Follow FIBA on Facebook
Palau looking to go out on a high
PRAGUE (FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017) - This is the last appearance at FIBA EuroBasket Women for Spain’s veteran playmaker Laia Palau. But not necessarily her last international competition.
The flamboyant left-handed point guard stands out on the court. She may be 37 years old now, but Palau still possesses razor-sharp instincts for a pass or steal, and that never-ending love of entertaining the fans.
Announcing her intention to leave her home of the last four seasons at ZVVZ USK Prague, the club she led to EuroLeague Women glory in 2015, as well as her last appearance at FIBA EuroBasket Women, Palau was well aware that the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain in 2018 hovered on the horizon: "Is it tempting? Of course."
Palau explained that her short-term intention is to take a step back on a personal level: "Because the last 15 years, really I have this feeling - I’m tired. I’m okay physically and enjoying it, but I need to take a break. So then we’ll see - I cannot take a decision now. Everyone’s asking but for me the important thing is to practice well today and wake up tomorrow and have a good game. Every day counts. I can’t talk about how I will feel in six months because I simply don’t know."
Palau recently confirmed that she will move to Australian WNBL club Dandenong Rangers, an experience that she is looking forward to: "I’m so happy, really excited. I’m at a point now where I feel like I did more or less everything in my life. But I haven’t done this, so now I’m excited for my future, and seeing a new world and different things."
Palau will always be fondly remembered in Prague after a glittering run, which saw the team reach the EuroLeague Women Final Four in three successive seasons, including winning the trophy in 2015. Palau also set a EuroLeague Women record, racking up a total of 1,133 assists for her career.
"This FIBA EuroBasket Women is a special championship for me because I feel half at home here," she says. "For me, it’s one of the best places to play as a EuroLeague Women team, because you are in the middle of Europe and this city is really beautiful - every day I come home like, today was a nice day, I had some beauty in my eyes.
"It’s a small city - everything is really close so it’s easy. It’s so comfortable to live here. And with the club we had four really successful years together, and I felt like family in this club. So for me I’m leaving because I wanted to leave, it felt like this cycle was finished. But forever it will be one place in my heart, because it was four years where I felt really good, and I finished developing into the player and the person that I am now."
She’s been joined by compatriot Marta Xargay at club level for the last two seasons: "For me, she’s the kind of key player that I would want to have always in my team."
Xargay’s development has impressed Palau: "She’s becoming a very big player, and still she’s so young, only 26. I’m always saying the best years are 28, 29, but I think Marta when she was younger, she was already playing like an older player. I’m looking forward to seeing her next year in USK - she will have to be the base of the team. It will be another step in her career."
Palau’s departure will inevitably leave a big hole for ZVVZ USK Prague and the Spanish national team to fill - but Leticia Romero could prove to be an ideal replacement in both situations. Romero will join ZVVZ USK Prague for the 2017/18 season, and Palau sees great potential in the young playmaker: "I think Leticia will be the future point guard of Spain, and she’s young. In Prague they like to work like this, long co-operations with people who are engaged with the project.
"She’s so talented, but the problem is, here in the national team, she doesn’t have space yet, because we have two point guards who are experienced in front of her, plus you can have Anna Cruz or Marta covering - it’s a lot of people who are top-level players," says Palau of Spain’s backcourt depth. "But she’s smart and really talented - she has that court vision, the eyes and the head to be a top point guard. Maybe not exactly an old school point guard like me! But i think with time on the court and confidence, she can really manage the team and show her skills."
Spain take on Belgium in the Semi-Final, with Palau well aware that the first-timers present a threat: "We played them in preparation - I’m happy for this, it means we know what we will face, or at least we have an idea. The first game was so hard, even if we got the win. The second match was easier, but I think they were tired, so we are not underestimating them for sure.
"For me they have one of the best duos inside in Europe and they are smart, they know the game, they know how to read the action," says Palau of star players Emma Meesseman and Ann Wauters. "They know how to play and everybody is working for this, so they are dangerous, because I think that they feel confident and comfortable. They don’t feel like they have anything to lose, and we will face a team that for sure will be 40 minutes strong defense and hard work."
Whatever the result, Palau is quick to underline the dedication required to bring Spain back to the top level time and again: "There’s never any guarantee, because the line between victory or defeat is so thin - you never know, maybe some injury or some mess in the team, or no chemistry suddenly, it can happen. I’m happy that we avoid these things every year - we keep together a lot, and we enjoy being in this group, and we’re able to reach the goals in this way. It’s not only about the result, but also about the way we work."
Looking to the future, Palau is enthused by the blank canvas in front of her, although she admits that her passion for basketball could well lead to involvement in coaching: "I like basketball, and I like to teach too. It doesn’t have to be a high level, it can be kids or youth teams. This last 15-20 years was all basketball, so maybe now it will be 50 percent basketball and other 50 percent will be empty, so I don’t know how I want to build the other part. I will study for sure, but otherwise, maybe I’m surfing in the morning and I won’t want to know anything about basketball! So my future is open and that’s exciting for me."
With her distinctive style - hands down and playing with cat-like reflexes on defense, and throwing passes that most people can’t imagine on offense - it’s easy to imagine Palau’s basketball talents bewildering some youth coaches. How would coach Palau deal with Laia the player?
"It’s a good question! Firstly, the fundamentals are important. And then, there are people who can play in another way, and it’s not like my way is better, but for me, how can I explain the flow of the game? I worked on my dribbling drills when I was young, so now I don’t really feel the ball. You have to see everything and don’t care about the ball until the pass - you have to know the spacing and who is moving so you need to have your head up. Reading the game, and the way that you are on the court and you’re seeing what your defender is doing, that’s the most important."
If Palau can enjoy another fairytale ending in Prague, it will be the perfect end to her FIBA EuroBasket Women career. And maybe her move will rejuvenate her and inspire one last go at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in 2018. The curtain may be drawing on one of Europe’s greats - but no-one would begrudge her such a swansong.