West Across the Sea

Tryggvi Hlinason is a sheep farmer at the center of a new generation of Icelandic basketball talent. He’s trying to do something that only one other Icelander has done before — play in the NBA.

 Sam Riches / Longreads / October 2018 / 17 minutes (4,328 words)

The first thing you need to know about Iceland is that sheep are everywhere. In the pastures, on top of the mountains, next to the highway. They graze freely and abundantly and peacefully, most of the time. An approaching vehicle can cause them to scatter — bells clanging frantically, fuzzy butts bouncing wildly — into the countryside, where the only predator to worry about, other than humans, is the delightfully cute but sometimes fatal arctic fox.

Icelandic sheep are hardy creatures. They are farmed mostly for their meat but also for their wool, which provides insulated, waterproof protection against Iceland’s damp weather. For centuries, sheep have been fundamental to Icelandic life — so perhaps it is not surprising that one of the most intriguing basketball prospects the country has ever produced was, just four and a half years ago, focused on a more traditional career: sheep farmer.

Tryggvi Hlinason, who is 20 years old and about 7 feet 1 inch tall, grew up in the northeast corner of this rugged, largely uninhabited island the size of Kentucky that rises out of the sea. The land is textured by lava flows and glacier melt, and mythically explained by tales of trolls and ogres and Gods. Goðafoss Waterfall, waterfall of the Gods, a popular tourist destination, is in this region. It is not an especially thunderous or towering waterfall, but it is striking, with hazy blue glacial water spilling over a horseshoe cliff of volcanic basalt columns. If you leave behind the tourist-rammed parking lot and turn to the interior, taking the Sprengisandur highland road for about an hour, you reach the farm. To get there from Goðafoss, Bjarki Oddsson, Hlinason’s first basketball coach says, “Follow that river.”

The plan, for most of Hlinason’s life, was to stay on the farm. He went to school and studied to become the country’s tallest certified electrician, a decision shaped partly by curiosity (“I always thought it was fascinating how electricity worked because nobody could really explain it where I was a from”) and partly practicality (“My dad was not a very good electrician”).


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Basketball wasn’t yet in the picture, and learning the trade meant Hlinason had another skill to contribute to the homestead. He is the second oldest of four kids, and by far the tallest. His height is something of an anomaly. His mother is 5’8”, his father, 6’2”. Reasonably tall people, to be sure, but not exceptionally so. His size and strength come in handy on the farm, where the days are long and the work is hard. It is not unusual, Hlinason says, to see his father in the fields by seven in the morning, only to return briefly for dinner around six, before heading back out to finish the day.

“A farmer’s hard work is a lot different than an athlete’s,” he says. “Being an athlete you might go twice a day, you go really hard at it, for about six hours a day and the rest of the day is also part of the job — to recover, be smart, eat healthy, but for a farmer, it’s a longer job. It’s a lot longer. It’s a different kind of work.”

This kid would have definitely gone under the radar 15 years ago, without a doubt.

A perfect day at home, Hlinason says, is a bright summer day, when the sun only momentarily disappears from view and the light never goes away. “It would be really beautiful and nice and you could go out walking with your grandma and go fishing,” he says. “That would be really calming.”

It’s been 16 months since Hlinason was back on the farm. He spent this past season in Spain playing for Valencia, one of the top clubs in the world outside of the NBA, but his playing time was sporadic as he drifted between the top squad and a junior affiliate. This spring, he entered the NBA draft. It was a decision that some questioned — perhaps another year of seasoning in Europe might have secured Hlinason a first-round spot, which comes with a guaranteed contract — and he was ultimately not selected. He spent July playing in the Las Vegas Summer League with the Toronto Raptors, earning a per diem of around $125, but he spent a total of about six minutes on the court. He grabbed one rebound.

Time is working both for and against Hlinason. He is a somewhat traditional player, a big man of an era that’s come to pass. He struggles defending on the perimeter, where today’s big men are expected to roam, and he’s still developing his shooting touch, but he is gifted with sheer size and natural instincts and arms like an Airbus. Plus, he has time to learn — he’ll turn 21 in late October and he’s already adept at reading the game’s angles and geometry, whether he’s gobbling up rebounds, snatching lob passes, or guarding the basket. In less than five years of playing the game, he’s already on the doorstep of the best league in the world.

