This is the story of a pre-teen whose uncle played for Valencia Basket, who always wanted to following in those footsteps, but who instead finds himself opposing that club this week in the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals.
Coming all the way from Iceland, Martin Hermannsson didn't know much about European competitions until lately, but he has quickly established himself as one of the best guards in the EuroCup. The 25-year-old not only helped ALBA Berlin reach the EuroCup Finals, but he has been indispensable to legendary head coach Aito Garcia Reneses as a combo guard was averaging 12.9 points on 43.9% three-point shooting and 85.1% free throw shooting, and 4.9 assists in over 25 minutes per game coming into this series.
"Honestly, I didn't know much about the EuroCup. I was not really following the EuroCup or the EuroLeague before this season," Hermannsson admits. "Coming from Iceland, European basketball is not shown on TV or anything like that. I didn't know much about the players, the teams or anything. I just remember seeing our regular season group for the first time, and I didn't know half of the teams, like Tofas or Lokomotiv. I had no idea where these teams were or what I was going up against. I didn't really know what to expect, but I think the EuroCup has been really, really strong this year, with a lot of good players and teams. Being in this position says a lot about ALBA and all the good things we have been doing this season."
"I didn't really know what to expect, but I think the EuroCup has been really, really strong."
It is no surprise, however, than Hermannsson is doing so well in basketball. His father, Hermann Hauksson, an Icelandic basketball star, was chosen as the best player in the country in 1997. His mother, Margret Eliasdottir, was a handball player.
"My father played professionally in Belgium and was one of the main guys in the Icelandic national team," Hermannsson explains. "I just remember going with him growing up, when I was younger, to practices in Iceland and following him all around for games. He is the main reason why I started having interest in basketball. He bought one of those plastic basketball hoops to put up in my bedroom. From there, I had a lot of interest in basketball, but I was also a big fan of soccer. I started playing soccer really young, too. I wouldn't say that I was going to be a basketball player from the start, but I had a lot of interest in sports in general. I was a big sports guy, watched a lot of games and was always out playing basketball, soccer or something else. It has always been a huge part of my life."
Obviously, Martin's biggest influence growing up was his father, but he had another family reference when it came to basketball. One of his uncles is Jon Stefansson, arguably the best Icelandic basketball player ever. Stefansson started his career with KR Reykjavik and also played in Germany, Russia, Italy and Spain, including two stints with Valencia Basket. At age 12, Hermannsson travelled to Valencia to see his uncle play. He fell in love with Valencia and its basketball club, and always had the idea that he would like to someday play for Valencia Basket. More than a decade later, he is playing against Valencia, instead, in the EuroCup Finals. When he was asked about it, Hermannsson had to laugh.
"It's crazy! At that point, I never thought I was going to be playing in Valencia in 12 years, in the EuroCup Finals! I remember going to visit him in Valencia, it was my first and only time there! He has always been a big role model for me, a huge icon. Going to see him at that time was amazing," Hermannsson said. "I always wanted to follow in Jon's footsteps. The way he spoke about Valencia, the city and the club, was great, and the one time I was there was amazing. Valencia is a really big club, with a lot of history and many great players!"
ALBA this season lost guards Peyton Siva --twice -- and Stefan Peno to injuries, but Herrmannsson filled in admirably, and despite his lack of EuroCup experience, became an x-factor for his team, both scoring and creating for others.
"The combo guard is my natural position," he says. "I have played combo guard all my life. Of course, it was a little bit hard to change from 'one' to 'two' throughout the season and try to get in the rhythm that way, but I think I have done a pretty good job.
"For me, it doesn't really matter to play the 'two' or the 'one'; I feel really comfortable as long as I have the ball. I like to have the ball in my hands, but we have a lot of big players and all of the guys have been helping me play my role. When you have a 'four' like Luke Sikma, with a point guard mentality, it makes everything much, much easier."
"Aito is an unbelievable coach and I love the way he teaches and teaches."
Hermannsson is in the perfect environment to grow as a player, with a head coach famous for giving significant playing time to anyone who deserves it. Needless to say, he is delighted to play for Coach Garcia Reneses.
"Aito is a magician! He is an unbelievable coach and I love the way he teaches and teaches. Of course, I think we have a really great group of guys, with really good chemistry. Right from the beginning, everybody knew exactly what their roles were," Hermannsson said. "Everybody is satisfied with their roles and to have a good team, everybody has to be in the same page. The coaching staff is doing a great job with that."
As for the EuroCup Finals, Hermannsson believes that being young and ambitious is not necessarily a bad thing, as enthusiasm can push ALBA all the way to the EuroCup title. He also thinks his team looks inexperienced, but it is not exactly true.
"Most of the people put us as the underdogs and just going into the finals, of course you have pressure, but we may have less pressure than Valencia. I think it is a big advantage," Hermannsson said. "We are not that inexperienced: Luke Sikma has been in this situation before, Aito has won the EuroCup before, Peyton Siva and Niels Giffey have played in the NCAA finals... All these guys have been in higher stages in big competitions, so I wouldn't say we lack a lot of experience. All of us are really hungry and we really, really want to win the EuroCup."