Helsinki • Hanno Möttöla is giving a private tour of the sparkling, year-old Urhea Hall sports campus where the Helsinki Basketball Academy is housed, when he consciously re-routes.
Cracking a sideways grin, he acknowledges there’s a specific thing he wants to show off.
Affixed to the ceiling in that particular hallway is an illuminated photo of Möttölä, wearing a blue No. 13 Finland jersey, warding off a defender and getting off a shot against Team USA in a FIBA Basketball World Cup matchup on Aug. 30, 2014, in Bilbao, Spain.
“One of my last international baskets — a jump-hook against DeMarcus Cousins,” Möttölä says of the moment frozen in time. “It’s a nice little reminder to walk past every day.”
That daily dose of validation could be construed as a curious desire for a person as accomplished as Möttölä to have. After all, he had a starring role for a University of Utah team that made a shock run to an NCAA Tournament championship game; then a professional career which included two seasons in the NBA, followed by stops in Spain, Italy, Russia, Lithuania, Greece, and, finally, Finland; and, on top of that, a lengthy run as the face of his national basketball team.
Then again, from another perspective, it’s entirely understandable.
The “Susijengi” really only started to become a nationally-supported phenomenon in Finland during the final throes of Möttölä's playing career, the aging forward reduced to a limited role player by the time thousands of Finns began traveling to international tournaments to lend their full-throated support.
And even as Möttölä is becoming an increasingly crucial cog in the growth of the game in his home country — serving now as head coach for the same Helsinki Basketball Academy (HBA) program that he graduated from, as well as an assistant with Finland’s men’s national basketball team — there is also some inherent degree of resignation which comes with knowing that all of the players under your watch are now too young to have seen you in action live, their exposure to your exploits coming only via the magical prism of YouTube.
Möttölä hardly seems needy for additional recognition, but in the event that he is, the 46-year-old may take solace in one unique distinction: He is now poised to have an outsized influence upon two separate eras of basketball within the geographic boundaries of Utah — first as a star in his own right with the Utes in the late ’90s, and now again, given his significant role in developing the game of new Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen.
Despite Finns’ reputations as solitary, stoic, contra-verbose types, Möttölä will spend the better part of an hour and a half discussing those dual roles in detail, and how he has bridged the gap between them.
And in the process, he, of course, immolates any lingering question of his continued relevance. Not that his protégé ever had any doubt.
“I mean, whatever you can think of, he taught me,” Markkanen said. “... So I know him really well, and he’s had a big impact on my game.”
It seems Möttölä has a big impact on whoever he comes across.
Hanno Möttölä, football player
Möttölä likes to play football. Not the “fútbol” kind, either, but American-style football.
OK, to be fully transparent, the 6-foot-10 giant is not out on a field terrorizing quarterbacks — Möttölä likes to play NFL Pick ’Em.
Still … anywhere in the United States, this would not be such a brazen disclosure, but coming as it does from within northern Europe, it feels at least a little bit revelatory.
Yes, he spent four years getting Americanized at the U., and another two residing in the football-crazed South during his pair of seasons as an Atlanta Hawk, but he does hail from hockey- and fútbol- and recently basketball-obsessed Finland, after all.
A simple question would seem in order (namely: “Ummm, why?”), but this detail being divulged within the framework of an answer to an already-asked question about whether he stays in contact with any of his ex-Utes teammates negates the need for additional context.
Yes, Möttölä and some other ex-Utes stay in contact. He probably talks to Andre Miller (head coach of the G League’s Grand Rapids Gold) and Michael Doleac (farmer in Montana) the most. Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen is a bit harder to get a hold of, given the demands of his job. Möttölä is happy to see Chris Burgess on the Utes’ staff now. And Phil Cullen, an employee of the San Antonio Spurs, got in touch during the recently-concluded EuroBasket tournament in Prague.
So where does the NFL come in, exactly?
“Nate Althoff, he runs a great NFL Pick ‘Em league, and I’ve been a part of that for probably the last 10 years,” Möttölä said. “So we stay in touch.”
He acknowledges that “stay in touch” is something of a nebulous term with loose parameters — they all have their own families and their own lives now, after all. Möttölä himself has a wife and three children: one college-aged, one in high school, and the youngest just 6 years old, who is now starting to play basketball and is very excited about it.
So maybe Möttölä and one guy talk twice a year, while he and someone else will talk three times in a month, then go 10 months or a year without any further communication. Doesn’t matter.
Some of them got together four years ago for a 20th-anniversary celebration of Utah’s famed run to the Final Four in 1998. That accomplishment left him feeling as though the collective participants “truly are kind of attached for the rest of your life” — even if “Kentucky 78, Utah 69″ carries with it some residual scars.
