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10 Livia Gereben (HUN), LAT vs HUN
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Sonja Petrovic, FIBA Women’s EuroBasket, EuroLeague Women – Gereben is on a mission

SOPRON (FIBA U20 Women’s European Championship 2018) – Livia Gereben is putting her name up in lights at the FIBA U20 Women’s European Championship 2018 and is thriving on the pressure it’s bringing.

For any athlete, embracing pressure, rather than crumbling under the weight of expectation is essential in the pursuit of success.

Hungary and Gereben need to deliver in Sopron and harness the energy of the home support, while simultaneously keeping the burden of expectation at arms’ length. They may be weakened with a string of key absences, but don’t expect anyone to remember this, if they fall short.

Now is the time. Understrength or not.

“They say our generation of 1998 and 1999 players is the best [Hungary have ever had] but we have not even been in the top four of any tournament yet and so this is our biggest chance,” said Gereben.

“Even if I personally have another year at U20, I think if we can’t be in the Top four this year, then this generation obviously never will be. In past years we have had pressure as well and it’s good, because we know what we have to do.

“It’s really good we can play on a home court - it is a positive motivation for everybody and for the team. I like to play in front of a lot of people.”

The Szerkszard sisters

Gereben isn’t used to such a friendly atmosphere at the Novomatic Arena. Right now, as one of the most productive players in the tournament, she is the darling of the locals. But push the rewind button to when she won the Hungarian Cup with KSC Szekszard against Sopron Basket and the atmosphere was markedly different.

“It is a little bit strange because when I was playing in the Cup, everyone was being bad towards me, but now they are cheering and supporting me a lot,” laughed Gereben.

Reminiscing about the Cup victory, it ultimately also makes her think of her teammates, some of who are now alongside her in Hungarian vests, albeit with one gaping absence – Dorka Juhasz.

In a split second, the smile evaporates when she is reminded of one of Hungary’s injured absentees at the event.

She stated: “I really miss Dorka and it is hard for the team that she can’t be here, but especially for me, as she is my best friend. But, we just have to focus on who is here and who we have as we can’t think or care too long about this.”

At least Gereben does have club teammates Virag Kiss and Agnes Studer alongside her. The trio are very much the leading lights for Hungary and their respective contributions will be the driving force behind their title bid. 

All three players are also hoping they will have double cause for celebration, with a deep run in this competition, followed by EuroLeague Women debuts with Szekszard.

“It’s a big thing for me to play with Virag and Agnes for the national team as we practise all year together and we know everything about each other,” she explained.

Next stop: A meeting with Sonja Petrovic?

“It is our motivation to all play EuroLeague Women and I hope that we can win the Qualifiers because it would be a huge experience of me, Virag and Agnes, so we will do everything we can to achieve this.

“I really can’t believe I might playing in EuroLeague Women, because I will get to play against players that I was watching on TV when I was little. Back then, I was like 'wow! They are on the TV and I want to play like this too.’”

Ask who in particular she used to watch and who she would most look forward to playing and the answer is emphatic. It is also instant - Sonja Petrovic. The eyes of Gereben light up at the very mention of the name. Although she is keen to stress that she would only be left ‘starstruck’ outside of the 40 minutes of playing time.

“I would want to do a photo together and afterwards, I would also thank her and tell her what an honor it was to play against her. I really hope I get to do that in EuroLeague Women…but I would also make sure I still played hard against her and I would not be worried.”

Finding the balance

Gereben is used to looking up to role models from the Balkans. Take last season with Szekszard for example.

“I played with a Serbian in Sara Krnjic and two fantastic Slovenian players, Teja Obalk and Maja Erkic. They were all amazing in helping me and Maja was my second mother. I have to say a thank you to her especially, as she taught me a lot and was always by my side when I had any bad moments.

Slovenian veteran Maja Erkic has been like a second mother to Gereben

“When I moved to Szekszard I was only 16 and I had to learn everything and I am thankful for my teammates. They were my second family.”

As comforting as it was to have the support of more experienced players in the locker room during a demanding season of extensive travel to various countries in EuroCup Women, there is no true substitute for Gereben’s number one inspiration.

“My parents and my family watch every game and this is the biggest motivation that I have - to make them proud of me. They are always by my side,” she declared. Having that essential combination of supportive colleagues and family around has been vital during what is a critical time for teenage athletes trying to balance sporting and educational commitments.

“It was hardest for me during this last year because I had to take final exams and could not always attend school” reflected Gereben. “But my teachers know what I am doing and I still managed to pass my exams, so now I would like to start studying economics at University.”

Keen to push on and develop in every aspect of her life, her basketball aspirations don’t merely revolve around the last four here in Sopron or a dream meeting with Sonja Petrovic in EuroLeague Women. Playing against Petrovic in Serbia at the Women’s EuroBasket 2019 is potentially within reach and that really does feel like it would be something special.

“It is my goal to make the tournament,” stated Gereben enthusiastically. “I was recently in the senior squad of 16 and the coach said good things to me and so it remains my biggest motivation to be in the final 12” she added.

Based on the way she is playing at the moment in Sopron, you would not back against her being on the plane to FIBA Women’s EuroBasket.