This is the first in an occasional series catching up with former Gophers players.
Nine months after playing his final game for the Gophers, Blake Hoffarber has settled into a new team in a very new environment. I emailed with the 23-year-old guard, who now plays for Fos Ouest Provence in France, to ask about the Gophers’ collapse down the stretch last year, how he sees the new squad and what it’s like playing overseas.
What went into your decision to play in Europe? How much did the lockout factor in?
Ever since I was a little kid shooting up at the Hopkins gym, I have always wanted to play professional basketball. The thought of getting paid to play something you love to do was always really appealing. On the other hand, it was also a tough decision; I felt blessed that I had the option to work for a number of very reputable companies in the Twin Cities.
Regarding the lockout, I had heard from my agent that the lockout was all but a certainty, even before the draft. I had some NBA workouts prior to the draft, but it sounded like most were resigned to the fact the lockout was going to happen. After the draft, a number of teams told my agent that they wanted me join their summer league and D-League team. However, since the lockout was looming and there ended up being no summer league, I figured I’d go overseas where I knew I could start playing professionally right away. It would only be a matter of time before more players jumped overseas once the season was postponed, so I wanted to get a head start on the crowd before Europe got really saturated with more NBA players.
On the other hand, during the summer before my senior year, I was fortunate to land an internship within the finance division at Cargill (I was a finance major in the Carlson School of Management, so it aligned very well with my major). I really enjoyed my time there, and was again fortunate enough to be offered a position after graduation based on that internship.
Although I really do enjoy playing basketball professionally, I do realize that at some point, every professional basketball career does come to an end. Thus, I wanted to give myself as many options as I possibly could, both in basketball and in business.
How is European ball different from American ball? Are there things you really miss?
European basketball is very different than basketball in the United States. Just look at many of the current NBA players over here right now; most players aren’t dominating the competition like many would think. In fact, many NBA players’ statistics are lower in Europe than they were in the NBA!
Basketball here is very structured, a lot of focus goes into fundamental offense and defense. Players that are used to free-flowing offense, an up-and -down transition game, and 1-on-1 dribble drives are often really surprised when they see difference in how European teams develop an offense through more passing, screening, etc. Offenses here are much more focused on team play than 1-on-1/isolation matchups.
From a teammate aspect, the players are obviously a lot more mature than 18-to-22-year-olds in college. In college, we were young adults that all had similar schedules regarding basketball, weights, training tables, classes, etc.
Here, my teammates are sometimes 10 years older than me. They have families with different responsibilities and priorities than I am used to.
Along those lines, not having my own family or friends nearby has been an adjustment. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by friends and family for the majority of my basketball career. Now, I’m lucky to get a solid Internet connection in my apartment to Skype (video chat) them and find a time to talk given the 7 hour time difference. When I come home from my first practice in the morning, it’s around 5 A.M. in Minnesota. When I get back from our second daily practice at night, it’s typically 12-1 P.M. in the afternoon and most people in the U.S. are still at work.
How is this experience for you in general? Had you spent time overseas previously?
This experience has been an incredible one for me. I am so glad I have had the opportunity to play professional basketball and travel around Europe. I’ve actually never been here, so it’s been really fun learning new cultures, languages, and customs. After being here for 5 weeks thus far I have picked up some of the basics: “thank you,” “please,” “bye,” “I am hungry,” (haha!) etc.
What is your day-to-day like there?
Each day, we normally lift weights and practice in the morning from 10-12 and then have another practice from 4:30-7 pm. The good thing about my situation is that we generally have games on Fridays, and then have the weekends off, which is great. This allows me to travel on the weekends and rest my legs for the next week.
How is your living situation different?
My living situation is actually very good. Sure, my space is pretty small (like most apartments in Europe), but it is nicely furnished. The one thing that was probably the hardest to get used to, believe it or not, was learning to drive a stick shift. I had never driven a stick shift before, but it is a must over here, as the vast majority of the cars use a stick!
Austin Hollins has stepped in as starting shooting guard this season – what did you see from him last year? Did you play mentor to him at all?
