Helsinki • As Lauri Markkanen holds his tray of food, he and wife Verna Aho briefly discuss where to sit at Café Ursula, a coffeehouse and restaurant just a few minutes’ drive from their home in Finland.
The newest Utah Jazz forward is keen to grab a table on the outdoor patio, given that the spot in Kaivopuisto Park along the shore of the Baltic Sea offers a picturesque view of the channel between Helsinki’s Market Square and the nearby Suomenlinna island fortress that once provided defense against invasions from neighboring Russia and Sweden.
Aho prevails, however, in the quest to remain indoors, when she points out that the rain — which has ranged between light mist and outright downpour for much of the day — has picked back up again for the moment.
So the 7-footer acquiesces and settles for a spot by a window, going to work on a croissant and karjalanpiirakka munavoilla (Karelian pie with egg butter). Although Finland has the highest rate of coffee consumption per capita in the world, Markkanen has opted to wash this meal down with hot chocolate.
The couple appears quite relaxed, even if they should have myriad reasons to be stressed.
After the Finnish men’s basketball team had just been eliminated from the Eurobasket tournament, where Markannen carried the Susijengi (”Wolf Pack”) to a quarterfinal finish, they have spent the subsequent days arranging for the stuff at their place in Cleveland to be packed up and shipped out; they’re finalizing the details of Monday’s HEL to SLC flight, weighing the pros and cons of a JFK vs. ORD vs. SEA layover; and they’re trying to find a new place to live, from more than 8,100 kilometers across the globe.
“I saw Rudy [Gobert] in the hotel lobby in Berlin, and he asked me if I want to buy his house,” he said.
“Do you have any favorite neighborhoods?” Aho inquired, friendly but earnest.
Their easygoing vibe can only partly be attributed to having just dropped off their 4- and almost-2-year-old children for an overnight stay at grandma’s. In actuality, it’s far more so because the surprise and sting of a third trade in Markkanen’s five-year NBA career was mitigated significantly by the family’s excitement about their newest destination.
“We’re getting a second chance to go to Salt Lake City,” Aho noted. “What a small world.”
Almost, and then at last, in Utah
Markkanen and Aho both grew up in Jyväskylä — “a smaller city,” as she put it, “where everybody knows everybody,” as he put it, finishing the sentence.
They’ve known each other since the eighth grade, and started dating during their second year of high school, after he’d moved three hours south to attend the Helsinki Basketball Academy. There, one of his coaches was Hanno Möttölä, the most notable Finn ever to play in the NBA at that point, and someone who just happened to star collegiately at the University of Utah.
Like Möttölä, Markkanen had resolved to play college ball in the United States in order to grow his game. As a big wolf in a small forest, he had no real sense yet of how good he was (a star turn at a Basketball Without Borders camp in New York City notwithstanding), and figured he’d be spending four years in college. So he wanted to find a place he could be as settled as is possible when you’re leaving behind almost everything and everyone you know.
Almost. Aho was following him to the States.
Markkanen had three official visits scheduled — to Utah, North Carolina, and Arizona. He very nearly committed to the Utes before even making it to Chapel Hill or Tucson.
“Utah was my first visit. I was on the visit with my dad, and I remember joking to him, ‘Do I have to go to the other two places? Because I feel comfortable there.’ I was pretty confident that I’m gonna go to Utah,” Markkanen said. “But then we cleared our minds and took the other two visits. And my gut feeling [was strong] when I got to Arizona.”
A handful of years later, he’d wind up in Utah after all, though he had no choice in the matter this time around.
He was hanging out with a couple of Susijengi teammates in late August, playing video games the night before Finland’s first Eurobasket matchup, against Israel. During a break in the action, he grabbed his phone just to check some social media.
“I found out on Twitter that we [the Cavaliers] got Donovan Mitchell — but it didn’t say any names [going back in exchange] at that point,” Markkanen said.
He wondered aloud to his Finnish teammates: “I wonder who we’re gonna give up.” As his mind began to extrapolate the possibilities, he joked, stream-of-consciousness, “Oh, I wonder if I’m going to Utah.”
When Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman’s name appeared on his phone just 30 seconds later, the mystery was instantly resolved — though the surprise and hurt persisted for a bit afterward.
“This was the first time that it happened that I wasn’t expecting anything. It was kind of a shock. I didn’t hear anything before, I didn’t see my name in any rumors,” Markkanen said. “… It was emotional. I understand the business side of it, so I’ve got no hard feelings. I thanked them for the opportunity that I had. But the first moments were really emotional for me, because we really liked Cleveland, and thought we’d found a home there.”
Around 11 p.m., Aho was on the verge of going to bed when she was made aware that her young family was about to be uprooted again. Like her husband, her first inkling of impending change also came second-hand.
“I actually saw a text from a neighbor in Cleveland first. He was like, ‘Oh man, I saw the news. Let me know if I can help you guys with anything.’ And I was like, ‘What?’” she recalled, before addressing her husband. “And then I opened your text: ‘I just got traded.’”
Initially, there was disappointment.
Markkanen knew on the night he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves that they were doing so on behalf of the Chicago Bulls, who were swinging a massive Jimmy Butler trade. And he knew when agreeing to a four-year deal last summer that it was a sign-and-trade move which would re-route him to Cleveland.
Neither he nor Aho saw this trade to the Jazz coming, though. Not that they can blame the Cavaliers for taking a swing on an All-Star such as Donovan Mitchell.
Still, after spending the first day or two after the deal in shock, they pivoted to researching the place they’d be moving to. And they like an awful lot of what they’ve discovered so far.
“The city looks beautiful, downtown looks nice, and also the surrounding neighborhoods,” Aho said. “I was straight-up excited. It’s sad to leave Cleveland; our kids made friends, and that’s always a hard part of it. But I’m excited.”
The house-hunting has helped.
While there was one “absolutely ridiculous” listing — an opulent Deer Valley mansion inspired by an Austrian Alps setting in the 2015 James Bond film “Spectre,” available for the low, low price of $33.5 million — the Markkanen family has been encouraged by some more modest possibilities that will still get them close to the great outdoors.
“We’ve seen some apartments, and even in the pictures of the apartments you can see the mountains! I’m very excited. We love nature,” Aho said. “Chicago, you know — it’s a city. There’s not much nature in the city. And then you see here [in Helsinki] — we live 2 minutes away from a beautiful, big park, and that really means a lot to me. Cleveland, they obviously had more nature [than Chicago], but still … I’m just excited about the mountains and the wildlife, and I know the kids will be, too.”
Markkanen, meanwhile, is trying to keep it simple, resolving to see the good in the situation.
“I always have a positive mindset,” he said, “that maybe this is home that we’ve found.”
Looking back, looking ahead
“I don’t know how much you guys have been following in Eurobasket,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik told the media last week, when explaining the trade, “but he’s been absolutely great.”
And that might have been underselling it.
In the seven games he played there, Markkanen averaged 27.9 points (second-most in the tournament) and 8.1 rebounds (ninth-best), while shooting 54.2% from the field, 40.5% on 3s, and 90.6% at the line. He had three double-doubles. He scored 33 points vs. Israel in the opener, 34 vs. the Czech Republic later in the group stage, and racked up 43 (on 19-for-29 shooting) in a Round of 16 victory over Bojan Bogdanovic and Croatia.
National support for the Susijengi has grown exponentially in the past decade, and is reaching an altogether new fervor with Markkanen as the star — a responsibility he does not take lightly.
Given that both Markkanen’s father, Pekka, and mother, Riikka, were Finnish national basketball players, Lauri (pronounced like the surname of NBA colleague Kyle Lowry) acknowledges that he “grew up to be in the spotlight” to some degree.
It’s an unusual position for a Finnish basketball player to be in: “Obviously, there haven’t been too many NBA guys from Finland,” he notes, and he’s quite correct. He’s just the seventh-ever Finn to be drafted by an NBA team, and only the third to score points in a regular-season game.