Hlinason’s story is a uniquely modern one. Discovered despite his remote origins, the details of his journey, once unearthed, have been widely shared through a global basketball marketplace shrunk down by technology. “This kid would have definitely gone under the radar 15 years ago, without a doubt,” says Fran Fraschilla, a college and international basketball analyst with ESPN. It’s the type of discovery — an unexpected talent in an unexpected place — that can launch a professional career, but it’s not a guarantee. As global as the NBA has become, those arriving to the league from foreign destinations and accustomed to international competition are still susceptible to bumpy landings. The human element of the journey is sometimes overlooked in the rush to find the next hidden star.

“It’s the old story of careful what you wish for,” Fraschilla says. “On the one hand, it’s a really cool story. On the other hand, it’s human nature for basketball people to say, ‘Hey, we found this kid and wrote this story about him so that makes him automatically an intriguing NBA prospect.’ His climb to the NBA is still a major work in progress.”

But he is improving. His time in Spain has increased his athleticism, reoriented his pursuit, and made clear the work that needs to be done. “He’s made progress, being in Spain,” Fraschilla says. “He’s a little bit better laterally with his footwork. He gets off his feet somewhat easily and he’s a big kid with good hands so there’s promise there. Now the question is, can he make himself into an NBA player in the next three to five years?”

***

Here is the complete list of Icelanders who have played in the NBA:

  • Pétur Guðmundsson

That’s it.

Guðmundsson, 7’2”, played four seasons in the league in the 1980s, splitting time between the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Lakers, where he was teammates with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the early 2000s, Jón Stefánsson, who is Hlinason’s mentor and now plays in Iceland’s top domestic league, came close. The guard spent a year with the Dallas Mavericks but remained on the injured list for the season. He never checked into a game.

When Guðmundsson was coming up, the endless array of information that is available today to scouts or anyone with a passing interest in basketball — the advanced stats and human databases and soundtracked video compilations — did not exist. As big as he was, as talented as he was, Guðmundsson likely wouldn’t have made it to the NBA if it weren’t for a fishing trip.

Marv Harshman, who coached college basketball in the state of Washington for 40 years, went to Iceland in the summer of 1974 to host a coaching clinic but also — mostly — to go fly-fishing. Recruiting was far from his mind. “Basketball was just not a big sport in Iceland at the time,” says Guðmundsson. Harshman, who died in 2013, likely wasn’t expecting to meet a prospect like Guðmundsson, who was then 15 years old, already 6’10”, and playing for Iceland’s junior national team, which had been enlisted to help run the clinic. Guðmundsson’s exposure to basketball came courtesy of a feed beaming televised highlights of NBA stars Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain into the U.S. naval base at the Keflavík Airport (as well as homes, like Guðmundsson’s, in the area). Though a novice, Guðmundsson had developed a good passing and shooting touch from years of playing handball, and Harshman was impressed with the still-growing teenager. “[Harshman] brought up the subject of me going to the U.S. to play ball which was something, coming from Iceland, I hadn’t even thought about,” Guðmundsson says.

It was another world away, a basketball journey that no one from Iceland had previously taken, and Guðmundsson wasn’t sure it was possible. “Coming from a place like mine, there was nobody for me to model after. At the time, I was already the tallest living Icelander so I couldn’t go to a tall person and say, ‘Hey, what do you do?’ It was an isolated situation.”

Guðmundsson waited a year before moving to the United States at age 16. He refined his game at a high school near the University of Washington, where then-coach Harshman could monitor his progress, before committing to play for UW in the late 1970s. Guðmundsson towered over opponents, and he used his seven-foot frame to find unique passing angles and shoot over rangier defenders. He also helped lead the team to one of the greatest upsets in school history — a 69–68 win over UCLA in 1979, which had been ranked as the nation’s top team (Guðmundsson scored 17 points in the win).

“Petur was just outstanding,” says Lorenzo Romar, who is now the head coach at Pepperdine University but was then in his first collegiate season at Washington. “He could really, really pass the ball. He had a great shooting touch, a nice hook, a very good offensive player.”

