COLUMBIA — There was nothing unusual about the day Jiri Hubalek almost got a free plane ticket home to the Czech Republic.
It was December 2006, a few days after Christmas. Most Iowa State students were at home with their families. Hubalek was where he spends most of his time these days, the Hilton Coliseum.
The men’s basketball team was looking for answers when it took the floor to practice that day. The Cyclones were 8-5, but all five losses had come in the last seven games. When Hubalek took the floor, he knew coach Greg McDermott was watching him. He always was.
Since McDermott arrived the previous spring, he saw a potentially strong post player in the 6-foot-11, 200-pound junior. But Hubalek, who grew up playing the European, finesse style of basketball, was content to keep shooting jump shots.
So, as usual, Hubalek continued to do just that.
And then McDermott snapped.
“He was about five minutes from being on the plane back to the Czech Republic right after Christmas,” McDermott said. “And he and I finally had it out.”
McDermott and Hubalek had spoken in private about the issue, but on this day it all came out in the middle of practice.
“During the practice, I was doing my own thing and he wanted me to do something else,” Hubalek said. “That’s when he pretty much…” He fades out.
McDermott offered to buy Hubalek a plane ticket home that day, for good.
But he never considered leaving.
When faced with the threat of being kicked off the team, leaving the life he came 5,000 miles to live, saying goodbye to the fans he adored, giving up on a college degree and the teammates he respected, things finally started to make sense.
“I would not leave,” Hubalek said. “I wanted to make it happen.”
Hubalek worked hard in practice, finally putting his earnest effort into becoming a low-post player, and his numbers began improving.
He started watching more film of himself, analyzing both his good games and the bad.
The senior-to-be spent the summer bulking up and he arrived at fall practice with 25 additional pounds of muscle.
With two games left in the regular season, Hubalek is posting career highs in a number of areas. His scoring has improved from 11.2 to 13 points per game, and his rebounding is up from 6.8 to 7.4. Even his turnovers are down and his 3-point percentage is up.
“I don’t think coach Mac was asking for the world or anything, he just thought a 6-11 guy might need to give us a little more presence down in the block,” assistant coach Jeff Rutter said. “To Jiri’s credit, he has definitely incorporated that into his game and he has given us a much need scoring punch, both inside and out, that we desperately have needed and need more of.”
It’s been more than four years since Hubalek arrived at Des Moines International Airport and didn’t have a ride waiting. His plane from Europe had been delayed so long that his coach at Marshalltown Community College was no longer waiting.
“And that’s how my journey started,” Hubalek said.
Hubalek grew up in Prague, the capitol and largest city in the Czech Republic. But unlike most of his friends who were playing hockey and soccer, Hubalek preferred basketball and tennis.
“Basketball is not very popular,” Hubalek said. “I have a passion for the game but it’s not important in Czech republic at all.”
In the third grade, when Hubalek had to pick one sport, he chose basketball, just like his father.
Thirteen years later, it looks to be the right choice.
Hubalek didn’t score well enough on the SAT to get into any four-year universities, so he settled for junior college at Marshalltown, Iowa.
He had come to this country to play basketball and get a college degree, and that’s what he spent his time doing.
After one year, he joined Iowa State under former coach Wayne Morgan and continued to do the same. Study and play basketball. None of that changed when McDermott took over in the spring of 2006.
Missouri should be well aware of Hubalek. The last time the teams played he scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 72-67 win for Iowa State. The teams play again tonight at Mizzou Arena. Hubalek is Iowa State’s leading scorer and rebounder.
“We’re going to miss him,” Rutter said. “We sure wish that we had him for another year or two. I guess if there is any compliment that can be given that’s a pretty strong one.”