Icelander enjoying his stay in 'land of basketball'

December 20, 1993|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,Contributing Writer

There was little scientific about Thor Johannesson's choice of the United States as the place to spend a year as an exchange student.

"I could have gone anywhere in the world," said Johannesson. "I knew [the United States] is the land of basketball, and basketball is my life."

Johannesson, from Iceland, is getting a crash course in American basketball at Westminster, where he plays guard for the Owls. He played well in preseason scrimmages and started the team's first two games.

The native of Keflavik averaged 10 points per game last year playing for his hometown team. Keflavik went 28-1 and the guard went to tryouts for Iceland's under-18 national team.

He then decided to come to the United States. When arriving in Finksburg, he thought there would be little chance that he could make the team at Westminster because the school is so big.

But he made the squad. But after the two starts, some trouble set in. Johannesson scored three points in the two games. A sprained ankle forced him out of the next game, and he did not get in last Friday when the Owls (1-3) lost to Centennial.

The 5-foot-10 guard said he has not felt completely comfortable on the court and has been putting too much pressure on himself.

"I haven't been playing good since I came," said Johannesson. "I've been too afraid of making mistakes. In the first game, my body was shaking."

Westminster coach Dave Byers said there's no question Johannesson can shoot the ball. Byers added that the senior makes some good decisions on the break.

But Byers also has noticed Johannesson's nervousness.

"He's real positive. He plays really hard, and he loves the game," said Byers. "I don't think he's been as comfortable in [the regular season]. If anything, he just needs to relax."

Being pulled from the starting lineup may have made Johannesson nervous, but he was not the only one replaced. Byers brought in four new starters after the Owls' first two games.

The team has yet to play to its coach's satisfaction, and Byers said Johannesson must realize he's not being singled out.

"At this point, we have 13 players and five positions," said Byers. "No one has claimed much of anything yet."

Johannesson said he now wants to claim something. He's hoping his ankle will hold up, and that he gets another chance to show what he can do.

"I won't give up, I'll keep fighting," said Johannesson. "[Byers] gave me the chance, and I kind of blew it."

Johannesson enjoys playing basketball for the Owls and going to school at Westminster. He said Byers has taught him more than any other coach.

In fact, one day in gym class, Byers told Johannesson that he was putting an improper spin on the ball when he shot. The Icelander changed the spin, and his shooting improved.

Johannesson has seen and learned a lot in his four months here.

He got to see his favorite NBA player -- Orlando Woolridge of Philadelphia when his coach from Iceland was here and drove him to the Spectrum -- and has been impressed with the strong support Westminster gives its teams.

His host family, the Beckmans of Finksburg, say sports helped his adjustment to America.

"Sports are a big part of his life in Iceland," said Karen Beckman. "They're a big part of his life here."

Karen Beckman said Johannesson is a perfectionist, especially in sports.

A conversation with the Icelander shows that, as he spends more time talking about what he thinks he has done wrong than right.

But plenty has been correct so far on the basketball court. Byers said Johannesson can be a "pretty good scorer" once he hits his stride here.

And Johannesson said he is starting to feel more comfortable. His confidence is returning, which means brighter days probably are ahead.

"I know I can play my position as well as anyone else," said Johannesson. "I just need to prove it to [Byers]."

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