Other than coaching briefly for a few years in the early 2000s, Guðmundsson has stayed away from the game in any professional capacity, but his legend still looms in Icelandic basketball circles. He was the first to forge the path that Hlinason and others now hope to follow.

“I heard about Tryggvi pretty soon after they found him,” says Guðmundsson. It was never certain that Hlinason would be a guaranteed pick, but fueled by a combination of his unique background, rapid rise, and the shrinking of the basketball world, he was frequently in the news cycle. “Tryggvi is the talk of the town. We’re all excited about his chances. He picks things up so quickly it’s ridiculous. He understands the game. One of his coaches told me a couple years ago, ‘Every time he laces his shoes up, he’s improving.’ I look at him definitely as the next Icelander in the NBA.”

***

When Hlinason showed up to the gym in Akureyri, the second most populous region in Iceland, in the winter of 2014, he didn’t have basketball shoes. An easy problem to fix in a city, sure, but finding a pair of size 18s in the north of Iceland posed a challenge. The solution, it turned out, was sitting in a trophy case on the other side of the country.

“The shoes came from my club,” says Einar Jóhannsson, a coach with the national program and the head coach of Njarðvík, one of the most successful domestic basketball teams in Iceland. There are conflicting theories about the origin of the shoes — that somebody either mistakenly ordered the wrong size or a former American player left them behind — but either way, they were too big for anyone on Jóhannsson’s team to wear so they went into a display case at the gym. When the coach went north to meet with Hlinason for the first time, the shoes came with him.

“They had been in a trophy case for a long time because nobody could use them,” Hlinason says. “They were officially my first basketball shoes.”

“Einar brought those shoes and gave them to him,” says Oddsson, Hlinason’s first coach. “That’s how invested everyone in Iceland was in him, and are.”

Shoes now in place, Hlinason got to work during his informal tryout in Akureyi. “He was just dominating because he was so tall,” Oddsson says. “I was like ‘I’m not going to take this guy out of the rotation at all.’ He had so much catching up to do. He hadn’t played.”

In one of his first games, Hlinason posted a triple-double of 33 points, 37 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Word soon began to spread: The big sheep farmer had some game.

“Tryggvi is a favorite son to the basketball people here,” Oddsson says. “If he’s not playing enough minutes with the national team they are like, ‘Ah, we should change the coach. He’s not very good.’ Tryggvi is a very likable guy.”

Though Hlinason had only been seriously playing the game for two months, Jóhannsson was impressed enough to inquire about promoting him to the national program. Another coach suggested they wait.

“I don’t know how much he would handle the pressure, being on the national team right away,” Jóhannsson says.

Oddsson quit coaching the program’s senior men’s team and devoted all of his attention to developing Hlinason and working with the club’s age group. Practices were structured to be light but still informative, a tactic that worked — Hlinason improved every week, and before long, he had played his way off the farm, out of Iceland, and into Spain. It was beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Progress is the best feeling ever,” Hlinason says. “When you know you’re getting better and better and you can see it. It’s really addictive.”

***

Word of Hlinason began to spread across the ocean in the summer of 2017. He was one of the most productive players at the Europe Under-20 Championship in Crete, leading Iceland to historic top-eight finish , with averages of 16 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks a game. He followed that up with a strong showing against basketball-crazed Lithuania (“For them, basketball isn’t a sport — it’s a religion,” says Hlinason). Matched up against Jonas Valanciunas, a former NBA lottery pick and current Toronto Raptor, Hlinason had one of the best games of his young career, scoring 19 points and collecting seven rebounds.

At first, he didn’t understand the enormity of his performance. When Hlinason wasn’t busy learning the fundamentals of the game, he was in school full-time, so when he outscored Valanciunas, the Icelandic rookie wasn’t immediately aware of the significance.

“I didn’t really realize until after that game when people were like you were playing against this guy,” he says. “I knew [Valanciunas] played in the NBA, but I didn’t really look at it that way, I guess.”

Within four years, Hlinason went from having never owned basketball shoes or having ever even watched a live game to outplaying an NBA starter. It is an unprecedented and meteoric rise, yet Hlinason is incredibly relaxed about the whole thing. “I try to stay calm and trust the system,” he says. “I don’t see a reason to worry about much.” Gone were the tractors and pitchforks, suddenly Hlinason was dealing with cameras and microphones.

