Lauri Markkanen has sisu. You sort of know that if you are Finnish; it’s a big part of who you are, your country. It doesn’t mean you are going to be a professional basketball player because the size and skill are perhaps more important.
Young Lauri, the tall son of professional basketball players, has those physical attributes. Though sisu is a good explanation for why the slender seven footer has emerged in the NBA world as one of the league’s elite rookies, a record breaking freshman shooter and a participant in All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, Friday playing in the Rising Stars game and one of eight contestants in the Skills Challenge on Saturday.
I’m the one, by the way, who asked draft pick Lauri last June at his debut media conference in Chicago about that stereotype regarding European athletes; you know, well, uh, malleable? OK, soft. And this guy’s from where, Finland? Basketball incubator? I didn’t say it quite that way, though Marrkanen got the point immediately. He smiled about the recollection. No big deal. His coaches who recruited him to Arizona, his national team coach, Henrik Dettmann, warned him he’d be questioned, challenged repeatedly in the U.S. No big deal; sisu?
Well, Markkanen didn’t exactly think of the word or phrase to describe his NBA progression. Sisu is more of a concept; but he appears to embrace and symbolize it.
It really is a big part of why we’ve seen those flying followup dunk shots, that post game, the defensive rebounds ripped away, blocks, power dunks, the relentless play from the summer carrying the national team right into NBA training camp, right into the starting lineup, being the first closer in the first win, taking big shot after big shot, leading the team in scoring, minutes played, rebounding much of the season. Still waiting to celebrate his 21st birthday.
Not that he’ll be toasting.
“Lauri has never touched alcohol in his whole life,” says Dettmann, who also was Markkanen’s youth mentor at the Helsinki basketball academy. “He’s not a party guy. Lauri was so weak and skinny he could not finish one camp. He either got sick or injured or something and his dad or mom had to come and pick him up. Lauri doesn’t make quick decisions. He thinks about them. He is shy. I would say he is basically security oriented, wants things to be by the book. At the beginning when he moved (to Helsinki about three hours from his Jyvaskyla home), he told me not to unpack all his stuff yet; he kept wondering if this was a good move or not because he left all his friends and family behind, everything.
“Then after three months he came to me and told me to change his education plan. Then I knew he was going (to pursue the NBA),” recalled Dettmann. "We have the stereotype thinking of European players, finesse and soft. If you want to go through the stereotype thinking then you have to look at the Fins and the word sisu. It means toughness, a determination, not to give up. Finland would never have been an independent country without this sisu. We had a million Russians on the border; we were 100,000.
“We played a team game better,” he said with a confident smile. “That’s the Fins.”
It’s why Dettmann says when he speaks back home at camps or schools, he’ll show a picture of Markkanen at the draft, holding open his sport coat to display a flag of Finland.
“It shows how much it means for him,” said Dettmann. “It’s to understand strength.”
Dettmann refers to the momentous events in Finnish history. Remember, this is a quiet northern country bordering Russia, which conquered it in 1809 and maintained territorial ambitions. But Finland never was occupied. Finland actually had an alliance with Germany in World War II, though more because of its resistance to Russian invasion to gain its independence in the early 20th Century. Russia attempted to overrun Finland in 1939, those million troops at the border, the Fins outnumbered 10 to 1 and yet mostly repelling the Russians. They also kept out the Nazis without collaborating, allied with Germany at times to fight Russia, but protective of their Jewish population, democratic and Helsinki one of three capitals in Europe along with London and Moscow not taken over during the war. It’s that sort of spirit that defines the proud Finnish people.
It’s become something of the Finnish national character just as independence resonates with Americans. It’s about finishing a task and defying the odds and expectations, as the young Lauri did in leaving home to pursue basketball in a hockey country, tenacity and persistence. Markkanen seems shy, though it’s perhaps better defined as a stoic nature to succeed. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has offered numerous anecdotes this season of Markkanen coming back to the huddle after a missed shot, apologizing and saying he’ll make the shot next time, determined never to fail or quit no matter the odds.
Lauri had the advantage, the genes. He wasn’t born on third base thinking he’d hit a triple, though his father, Pekka, played pro basketball in Europe. His mother, Riikka, also was a player, though for less time having to raise three children. Lauri was a big, big kid, but a kid.
Dettmann is sort of a father of Finnish basketball, initially a YMCA coach who recruited Lauri’s dad to his program.
“You understand in a country with 5.5 million people and about 12,000 registered basketball players, when you see anyone tall you better keep an eye on them and form a thought about him,” Dettmann said with a laugh. “Lauri’s brother is a professional soccer player. The family gave the kids the opportunity to try all sports. My understanding was Lauri always wanted to play basketball, though if you see him kicking a soccer ball you can see he can do that, too.”