“We were three and a half minutes away from winning the national championship,” Möttölä says simply. “It’s a game tape I still haven’t watched.”
Still, when asked if he has a favorite memory or biggest accomplishment from his time at Utah, he insists that it’s not any specific result or stat (even as he makes it a point to get it on the record that he went 63-1 at the Huntsman Center over his four years, with the sole defeat coming during his freshman season in the much-ballyhooed Tim Duncan vs. Keith Van Horn matchup), but rather, more generically, the shared “camaraderie” the players forged while navigating the infamous whims of the brilliant-if-mercurial Rick Majerus.
Asked to supply his own personal ultimate Majerus anecdote, Möttölä considers thoughtfully — not out of deference to some sacred memory to the late coach, but rather as a result of narrowing down the myriad bonkers options while finding one suitably lacking non-family-friendly details to make it “something that Salt Lake Tribune readers can listen to.”
He ultimately settles on the aftermath of that Duncan-Van Horn game, played on Dec. 31, 1996. The Utes had been scheduled to have New Year’s Day off, but their 70-59 defeat to the Demon Deacons prompted Majerus to renege. He called a noon practice, and the players went out and worked for two hours … following which Majerus sent them all to the film room for a postmortem session that, between all the slow-mo and rewinding, lasted another four hours … following which he had the players hit the court for two more hours of work.
Möttölä had previously made 8 p.m. dinner reservations at a downtown restaurant with a Finnish national team coach who’d flown in to Salt Lake City specifically to spend time with him. They did not make it.
An eight-hour practice session as punishment for losing to the No. 2-ranked team in the country? That’s just how it went sometimes for those Utes teams.
“It was extremely hard, extremely difficult, but just an unbelievable, life-changing experience,” Möttölä said.
Now that he’s on the other side, Möttölä too hopes to create some life-changing experiences for his players — though eight-hour practices are not part of the formula.
Hanno Möttölä, basketball coach
As part of the Urhea Hall tour, Möttölä goes into an old multi-use gym, featuring a rainbow-hued panoply of painted lines adorning the court.
“Whenever I talk to coaches [in Helsinki on recruiting visits], I tell them that if they can name every sport that all these lines are for, I’ll give them a steak dinner. I think one of them missed [just] one or two,” the now-46-year-old Möttölä said with a laugh. “This is what a normal public gym looks like in Finland — everything for everybody, and, on the flip side, not perfect for anybody. It’s still a good gym, it’s got 10 baskets — but it’s a little different setup next door.”
Yeah, a little different.
The old-school gym is where ew Jazz forward Markkanen played his games at HBA when he was there in 2014-16. As for the “different setup next door” — well, the 14,000-square meter, eight-story, pristine marvel which opened in 2021 features dedicated practice spots not only for basketball (including an 1,100-seat grandstand), but also for gymnastics, track and field, wrestling, and judo. There are strength training and conditioning areas, locker rooms, dormitories featuring hypoxia rooms, physiotherapy spaces, coach and expert workplaces, and conference rooms, including the one in which Möttölä is discussing all of this.
This building simply didn’t exist when Markkanen attended, but there are nevertheless myriad signs of him within it — a framed, autographed jersey hanging up near the student cafeteria, or, more ostentatiously, a large banner overhanging the new court (and one of Awak Kuier, an HBA grad and the first Finn to play in the WNBA, as well).
As the Susijengi have evolved from national afterthoughts to drawing 3,000 traveling fans to the 2013 EuroBasket in Slovenia, to 10,000 fans at the ’14 worlds in Bilbao, to being treated “like rock stars everywhere we went” for the ’22 EuroBasket tourney in Prague, so too has HBA stepped up its efforts to get that interest to translate into results.
Because there remains much work to be done.
Participation numbers are still low relative to other European nations with similar population demographics: 20,000 licensed players in all of Finland, including maybe 800-850 in the U-16 and U-18 age groups for boys. Lithuania has about 8,000 in those groups. France has more than that.
Physiological development is lagging, too, with Möttölä joking, “We can look at Turkey and Greece — shoot, those guys look like they are 21 when they’re 16; you watch a Finnish kid who’s 16, he looks like he’s maybe 12.”
And so it is that a school of roughly 1,000 students features about 750 to 800 recruited athletes among them.
“Even if 95 out of 100 are not going to be world-class, there’s that chance. We need to cater to them and take care of them for a couple more years. That’s the reason we started HBA, to give talented, young players a chance. The reason why we have HBA is to develop men’s and women’s national team players. That’s the sole goal,” Möttölä said. “… So we changed things a lot and put a lot of resources into coaching. It’s been good for us for the last 10 years. We’ve been on the rise. But our goal is to get a medal at a junior or senior event — boys’ or girls’ or men’s or women’s. It’s going to happen one of these days.”
