What is Iceland known for? Ice? Land? That whole story you heard in fifth grade about Greenland and Iceland and some sort of confusion between the two in naming them (I obviously didn’t really listen to it)?
Whatever it is, I would think basketball would be relatively low on the list. And thus, one would assume, making it somewhat odd to be a fan of the NBA in Iceland. Somewhat odd. Not completely out of this world to enjoy it.
But what’s really odd – meaning more than somewhat - is being an Oklahoma City Thunder fan in Iceland, one of the least visible teams in the league. Which brings us to Hlynur Omar Bjornsson, the self-proclaimed only Thunder fan in Iceland. Let me ask it for you: “Huh? How? Why?” So I asked him, among other things.
You are a Thunder fan in Iceland. Simply, how and why?
I‘ve always liked basketball and the NBA. As a kid I started supporting the Sonics. First, because of Shawn Kemp and his monster dunks, but eventually Gary Payton became my favorite player. I‘ve never been to Seattle, but my father used to travel there quite a bit because of his work (visiting the Boeing offices) and he really liked the city, so at least I had some connection to the city.
When the team was sold and eventually relocated to Oklahoma City, I was pretty upset and thought that if there was any time when you were allowed to actually switch your allegiances and become a fan of another team, this was it. So I tried to find a new team to follow but none stood out. I then noticed that every morning when I checked the NBA news or the box score, the team I looked up first was the Thunder. How was my old team doing? How was Kevin Durant playing? I was really excited when the Sonics drafted KD so maybe I was just keeping track of him?
But no, it was not just him. I found out that you can‘t make a concious decision to stop being a fan of a certain team (even if it has a new name and address) and become a fan of another (if I was a Seattle resident I most likely would think differently, but in that case my attachment to the team would be a lot different, then it would be a case of “always support your local team”). I was still a fan of this team that was now located in Oklahoma City, a place I did not know much about but was interested to know more about. So you could say that I just followed the team from Seattle. Continuing to support it just felt right.
I quickly learned that Oklahoma City has really embraced the team and shown that it is a great NBA city. It has a strong fan base, I can find a lot about the team in the local media (thanks to the Internet), the organization seems to be building for the future, with a great arena, top-notch practice facility and Sam Presti is the best young GM in sports: He actually seems to have a plan with a horizion of more than just a couple of months.
How do you watch the games or follow the team?
I mostly follow the team on the Internet. I obviously read the Daily Thunder, I read recaps, study box scores and watch highlights on ESPN.com, NBA.com and other websites. I also have NBA TV International, so there is an NBA game on pretty much every night, but I only got to see three or four Thunder games last season and that‘s not enough. I am checking out if I can get NBA League Pass Broadband, which is supposed to be available here in Iceland and would allow me to see more Thunder games.
Do you have any aspirations to come to Oklahoma City to see a game live and in person?
I‘d love to go to Oklahoma City and attend a game. That would really be great. However it is not on my short term plan right now. Now is not a very good time for Icelanders to travel abroad since our currency (the krona) has taken a nosedive following the banking crash here last fall, so unfortunately my purchasing power in dollars ain‘t what it used to be. You may not know this but the entire banking system here collapsed in October of 2008 (a couple of weeks after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy) and the main banks, one of which I work for, had to be nationalized. So we are slowly digging ourselves out of that mess. Hopefully I can come over in a couple of years and see the team play (maybe even in the playoffs).
Is basketball very big in Iceland? When I think of sports in Iceland, I think of the movie Mighty Ducks 2.
Yeah, I remember those big bad Icelandic hockey players in the Mighty Ducks 2. Believe it or not, that movie was not really an accurate portrayal of Icelandic athletes, or Icelanders in general for that matter. Hockey is actually not that big here, even though the sport has seen a lot of progress, with better facilities and more players.
By far the biggest sport here is football (soccer) even though we are not really that good at it. But hey, there are only 300,000 people here so what can you expect? The womens‘ team is actually really good and played in the Euro 2009 final tournament earlier this year. We‘ve had the most international success in team handball and won a silver medal in the last Olympics . Team handball is obviously not a huge sport in the world, but I think it just needs better marketing. It should actually appeal to Americans as it‘s really fast, really physical, with high scoring and you can put in as many TV timeouts as you want J.
Basketball however is only moderately popular here. Interest goes a few decades back. Actually Channel 2 in Iceland was one of the first overseas channels to start broadcasting regularly from the NBA. There was a huge basketball craze during the Bulls‘ first run of titles (1991-1993) before Jordan‘s first retirement. Among kids and teenagers it seemed to be bigger than football for a couple of years. But that craze subsided and around the turn of the century, very few people were interested. (I however have been a fanatic ever since 1989 or even earlier.) These days it seems to be enjoying somewhat of a resurgence with more media coverage and LeBron, Kobe and Wade jerseys visible around town.
One Icelandic player has played in the NBA: 7-2 center Petur Gudmundsson who was the first European to play in the NBA. He played college basketball at the University of Washington and was drafted by the Blazers. He played a few games for the showtime Lakers (even started two games) in the 1985-86 season averaging 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds before going out with a back injury. He then played a couple of years for the Spurs before the injury ended his career.
Let’s hear it: What are your thoughts on this year’s team? Reasonable goals, predictions or anything like that you’d like to throw out there?
I am very excited about the team, not just for this season but for the next few years. It is great to get the feeling that the GM and the organization acutally have a working plan. I didn’t get that feeling the last few years when the team was in Seattle. I never expected them to make a good trade or to sign a big name free agent. Now it’s differet: Presti is highly respected and I think that even if it is not in the biggest media market, players would like to play for the Thunder, because it is a team on the rise and not some dead end perennial lottery team.
I try to keep my expectations for the coming season realistic and not get overexcited about some huge jump in the standings. I have higher expectations regarding individual player development: I want to see Russell Westbrook master the point guard position without losing his attacking mentality; I want to see if Jeff Green can actually become a real NBA power forward, or if he will develop into a first class 6th man (which is actually where I think his real value lies); and of course I want to see Kevin Durant continue to grow into an NBA superstar. I think he will lead the league in scoring this season.
We have more players that can become really valuable this year: James Harden may be our SG of the future, a lot of fans seem to be super-excited about Serge Ibaka’s potential (the return of Shawn Kemp maybe?), Shaun Livingson‘s comeback story is compelling and I actually think that Nenad Krstic has some upside left in him considering he‘s only 26 and his development got a little sidetracked by the injury and his time in Russia. However he‘s not the long-term solution at the center spot since I think we need a low-post scoring threat there who can also rebound and defend, and unfortunately the jump shooting Krstic fills none of those needs.
In terms of team record I don’t think the they will be in serious contention for a playoff spot this season but I expect the win total to be somewhere around 31-36 games, probably closer to 36. Coach Brooks’ winning percentage last season was .319, which over 82 games translates to about 26 wins. Since I expect around 10 game jump in win totals the team could get to about 36 wins. That‘s my prediciton.
Big thanks to Hlynur for taking time to answer the questions and here’s to making it over eventually to see a game.