Icelandic people are probably one of the proudest people in the world when it comes to sport.

“It did not disrupt him at all or change his character or anything like that,” Jóhannsson says. “I think he’s a totally different person to all these kids that grow up in the city. Being far away from everything, he is a special type of person and I say that in a positive way. He is very smart, he’s very calm, and I think he has an ability to adapt to a lot of things.”

“My philosophy is if you can’t affect something there’s no reason to think about it or to worry about it,” Hlinason says. It’s a philosophy that helped this past June, when he traveled to New York for the NBA draft and sat with his parents in the Barclays Center; he was not picked. “It was good seeing New York, as well as taking part in the draft. I think it was really important,” he says.

Hlinason remains optimistic. Since he wasn’t drafted, he feels that he has more control over his future. He would rather sign with a team that can work with him immediately than be caught in a draft-and-stash scenario, in which he’d remain overseas with the possibility of being brought over at a later date. It’s a common situation for international prospects, but Hlinason wants to get better now. “Make me as good as I can be,” he says. “That’s always the goal.”

In early-July, a month after the draft, the World Cup was in full swing. Naturally, the conversation shifted to the Icelandic soccer team, which had never previously qualified for the international competition. There were claims that more than 30,000 Icelandic fans, 10 percent of the population, had traveled to Russia to support them.

“Icelandic people are probably one of the proudest people in the world when it comes to sport,” Hlinason says, explaining that Icelandic fans would cheer on a team regardless of the score or the likelihood of victory (the team dropped two of its three matches and quickly bowed out).

“When we made it the World Cup, we had already kind of won,” he says. “Because just making it there was enough for us.”

***

During a Monday night game in March 1986, Artis Gilmore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar almost came to blows. This wasn’t anything new. The two giants, each 7’2”, had a quarrelsome history. Gilmore, a physical and powerful center for the San Antonio Spurs, defended Abdul-Jabbar, a Laker and one of the game’s greatest-ever players, as well as anyone could. So when they got tangled up, long-limbed and aggrieved, the refs were quick to intervene.

“It was just a moment of temporary insanity,” Abdul-Jabbar explained after the game. The dustup was a precursor to later foul trouble for Abdul-Jabbar. Looking to conserve his star player’s energy, Pat Riley dipped into his bench midway through the second half and called on the big kid on the 10-day contract from the Kansas City Sizzlers, a struggling team in the Continental Basketball Association. Then Petur Guðmundsson checked into his first game with the Lakers.

Shortly after that, the sold-out crowd at the Forum were on their feet. In 20 minutes off the bench, Guðmundsson scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and received multiple standing ovations.

“Tonight exceeded all of my expectations,” Guðmundsson told the Los Angeles Times afterward. “It’s a super feeling. I thought I’d get a few minutes, but Kareem got into foul trouble and I got more minutes than I thought. These guys are great ballplayers. They didn’t hesitate to give me the ball.”

Teammate Byron Scott said of Guðmundsson, “He’s a diamond in the rough.”

“The great thing about being a part of that group is everybody there was a basketball player,” Guðmundsson says three decades after his brief stint with the Lakers. “Everyone knew how to play basketball when things broke down. Guys would just look at each other. To me that was unbelievable. It was so much fun.”

Off the court, Guðmundsson talked history with Abdul-Jabbar, who nicknamed his new teammate “Hagar the Horrible”: “He knew I came from Viking country. That was our connection.” His time with the Lakers, he says, was “the top of the world.” It’s a remarkable journey given the era and the obstacles, that the game was not yet global, and that Guðmundsson had to find his own way.

“I was kind of my own, with nobody to really get advice from,” he says. “It’s a different world for these kids now.”

He has a bright future and maybe has given Icelandic basketball more hope.