“It’s still a work in progress. But [rewind] to, like,  years ago when they made Eurobasket for the first time in a while at that point — it’s been on the rise since,” he said. “They were part of the World Cup in . It’s been going up for a while. I’m happy to be a part of it, and I understand the history. … I’m trying to take this thing even further.”
Still, playing for the Susijengi likely won’t be the only way he serves his home country.
Finland requires compulsory military service of its male citizens, a roughly six- to 12-month stint to be completed sometime between the ages of 18 and 30. Markkanen has yet to fulfill the requirement because he’s been largely living and working overseas since turning 18.
However, the possibility of him missing the Cavaliers’ two play-in tournament games back in April (and the subsequent playoffs, had Cleveland qualified) was apparently real.
“I’ve been able to postpone it because of the work I’ve had over in the States. The timing hasn’t worked out,” Markkanen said. “We postponed it [again this year] because the date that it was supposed to start, it was our second-to-last regular-season game. Our season was still on, but they require you to be there in person from the first day. So it didn’t work out.”
Could he wind up missing the end of the 2022-23 season if the Jazz, as expected, are a bad team with nothing to play for?
“We’ll see what the future holds,” Markkanen said. “… You’re supposed to do it before you’re 30. We’re trying to figure out a time when I’m able to fulfill the responsibility. But as of now, I’m good to go for the next NBA year.”
He’s good and he’s getting better.
Markkanen, Zanik, and Collin Sexton, another Cavs-turned-Jazz player, all cite the big man’s versatility as his biggest strength. Yes, he’s got an efficient outside jumper for a 7-footer, but he’s also capable of putting the ball on the floor and driving, or making plays for his teammates. While he’s never been noted for his defense, he did guard 3s, 4s, and 5s last year, and believes he’ll be much-improved at it this season.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s never gonna complain about anything. He’s gonna do whatever it takes to win, he’s gonna do whatever the team needs him to do. He’s gonna gonna be a treat, for sure,” said Sexton. “… I’m excited for him to be with me this season and to be with us this season, just because I know how good of a player he is.”
And the rest of the Jazz are about to find out.
Markkanen said he had a brief conversation with new coach Will Hardy immediately after the trade, has exchanged a few text messages after Eurobasket games, and knows Bogdanovic a bit from their various European competitions, but otherwise, he and the Jazz organization are strangers to each other for now. He appreciates that “they respected the grind that we were on,” and let him keep his focus on the Susijengi.
Now, he’s about to become extremely familiar with the Jazz specifically, and Utah in general. As they are with him.
When not working out or playing, most of his free time goes to “doing regular dad stuff.” That said, given that he’s “still a young guy,” he’s not abandoned all interests or hobbies.
Chief among them at the moment is disc golf. He’s befriended a couple of professionals to learn the next-level ins and outs. He enjoys the social component of it, hanging out with friends and his two older brothers — but they also get seriously competitive. He’s heard that Utah has some good courses, and he’s looking forward to getting on them.
And as a 20-something who enjoys the occasional bit of solitude, it’s no surprise that he’s also a gamer — though it is perhaps a surprise that NBA2K is not in his repertoire, because, “I try to get away from basketball when I’m at home.” When playing online, “Call of Duty” is his go-to. And as a native of Finland, he is, naturally, “a hockey guy,” so NHL2K is also in heavy rotation.
Speaking of hockey …
“Utah doesn’t have an NHL team, do they?” he inquires.
No, though the revelation that the L.A. Kings play a near-annual preseason game at Vivint Arena — including an Oct. 6 matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights — brings a smile to his face.
And the news that Utah does have the Grizzlies, the ECHL affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, elicits a story about the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, a flurry of follow-up questions about the Grizz (”Where do they play?” “How far is West Valley from Salt Lake?”) and also a declarative statement.
“I’ve got to look it up and go to a game or two,” Markkanen said. “I need to check that out.”
He doesn’t yet have a Utah residence, but he may have already adopted the local hockey team. Maybe Lauri Markkanen really is home now — whether the predominant nearby body of water actually has any water in it or not.
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