While there were five HBA grads playing for the Susijengi in Prague, for now, Markkanen remains the lodestar of the program, a unique blend of genetics and talent and drive which has yet to be replicated.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the longtime face of Finnish basketball would, upon retiring from playing, immediately become responsible for tutoring the young man who would wind up assuming that mantle — if far sooner than anyone anticipated.
And while the former Utes star concedes he was “probably too old-school” and “probably too young as a coach” at HBA back in 2014 to fully recognize immediately just what the program had on its hands in Markkanen, it also didn’t take terribly long for that oversight to be rectified.
“Probably towards the end of his first year here, you start figuring, ‘This guy is extremely special,’” Möttölä said.
Of course, given the historic dearth of NBA-level Finns, it was less than surprising that he’d be ebullient and perhaps even hyperbolic at the prospect of a generationally-talented countryman. And they remain close now, with Markkanen joking that his trade to Utah all but guarantees more personal facetime: “I asked him if he’s going to visit me now. I mean, he’s been to visit me before, but I know he’s going to come here.”
Still, given that Möttölä describes himself as “a brutally honest coach,” what does the mentor think of the player the Jazz are getting now that Markkanen is 25 years old, has played five seasons in the league, and been traded three times?
“There’s definitely another level that Lauri can take,” he said. “Hopefully that happens in Salt Lake the next couple of years.”
Möttölä doesn’t believe Markkanen has yet been fully optimized in the NBA, too often relegated to a role of standing in the corner and waiting for a kickout. The transcendent version of Markkanen on display at EuroBasket is closer to what he’s capable of — which is not to say Möttölä is vainly suggesting a team build its entire offensive concept around the Finn; only that he be allowed to weaponize more of the abilities that he has.
Yes, shooting remains his singular elite talent, a skill “that separates him from 90% of the basketball players in the world.” However, he’s also capable of putting the ball on the floor, of driving the lane and drawing defenders, and, point-forward style, locating teammates and setting them up for success.
“Lauri is not a selfish player. He took a lot of shots in EuroBasket, but there weren’t too many selfish shots,” Möttölä. “If someone’s open, Lauri passes the ball.”
Which isn’t to say Markkanen is capable of anything and everything. While Möttölä himself was pleasantly surprised at the perimeter defense the 7-footer played for the Cavs last season when deployed as a “small forward” in Cleveland’s three-big lineup, and credits him for being a willing and active help defender, he also threw cold water upon some Jazz fans’ dreams of new coach Will Hardly deploying him exclusively as a stretch-5. Offensively, yes, Markkanen could exploit some matchups and “school” some opponents. But defensively?
“If he gets matched up with a big guy in the post, that’s not his strength,” Möttölä says as charitably as he can.
Markkanen needs to keep working to get to that next level. Möttölä has no doubt that he will, having seen that process play out from the day the youngster arrived at Helsinki Basketball Academy.
He came to them with a very low release point, “like every kid in the world shoots when you don’t have any power.” HBA’s coaches told him that, in a month or so, they’d get to work on the mechanics of lifting it, so he could utilize his height to actually, you know, shoot over people.
“He came back a month later: ‘It’s starting to feel pretty good!’ ‘What’s starting to feel pretty good?’ ‘The new shooting technique that we talked about.’ We didn’t want to rush him into it, but on his own, he already started working on it,” Möttölä said. “He didn’t want to waste a month. He jumped into it on his own. He coached himself, in a lot of ways.”
Markkanen, the coach added, was so self-motivated that, if he had a bad practice, rather than shake it off as an aberration and vow to do better tomorrow, he’d implore the coaches to push him harder, then stay late to put up more shots or do some extra conditioning work.
Möttölä is under no such illusions that most of his players at HBA will be that way: “There’s a lot of players who have all the ability, all the skill in the world, but if you don’t have the most important part, that happens between your ears … Lauri has that.”
But that’s where Möttölä comes in. That’s what his job is — to get teenagers playing in Finland’s second-highest division against “28-year-old guys who are making basketball their living” able to handle that, to make them capable of competing in national prep school invitationals in the States and beating top-10 programs.
No, Hanno Möttölä's playing career didn’t sufficiently overlap with the Susijengi’s rise for him to capitalize on the adoration, but that doesn’t matter to him, in the end. If he can make that happen for the next generation of Finnish basketball players, if he can find and develop the next few Lauri Markkanens, he will happily take that.
“I get the best of both worlds. I get to help coach someone like Lauri against [Nikola] Jokic, [Luka] Doncic; maybe next summer [at Worlds] we get put in the same pool with the U.S., who knows?” he said. “And then, nine, 10 months out of the year, I’m one of the coaches responsible to help the next generation grow into the men’s national team.
“So I tell people I have the best coaching job in the country — and it’s not a lie.”
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