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Iceland’s Basketball ‘Family’ Plays at Top Level US Colleges

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2019, file photo, Binghamton's Hakon Hjalmarsson (1), of Iceland, shoots as Pittsburgh's Terrell Brown (21) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Pittsburgh. Hjalmarsson is just starting his American basketball experience.
Iceland’s Basketball ‘Family’ Plays at US Colleges
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Three basketball players from a small island country are playing at the highest level of American college sports.

Thorir Thorbjarnarson, Jon Axel Gudmundsson, and Hakon Hjalmarsson, are the only Icelanders currently playing Division I basketball in the United States.

Division I is the top level of American college sports. Schools that compete in Division I provide more athletic scholarships than other schools and have larger budgets for sports.

The Icelandic players are on different teams. Thorbjarnarson plays at the University of Nebraska. Gudmundsson plays at Davidson College in North Carolina, and Hjalmarsson plays at Binghamton University in the state of New York.

Although they attend different schools, the three players communicate nearly every day and follow each other’s games.

Being so far away from home, the three players often lean on each other for support.

“I know every basketball player in Iceland,” Thorbjarnarson said. “It’s a small family. We call ourselves the ‘basketball family.’”

Basketball in Iceland

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has a population of about 360,000.

In Iceland, basketball is less popular than soccer and about as popular as team handball.

There are 6,800 registered male and female basketball players in the country, the sport’s national federation says.

The best Icelandic basketball players must go to Europe or the United States to test themselves against top competition. Only one Icelander, Petur Gudmundsson, has played in the National Basketball Association in America. He played for three different teams in the 1980s.

The three Icelandic players had different paths to American college sports. But they all knew each other before coming to America.

“When you play with the youth national teams, you’re always practicing in the same gyms, you’re always around each other, you take trips together,” Jon Axel Gudmundsson said. “And we played against each other in the adult league in Iceland, so we kind of grew close from there.”

The players have had different levels of success so far.

Gudmundsson nearly led his team to a victory over the University of Kentucky in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. He made six 3-pointers in the second half of the game and finished with 21 points.

Hjalmarsson started 10 straight games for Binghamton early this season. But he has received less playing time recently.

“I think I’m progressing all right but I’m not doing as well as I could. I have to be patient,” he said.

Hjalmarsson noted important differences between American and Icelandic basketball.

“Coming here, I didn’t think I would have to adjust to anything because I just thought it was basketball,” Hjalmarsson said. “After being here a few months, it’s a completely different sport.”

Hjalmarsson noted that some kinds of physical play are more common in Icelandic basketball. “It’s more physical (in Iceland) but I think guys here are more athletic, they’re faster, they jump higher,” he said.

Gudmundsson noted that he always thinks about who he is representing. “Being from such a small town in such a small country,” he added, “I feel it symbolizes (the fact) you can do whatever you want if you are willing to put work into it.”

I’m John Russell.

Timothy Gardner reported on this story for Reuters John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

basketball – n. a game in which two teams of five players bounce a ball and try to score points by throwing the ball through one of the raised nets at each end of a rectangular court

scholarship – n. an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student's education

handball – n. a game for two or four players who use their hands to hit a ball against a wall

register – v. to record information about (something) in a book or system of public records registered – adj. having your name entered in an official list or register

3-pointer – n. a goal in basketball in which the player shoots the ball from beyond the 3-point line

adjust -- v. to change in order to work or do better in a new situation​

symbolize -- v. to be a symbol of (something)​

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