By Jeff Taylor
There is an unmistakable look of satisfaction that appears on the face of Thomas Van Den Spiegel when the words Belgium and EuroBasket are used in the same sentence.
Next summer, the Belgian men will make their first appearance in the Final Round of the EuroBasket since 1993.
They earned a trip to Lithuania the hard way, winning their qualifying group that also included Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland and Portugal.
|Thomas Van Den Spiegel has been very unlucky with injuries, yet mention the word EuroBasket and he forgets all about it|
The way the summer started for the 32-year-old Van Den Spiegel, who has been a hugely productive center at the highest level in Europe the past several years with clubs likes Roma, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid, making it to EuroBasket didn't seem possible.
"I broke my wrist the first week of practice," he said to Basketball World News.
"Yes, I had some bad luck again, but then came back and played the last six games.
"It went great because we ended up winning our group.
"Our last game was do-or-die that we won at home against Poland in front of 6,000 crazy Belgian fans."
That clash with Poland was one of the most exciting games ever played in Belgium.
Eddy Casteels' men trailed the Poles by as many as 10 points in the first and second quarters but never lost their focus.
Roared on by the partisan crowd in Antwerp, Belgium closed the gap to one early in the third quarter after Axel Hervelle drilled a three-pointer and followed that with a jumper.
Then Van Den Spiegel, who had 10 points and five rebounds in the contest, put the hosts in front when he tipped the ball in after a missed shot by Roel Moors.
Still, Poland had Belgium on the ropes late in the contest.
Thomas Kelati made a three-pointer and Marcin Gortat followed with a jumper for a 67-63 lead just 3:07 from the end.
Christophe Beghin replied with a jump shot and was fouled on the play but missed his free-throw.
Beye Tabu-Eboma, a 25-year-old guard that averaged more than 10 points in qualifying, scored to knot the game at 67-67 with 1:51 to go.
After Kelati missed from behind the arc, Beghin buried a three-pointer for a 70-67 lead.
Poland missed two shots inside the arc as Van Den Spiegel and Co held on for a famous win.
It was one of the proudest moments in the lives of all the Belgians.
"I think we have a great group of players," said Van Den Spiegel, who has been in talks with Armani Jeans Milano about signing with the Euroleague team.
"It's just a good feeling knowing that we are going to the European Championship next year.
"Most of us are good friends and are quite young, except for a couple of players like me.
"We have two or three veterans combined with a lot of young talent and enthusiasm and a good coach.
"We just have fun.
"You can see that if you're just having fun, you can get some results."
The fact that Belgium finished top of such a difficult pool only served to help promote basketball in the country.
Belgium has an underrated league with numerous teams competing in European competition.
Four sides will be in action on Tuesday night when the EuroChallenge tips off while Spirou Charleroi are in the Euroleague.
"It's really important that we made it," Van Den Spiegel said.
"We've seen a lot of enthusiasm around the national team this summer which is great.
"We sold out all our games. We have Charleroi in the EuroLeague.
"It's getting a little more press again and there is a lot of interest again, so it's good.
"I think we have some talent and we just have to use it again.
"This was a good first step toward some European Championships and more international tournaments."
The signs were there of an improving Belgium before EuroBasket 2009 because they reached the Final of the Additional Qualifying Tournament and even defeated France in the first leg before losing heavily in the second encounter to Les Bleus.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," Van Den Spiegel said.
"We're not a basketball country and it's not been easy over the years.
"I think we've had a coach who put everything he had into it the past five or six years and he convinced everybody to come.
"And you see once that happens, and once you get the chemistry, a lot of things are possible."