Martin Hermannsson: 'Iceland has a bright future in basketball'

Dec 03, 2019 by Andy West, Print
Martin Hermannsson: 'Iceland has a bright future in basketball'

When Martin Hermannsson steps onto the court for ALBA Berlin, he is not only doing his best for his teammates and the German club's fans: he is also carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders. The point guard, who is ranked fifth on the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's assist chart with 5.6 per game, comes from perhaps the most famous Icelandic basketball family in history. His father Hermann Hauksson was one of Iceland's first professional players and now Martin is among a select group to appear in the EuroLeague, having also been named Iceland's player of the year three times in a row.

In fact, Hermannsson's fame in his homeland is so great that he has been the subject of a high-profile TV documentary series…on three occasions! "The first time was when I was in school in America [at Long Island University]," he recalled. "A TV channel from Iceland came to show kids what college is like in the United States, trying to encourage more guys to go there.

"That gives the kids a dream... If you're from a small country like Iceland, it's possible to play with the best in Europe."

"Then when I was playing in France another channel came to show the life of a professional basketball player, and last year with ALBA was the biggest one so far. They made a series featuring golfers and footballers, lots of different athletes from Iceland, and it was an honor to be the only basketball player included."

Rather than being bothered by the regular intrusions into his personal life, Hermannsson embraced the interest as an opportunity to encourage more of his countrymen to follow him into professional basketball.

"I understand why people want to see how I'm living and what I'm doing, because people in Iceland don't know much about professional basketball and how much money is involved with the top clubs," he said. "They think you can only earn money from soccer, so it was nice to show them you can also have a good life through basketball."

Indeed, growing numbers of young Icelanders are opening their eyes to the world of basketball thanks to the recent success of the national team, which Hermannsson has helped propel to new heights in the last few years.

"When I started, basketball wasn't that high-profile because everything was always about soccer, with a small place for handball because the national team was doing well," he explained. "We always had problems with the national team in basketball. We never qualified for big tournaments and lost almost every game. But after we qualified for back-to-back EuroBaskets [in 2015 and 2017] things just exploded. We increased by 50% the number of kids playing basketball and the sport started getting on TV. They now broadcast two or three live games of the Icelandic League each round and they have an analysis show reviewing all the games. The success of the national team played the biggest part in everything – people saw that we are capable of doing it, more and more guys are going professional, and now I'm playing in the EuroLeague. That gives the kids a dream. Now they hopefully have a role model and they can see that even if you're from a small country like Iceland, it’s possible to play with the best players in Europe.

"More and more indoor arenas are being built every year and I think Iceland has a bright future in basketball. We're seeing a lot of young guys putting in the hard work and knowing what they have to do to reach the highest level. Social media means it's easy to see how hard the best players are working and a lot of kids in Iceland are now doing those same things. Basketball is getting bigger and bigger each year, and we're going to get even better."

The growth of basketball’s popularity in Iceland means that Hermannsson and the next generation of players are faced with a very different environment to the tough situation faced by his father in the 1990s. Hermannsson admitted that his father's career has been a great inspiration.

"When my dad went pro, he really didn't know what he was going into because very few Icelandic players had ever been professional basketball players before," he said. "He was playing in Belgium on a terrible salary and they didn't even have phones so I only spoke to him once every two weeks; he didn’t phone more often because it was so expensive and he wasn't earning that much. He went professional to say that he did it, not to earn good money, and I don't think you can compare what he did with my situation because the opportunities now are so much greater. But he was a huge role model for me to know that he played professionally, as well as having 70-plus games for the national team and being named the best player in Iceland. So he's a huge reason why I started to play basketball."

Naturally, Hermannsson's father is now delighted to see his son making such great strides in the sport, and the ALBA guard's family are very regular visitors to watch Martin in action. "They're coming over so often I think they have to buy an airplane!" he joked. "They were here for our first game of the season; my mom is a big marathon runner so she came over for the Berlin Marathon, which coincided with our first games in the German league and the EuroLeague."

"I always wanted to show people back in Iceland they can do it... With hard work and focus, you can accomplish a lot."

Those visits from Reykjavik to Berlin allow Hermannsson's family to witness the rare sight of an Icelander performing at the highest level in Europe. He is fully aware that makes him a trailblazer, clearing a path for younger Icelanders to follow in his footsteps and it is a responsibility he relishes.

"That was always a goal for me," he insisted. "I always wanted to be that guy, right from the beginning. We had Jon Stefansson who played in the EuroLeague with Lottomatica Roma and Unicaja Malaga, but now with social media, it's much more accessible and I always wanted to show people back in Iceland they can do it – especially because I don't have the typical basketball body. I wanted to show people that with hard work and focus, you can accomplish a lot.

"So far I’m proud of myself. I've just turned 25, I've been to EuroBasket twice, played nearly 80 games for the national team and now I'm in the EuroLeague, the place I always dreamed of. Now it's up to me to show I can play at this level. And not only being a good basketball player; I always want to be a good role model off the court, to show that I'm a caring person and still just a humble kid from Iceland."

He’s certainly doing a great job of achieving all those targets so far.