Dick Harmon: Former BYU basketball star Travis Hansen is a 'regular guy' whose life has made a big difference to others

Published: Saturday, Sept. 24 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

"Luis came up to me many times and asked about God, what happens after this life. That was his main question," Hansen said. "He was so nervous about his dad. One night Luis came up to me and started talking pretty in-depth about the plan of salvation. To this day, we remain friends, as are our wives.

"I have a hope that one day I'll go by his house and he'll be 60 and looking at all his trophies and call me to go to church."

Defending his beliefs and standing up for his faith comes easy for Hansen because of his LDS mission.

"I tell everybody to go on a mission," he said.

Hansen was just 18 when his mother Laurie died of pancreatic cancer. The last thing his mother ever said to him was to serve a mission. Two months after her death, he completed his missionary papers and took a flight to Santiago, Chile, for two years. It changed his life.

When he got to Chile, his mission president put the new missionaries on a bus and asked them to give a discussion (presentation or lesson) in Spanish.

"I didn't speak Spanish very well and I was a little humiliated to stand up in front of everybody but I learned not to have any fear, to be proud of what I stood for," Hansen said. "So, in my career, after my mission, it was easier to say to people that I believe in God, that I don't do certain things. It was great to stand out and be different instead of doing shameful things."

On his mission, people called him "Elder 8 Mile" because he looked like the famous rapper Eminem.

Hansen's mission president told him that if for two years he did something others wouldn't, for the rest of his life he'd get what others couldn't get.

"I think those two years helped me be disciplined, work hard, have no fear and have a desire to do good."

Twice in his career, Hansen had major surgery. Once when he tore his Achilles' tendon four years ago just before he signed a huge contract for Dynamo, and the second time in 2010 when he had back surgery on his fourth and fifth lumbar vertebra.

His best season as a professional basketball player came after he signed a big contract with Dynamo in Moscow. He made good, averaging 19 points a game, shooting 56 percent from beyond the arc, 62 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the charity stripe.

Other than LeBron James, whom Hansen described as a freak of nature, the most impressive player he every played with was a Greek star named Antonis Fotsis, a 6-10 guy who could almost fly.

Hansen has always enjoyed seeing extra-ordinary physical skills. When he got to the NBA and Europe, he was amazed at the talent many people display on the court.

In Russia, he found a cause off the court that has changed the lives of thousands.

After two unsuccessful fertility treatments and a miscarriage, LaRee researched adoption in Russia. What she found were horrible statistics about Russian orphans.

"We both felt inspired to do something," said Hansen.

Through Russian friends, they found a baby hospital in Lyubertsy, Russia, and began work to remodel the facility and provide life-saving operations for children by creating a group of volunteers to hold, feed and play with babies and children. That led to a partnership with founding sponsor Natures Sunshine of the Little Heroes Foundation.

To date, that organization has given 48,000 people hope, including 32 life-saving surgeries, created 1,200 educational opportunities including two schools in Mali, and administered 32,000 health treatments for kids the past three years. There are now plans to establish a holistic center in Nepal and, just last week, Hansen spoke at a breakfast for the Utah chapter of Operation Smile, helping to raise $125,000 for the international children's medical charity.

Last week, he was in San Diego on business for Little Heroes, and this week he's off to Orlando to do more of the same to raise money.

Hansen says he'll miss the competition, camaraderie, and games of his professional basketball career.

"I'll miss the tactics, to try to win a game in the closing seconds," he said. "It gets your blood going."

But for the present, he'll work for Little Heroes, pushing the cause.

"Someday, I'd like to do radio or TV, perhaps write for the Deseret News, or do financial planning or something like that," he said.

But it is good to be home and around family and friends.

"I've been blessed," he said. "We've been blessed."

Both times Hansen had surgery for athletic injuries, good things happened. The first, after his Achilles' tear, he had his best season ever. After his back surgery, his wife LaRee found a baby to adopt and brought little Halle home within days of discovering the availability.

"Last Christmas we were sealed to Halle in the temple," he said. "It was a remarkable experience."

Hansen said the experiences he and LaRee have had and the relationships they've experienced have been a dream come true, a different world than that day they left for Atlanta and LaRee couldn't hold back the tears.

"Every good thing that has happened to me is a result of my mom telling me to go on a mission and me going on that mission," Hansen said.

Athletically, Hansen still feels the ability to soar and dunk. In coming years, those skills will fade like they do for all our stars.

Hansen did enjoy his time under the bright lights but he understands that world can dim.

Wisely, Hansen has built his treasures on a foundation not of sand.

That is the only way to retire and walk away.

email: dharmon@desnews.com

twitter: Harmonwrites

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