Dick Harmon: Former BYU basketball star Travis Hansen is a 'regular guy' whose life has made a big difference to others
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO— Travis Hansen just retired from professional basketball at the age of 33.
A guy that young shouldn't have done all he's done. Since leaving Mountain View High, Utah Valley University, BYU, the NBA and a high-level lucrative career in European basketball, he's made millions. Yet he projects himself as a regular guy with a regular home and life. If he sells his fancy car, which he vows he will do, and wears around denims with holes in the legs like he did this week, the ruse might eventually work.
"Really, I'm just a regular kind of guy," he says.
Regular guys don't play against LeBron James and call Houston Rockets star Luis Scola a teammate and best friend. Regular guys don't find themselves making a global health and educational impact on tens of thousands of children from Mali to Nepal, from Moscow to Utah. Regular American blokes don't have former Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin issue you a Russian passport.
If you add it all up, so far, Hansen's impact in this life is quite remarkable.
Hansen is a rare find with Utah roots. In high school, he was a 6-foot-6 guy who could dunk on anybody. He had a 40-inch vertical jump and could play four positions in college, where he earned MVP defensive player of the year honors for BYU before the Atlanta Hawks drafted him in 2003.
Hansen's NBA status opened doors in Europe where he played championship-caliber ball for Tau Ceramica in Victoria, Spain, before going to Moscow and playing for Russia's best team, Dynamo. He played for Real Madrid from 2009-2010 before finishing last year with Khimki in Moscow, where he joined former Utah Jazz guard Raul Lopez in winning the Moscow Championship.
"I'd love to play three more years," says Hansen. "I'm going to miss it. But this has been our goal all along that when our oldest son Ryder turned eight, we wanted to be done. It just feels right."
Just eight years ago, Hansen and his wife LaRee left Provo for Atlanta and LaRee was in tears — she'd never been away from home and family. In the NBA, nightly games place players in different major cities every day, and limos pull up to airports and transport players to nightclubs for partying, drinking and a lifestyle which was foreign to Travis.
Hansen made a decision not to partake — it wasn't him. What followed was the typical story of Mormon kid who is teased, tempted, joked about and poked fun at but in the end earns respect for standing up for his beliefs.
"Yes, it was like that. Very typical," said Hansen.
"It was hard because you wanted to be part of the team and felt like you needed to belong. But you just didn't go. I made great relationships with Jason Terry, Steven Jackson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
"They respected me and I believe I came way closer to them than if I'd gone to the nightclubs because I'd have just become another guy at the club to hang out with," he said. "By not going, I totally stood out and built more powerful relationships with them."
At times, Hansen's teammates sought him out for his opinion on morality, mortality and God.
When Hansen left for Europe, the athletes didn't have quite the outlandish lifestyle as NBA players, but there was another challenge for the LDS returned missionary. Europeans struggle with religion.
"Many Europeans have a hard time with religion," Hansen said. "It is a party-pooper subject over there. You bring it up and they're like, 'Let's talk about something else.' "
Still, Hansen found private moments when teammate Luis Scola, an atheist who believes in evolution, came to him to talk about God.
During the Final Four of the European championships in Prague, Scola's father traveled with the team. He had a heart attack during the tournament and was hospitalized the entire time.
"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.
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