Lauri remembers from about as far back as he can remember it was basketball. Yes, in Finland where the NBA role model was Hanno Mottola. Markkanen is always quick to remind everyone about former Bull Erik Murphy, as well. “There’s three,” he says proudly.
"We had a hoop in our backyard,” recalls Markkanen. “My dad, my mother, my brother played, just playing around. I picked up a basketball and stayed with it. I had so much fun playing it. I literally started at four, five years old. It didn’t have anything to do with my size at that point, just having fun with it.”
But he grew and grew and grew and that beanstalk came to mind, his body stretching out and thin enough to bend in a breeze. Dettmann made his appeal; come to Helsinki.
“That was the first time I left home,” Markkanen says.
“I just wanted to be as good of a basketball player as I could,” Markkanen says. “I didn’t dream of playing college or playing in the NBA. I was just trying to get better. Being interested in basketball you always dream of it (the NBA), but I didn’t know if it were actually possible. I was just having fun with it.”
Other than the times he was getting sick so much with the two-a-day practices and strength training sandwiched around high school.
“I was sick a lot,” Markkanen admits. “Probably one reason I was growing so much, so fast. Everywhere was hurting all the time. I don’t know what that was about.”
Sisu? Well, he wasn’t giving up or giving in and it wasn’t about the NBA. He’d committed and was going to finish.
He did have mom, a kindergarten teacher, come stay with him that first year. But then Dettmann knew. Lauri sent her home after that first year.
“That was my choice because I wanted to learn how to be away from family,” Markkanen says.
He got the call to the U.S. and chose the U. of Arizona, where they didn’t quite get everything from him. They didn’t seem to believe he could do all those things with the ball.
“They just said, ‘Get the rebound and find a point guard and pass to him,” Markkanen said with a shrug.
It was OK; he was having fun playing.
College basketball. What a mess.
They had no idea Lauri has been schooled to be the prototype modern basketball player, a big man who could score inside and out, handle the ball, make plays.
“My dad was just trying to make sure even though I was taller than the other kids they’re not putting me just to play back to the basket and making me a center and you can’t do anything else,” Markkanen said. "He had a lot of effect on that, talked to the coaches that I am going to play the point guard even though I am the tallest guy on the team. When they saw what I can do at the point guard position, they were fine with it. Just practiced. I moved from the one spot to three and once I got to the academy I got my inside ball.
“I knew that once I got stronger and growing and stuff like that my inside game, I can develop that as well; skill wise you create that,” Markkanen said. “Sometimes teammates would be, ‘Why is he dribbling up court and I can’t and he’s taller than me?’ But I always had good teammates. I feel like I’ve never had a bad teammate; chemistry and I was comfortable doing that.”
Markkanen doesn’t joke much, but there’s a bit of Harpo Marx in his eyes with that mop of curly hair now after the close cropped desert cut at Arizona.
“I didn’t understand what he (Pekka) was going after; I was just doing it,” Markkanen said. Then pausing, he added: “Not like LaVar Ball.”
Not like Lonzo, either.
Markkanen’s got that beautiful shooting stroke, but more than that a desire and willingness, almost a destiny.
It was perhaps a surprise to everyone else when after the Bulls started 0-3, it was the 19-year-old rookie who bailed them out in their first win with the winning shot in the last minute and leading in rebounds against Atlanta. Markkanen would shrug. “I’m not afraid of big moments,” he said. Hey, it was Game 4 already. Always had confidence, he explained. What’s the problem? It’s just basketball. Been doing that all his life.
“There’s more people in the crowd than I am used to, but the game’s the same,” Markkanen says about his latest adventure in Chicago. “That’s a good thing to have some pressure on you so you perform well. I feel like I’ve been that way my whole life. Academy, too; they were looking for me and expecting me to be a player. Just hard work. Even if it’s in our back yard, it’s just doing stuff so you are comfortable with what you can do."
“I always wanted to be the guy who has the ball when the game is on the line,” said Markkanen. “I know a couple of times I had the ball and missed. Before I hit my first game winner I missed a lot. I was saying how bad it feels to miss and lose the game. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to make it and win the game, so I wanted the ball, to have it in my hand, to actually seal the deal.”
Grit, guts, as we might say.
“Sisu is like things that people normally give up to, something going wrong, so they stop doing it,” says Markkanen. “Sisu is like finding a way to overcome that.”
Soft? I don’t think so. He represents his country well. He should make it proud. The Bulls feel pretty good, too.