To hear Hanno Mottola tell it, captaining Finland to its first-ever appearance at the FIBA World Cup brings him back to his days as a Runnin’ Ute. Almost.
“Playing right now for the national team is the only experience that comes anywhere close to those four great years I had at Utah,” Mottola said in a phone interview with the Deseret News.
“The closeness you feel for your teammates to the atmosphere this creates — how everybody is pulling together for one thing — it’s really cool.”
Mottola was a central character to the late ’90s golden era of Utah basketball, playing alongside NBA lottery picks Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller and Michael Doleac. While at Utah, the big Finn picked up both a pre-season basketball All-American and two academic All-Americas while studying economics.
Mottola, Miller and Doleac helped lead the Runnin’ Utes to the NCAA title game against Kentucky.
“I’ve got that game on video, but I’ve never watched it. I never will. The video and the memory from that game are hiding on my bookshelf. It’s just there as a reminder to what could have been. We were 3½ minutes away
It’s not that Mottola left Salt Lake City with much regret, it’s just that one game still stings. Only losing one game in four years at the Huntsman Center — and that to the Tim Duncan-led Wake Forest University as a freshman — makes for a decent consolation prize.
After graduating, Mottola became the first-ever Finn to make the NBA by playing for the Atlanta Hawks. His professional basketball career is still ongoing, 14 years and counting.
On Saturday at 1:30 MDT, Finland will meet team USA for the first of five group games in the FIBA World Cup. The Americans come into the tournament as the defending world champion. They also hold the top spot in world basketball rankings, followed by Spain and Argentina.
The soon-to-be 38-year-old Mottola comes into the game with perhaps the most traveled professional hoops career of any World Cup competitor. After leaving the NBA in 2002, Mottola played in Spain, Italy, Russia, Greece, and now for his hometown Helsinki club, Torpan Pojat.
The rest of Finland’s roster, though, comes in light on world experience. After finishing with back-to-back ninth-place finishes at the European Championships, Finland reached its first-ever FIBA World Cup via wild card entry.
“It’s a great step for Finnish basketball,” Mottola said. “For so long I was a lonely wolf trying to push basketball forward in Finland. Now we’re on an upswing and it’s pretty cool to get this chance at the end of my career. It isn’t hard to find motivation for this.”
After 20 years on the national team and “15 or 16” years as team captain, Mottola says he knows why Finnish basketball is reaching new heights.
“It comes down to the brand of basketball we play. We have good athleticism, but we’re not the biggest team, so we have to be more aggressive. You’ll see an aggression with us on both the offensive and defensive side you won’t see with any other European team,” Mottola said.
“We don’t have the same big-time superstars as some of the other teams. We’ve got to do something different. We shoot threes, we run the floor, we play aggressive defense. These are our keys. We’re a pretty easy team to root for.”
This fundamentals-first basketball would almost certainly make the late University of Utah coach Rick Majerus proud.
When Mottola decided on passing up the European pro leagues for a U.S. education in hoops and economics, the 18-year-old, 6-foot-11 power forward with a deft jump shot had plenty of NCAA suitors.
From Kansas to North Carolina to UCLA, plus about 50 or 60 other schools, were vying for his commitment, says Mottola.
“As a Finn, we can see through all the nice talks and all that. So the single thing is — don’t try to lie. Coach Majerus was the only one who, from the first phone call I had with him, told me what my weaknesses were instead of what I wanted to hear,” Mottola said.
“Coach promised me two things: we are going to practice more and better than any other school, and we will eat more and better than any other school. Both of those came true. I developed into a pretty good player, and I got to go to the best restaurants around the country.
“I will say — as I’m sure all my teammates will say as well — being a Runnin’ Ute were the best four years of my career.”
Joining Mottola on team Finland is another player with Utah roots, former Utah Jazz power forward Erik Murphy.
While Murphy was born in Lyon, France, and grew up in Rhode Island, his mother was a member of the Finnish national basketball team. Murphy holds U.S. and Finnish passports.
“Erik’s a great guy. We call him half-Finn, half-American. We were raised in the States, but you can tell he’s a half-Finn you know?” Mottola said.
On July 22, the Jazz traded the second-year pro to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a five-player deal.
The two Finnish power forwards will have their hands full trying to contain U.S. player Anthony Davis, whom Mottola calls "a beast."
“Davis is just a mega superstar waiting to explode. In the next year or two he’s going to be the main big guy in the league. He’s so explosive and so fundamentally sound. He’s the modern version of Tim Duncan. We will really have our hands full slowing him down.”
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Mottola said he had some frustrating years during his 20-year career with the Finnish national team, but for the last 10 or so years a core group of players and coaches have been pushing the game forward. For the last four or five years the results are starting to pay off, Mottola said.
The big Finn never thought he’d have the chance to play for his country against the U.S. at an Olympics or world championships. Now, this.
“It’s a great prize playing for your home country. We do it for the love. It’s not about the money — there is no money. We do it for the sheer love of the game. Just like when I was a Ute, I’m really getting something special out of this.”