead of his opponents. In addition, for a point guard, he has a body that makes defending extremely difficult.
WORLD: Doncic is now one of the figureheads in the NBA. In US sports, the players and their stories are much more offensively placed in the foreground by the leagues when marketing the sport.
Thiemann: That’s right. The NBA is the best example for me. How the league markets its stars around LeBron James and exploits its opportunities is impressive. Of course, US sport is also a pioneer because there is generally huge interest in it in the States. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that here in Germany we can be much more consistent when it comes to player marketing in order to get more people excited about basketball. To do that, the players would just have to be much more involved. We have enough professionals in the Bundesliga who have the reach to reach people outside of the basketball cosmos.
WORLD: As a German national player, did you feel a greater interest from the league and potential sponsors after your award as the most valuable player in the final series?
Thiemann: It definitely had the effect that people congratulated me. But it was not used for marketing purposes.
WORLD: As a basketball professional, do you struggle a little with it when the NFL is hosting a game in Germany and the media interest and the rush for the tickets are huge?
Thiemann: No, not that. You have to differentiate and realize that the German football league almost completely lacks the attention of the general public. But the NFL, just like the NBA, is an enormously strong brand that, thanks to clever marketing, also manages to be attractive in Europe. An NBA game would probably be sold out immediately in Germany because the fans have the chance to experience their stars. You go into the hall to see LeBron James.
WORLD: In addition to your career, you have been studying business psychology for some time, despite a tight schedule with the Bundesliga and Euroleague. How did that happen?
Thiemann: I’ve always had an interest in psychology and have read a few books on it. That fascinates me, especially topics like the right mindset in sport. If basketball hadn’t worked out, studying psychology would have been an option for me earlier. The decisive point, however, was the first corona lockdown: three weeks at home without sport, it felt like a short life crisis, like a serious injury. I didn’t know what the future would bring.
WORLD: What was going through your head at the time?
Thiemann: I thought: Wow, what actually happens when the sport is over now? I have to be more than a basketball player as a person. It was minor identity crisis. I then came to the conclusion that it was a good time to get more involved with studying. Since then I’ve been studying part-time, only when the schedule allows it. I would like to pass on my knowledge from sports and studies after my career.
WORLD: Does studying on the basketball field help you?
Thiemann: To some extent. You don’t get really deep insights into the subject in the first few semesters, but it’s interesting to understand how the human psyche works.
WORLD: You will soon be on the floor at the European Championships. The tournament will take place without the Russian team. Referring to the war in Ukraine, you once said: “One is not only an athlete, but also a human being.” What role does the topic play within the team?
Thiemann: I have no words for what is happening in Ukraine. We players didn’t explicitly talk about the fact that Russia isn’t taking part in the European Championship. However, the exclusion of Russian teams from sports competitions is understandable and a clear signal to the world of Russia’s actions. It is to be hoped that the sanctions will have an effect.
WORLD: People often try to separate sport and politics. You, on the other hand, express – not for the first time – a clear opinion. Why should athletes position themselves clearly on political and social issues?
Thiemann: As an athlete, I’m in a position where I can influence and polarize. I don’t have several million followers on social media, but I still want to position myself. If everyone in their small circle – in whatever debate – can get one or two people to think, then that is a great success. In my opinion, as an athlete, it is simply wrong to say that politics and sport do not belong together.
WORLD: It certainly requires a certain courage for you as an athlete in public. Have you ever felt that your opinion was met with criticism?
Thiemann: Not really. I am aware that I can also cause offense with my statements. Not everyone shares the same opinion, of course. In the US, a TV presenter said some time ago that basketball stars like LeBron James should keep their mouths shut on political issues and just keep dribbling. ‘Shut up and dribble’ was the quote. That was a blatant statement to me: you’re just an athlete and you get paid to dribble the ball and have no opinion.
WORLD: What role does life experience play?
Thiemann: I have to say: the older I get, the more integrated I am in the sports world, the more I dare to make my statements. It’s much more difficult at the beginning of your career. Basically, I think that you should position yourself when you see a clear injustice. That’s the only way things can move.
WORLD: One issue that affects sport and thus also basketball is the looming energy crisis in Germany. What consequences do you see for youth and amateur sports in particular?
Thiemann: It has already been communicated in various places that there could be problems with the energy supply in winter. There is no question that it would be sad if sports halls could not be heated and were closed. A solution is needed for the sport to continue. It’s not just a small part of the responsibility, we have to stick together as a country.