I think Austin Hollins could have a big year. He stepped in last year as a freshman and made some solid contributions for us. Coming into a major conference like the Big Ten as a freshman is a difficult thing to do. Not only are you trying to get used to a new schedule, a new living situation, new friends, new teammates…you also have battle week in and week out against some of the best competition in collegiate basketball.
Austin is very lanky and is a great defender. He has the ability to knock down shots and works very hard. I will be following his progress this year and expect to see big things from him. As a captain working with new incoming freshmen, you always try to take them under your wing and point out little tidbits here and there. Last year, they probably were thrown into the fire a little bit sooner than they expected with some of the dynamics we were dealing with, but I think they handled themselves well.
How big are the contributions of Ralph Sampson and Rodney Williams going to be to the Gophers’ success this season? What do you expect from them and how good can they be? (Question originally asked and answered before Trevor Mbakwe was hurt.)
Good question. I know the play of the young guards will be important, but I believe that Trevor, Ralph and Rodney are going to be the key to the team. How they go will determine how far we go in my mind. They are the veterans now; taking control when the opposing team goes on a run by hitting an important basket, calming nerves by converting free throws, leading by example with an important hustle play, etc. will go a long way, especially on the road in the Big Ten. I think we have a chance to surprise some people because we are returning some strong talent, and I’ve heard good things about the new guys coming in. I obviously know Joe well since we both are Hopkins guys and have played together for years now, and I really like his game. One of the good things about this team is that we have a number of guys that can step in and contribute the minute they get on the floor, whether they’re starting the game or not. That dynamic is often hard for opposing teams to do with, which will hopefully bode well for us.
Last season, your senior year, you were switched to point guard. How tough was that transition and how frustrating was the end to the season, given the high expectations early on?
Last year was one of the most frustrating years in my basketball career, despite having my best collegiate statistical season. A lot of people ask me about the move to point guard and whether or not it was frustrating playing out of my typical position. In all honesty, the move really didn’t matter to me. I’m probably one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet; all I want to do is win. If Coach Smith needed me at point for us to be successful, I’d play point. Seriously, if he wanted me at the 5, I’d play the 5. The frustrating part of the season was being so close in so many games and not coming away with the win. Shooting was a major concern last year and teams were able to defend us easier. Not making the NCAA was really disappointing. People sometimes forget that we started the season winning the Puerto Rico tournament beating North Carolina and West Virginia, coming home with a #13 ranking in the country. We did have a great thing going. The frustrating thing was realizing how good we were and how good we could be, and then having it all come apart.
Al Nolen and I signed with Minnesota hoping to really turn the program around. We both grew up Gopher fans. My family has had season tickets for over 40 years…I grew up watching Voshon Leonard, Sam Jacobson, Bobby Jackson, and all of the former Gopher greats from the 2nd row in the upper deck straight up from the visitor’s bench. I remember the atmosphere in The Barn back then, and both Al and I wanted to be part of a team that brought that back.
Truthfully, I was very close to signing with Notre Dame. As in, I was planning on calling Coach Brey with my commitment within a few hours before Coach Monson called with the U’s offer. I was also very seriously considering Coach Stallings’ offer at Vanderbilt. However, once Coach Monson gave me the offer, I knew my decision had already been made. However, it was still difficult because Notre Dame and Vanderbilt had offered me much earlier, and I had developed a great rapport with both Coach Brey and Coach Stallings.
But to answer your question, it was a very frustrating year. However, I was taught and subscribe to the idea that everything happens for a reason. It’s hard to tell what the reason is right now, but I know years down the road that experience will make me stronger.
Anyone on the team you still keep up with?
I still try and stay in touch with the guys through Facebook and reach out to them whenever possible. I always appreciated former players connecting with me throughout my career at the University of Minnesota and want to maintain that same link to the program.
I probably talk to Trevor the most since we grew up playing AAU and summer ball together in town. I really am excited to see how the Gophers do this year and wish them the best of luck!