Now, Guðmundsson’s heirs routinely play overseas in top leagues in Germany and France, and a burgeoning crop of talented players, like Thorir Thorbjarnarson at Nebraska and Jon Axel Gudmundsson at Davidson, are currently shining at the NCAA level. Iceland might never become a hoops powerhouse, but the country has quickly earned a reputation for developing highly skilled prospects. “The coaching and development over there, for such a small country, is excellent,” says Fraschilla, who has hosted coaching clinics in Iceland. “The coaches have learned the game the right way and they are teaching it the right way. The problem is, there’s just not enough of their population to turn out more than the handful of kids that have come to the States and the occasional, once every-10-years NBA prospect, like Jón Stefánsson, and like this kid, who has a chance to someday play in the NBA.”

Back in Reykjavik, local artist Jón Ingiberg has an illustration of Guðmundsson in his portfolio. His 6-year-old son helped with the final piece, filling in the portrait with Hama beads. When asked about the motivation behind the project, Ingiberg explained in an email, “Petur Guðmundsson is a legend in Icelandic basketball and sport history. And the only Icelander who managed to play in NBA. Hoping that someday some other player will.”

***

One night in early July, Hlinason was back in his hotel room in Las Vegas. A few hours earlier, the Raptors dropped their third straight summer league game, 92–82, to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Hlinason didn’t play. The singularity summer league demands — every player vying for shots and possessions while trying to impress and capitalize on the moment — creates a different game than the one Hlinason plays at home and in Spain.

“I’m more of a team player,” he says. “It’s kind of tough for me to get in these last few days. You get a mash of dudes, and you try and put a team together, but it’s really hard to create a real team in only two, three, four days.”

Back in Iceland, Hlinason and his national teammates are peaking at the right time. The players that have led the squad for years are nearing retirement, and Hlinason’s emergence, along with that of Davidson’s Gudmundsson and others, gives the program reason to be optimistic. They have struggled for years to find a capable center, one who isn’t overmatched at the position, and the team has often fielded an undersized lineup.

“We’re really excited for the team and of course if we can have Tryggvi as the starting center for the national team for the next ten years, we’ve got a legitimate seven-footer,” Oddsson says.

“He has a bright future and maybe has given Icelandic basketball more hope,” Jóhannsson says.

It won’t be easy but Hlinason is motivated to keep the momentum going. “We want to keep it up and keep the other guys satisfied and show them their work was used to get where we are,” he says.

Hlinason is under contract with Valencia for three more seasons. He’ll spend the next year on loan with Monbus Obradoiro, a lower-level team within Valencia’s division. Either way, with yet another year of top-level European basketball under his belt, he’ll be in good position to take another run at the NBA — and another shot at history — in 2020.

Big men like Hlinason may have fallen out of favor recently with basketball executives, but there is always a need for athletic giants with soft hands and quick feet. Players like 7’3” Boban Marjanović, who has transformed from a lumbering relic into an efficient post player and analytics’ darling, are a reminder of that. Fraschilla says another name comes to mind watching Hlinason play — Michael Doleac. “Mike played in the NBA for seven or eight years and was a serviceable back-up big man,” he says. “Tryggvi is an old-fashioned, somewhat heavy-legged, big body, throwback center at a time when the league is transforming itself to a faster paced league with versatile big guys that can defend away from the basket, that’s not necessarily his style right now. But he’s a really good risk. The likelihood is he will develop into a serviceable, at worst, European big man.”

“I really try not to think about it,” Hlinason says of his future. “Valencia is a really nice, beautiful city, and I would love to play there again but if the situation occurs that it would be better for me to leave to be a better player, I will just do that and work on it from there.”

Instead, what he’s thinking about as he stretches out in his Encore hotel room just off the Las Vegas Strip, is returning to the farm.

“I can’t wait to go back, do some real work, take care of the sheep, and go out on the lake,” he says. “I think being in contact with nature is really important. You see a lot of people coming from big cities and they are really stressed. My mom says a lot going back to nature, going back to the farm, is the perfect place to recharge your body, your energy. ‘Fill your battery,’ like my mom always says.”

Someday, when basketball is over with, Hlinason says he would like to return to the homestead, to the endless summer days and the wide-open land, brimming with bleating sheep. Until then, though, his farming career is on hold.

“You’ve really got to enjoy this time,” he says. “This is something that will come to an end. You can’t be a professional basketball player all your life, so you’ve got enjoy it while you can.”

* * *

Sam Riches is a writer and journalist based in Toronto.

***

Editor: Matt Giles

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Fact-checker: Matt Giles