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19/04/2006
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ISL - Jon Stefansson, the player who came in from the cold

NAPLES (Lega A) - Iceland is well known for fish exports, volcanoes and geysers.
 
The European country in the north Atlantic has also provided the world with top sportsmen and one of those is continuing to make a name for himself in Italy with the Carpisa Napoli basketball team.

Jon Stefansson, a 23-year-old guard who has played in three of Europe's top leagues - Germany, Russia and now Italy - also had a stint in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks.

He won a title with Dynamo St Petersburg last year, and already celebrated victory in the Coppa Italia this year with Carpisa.
 
Even if things had not gone well on the court this season for Stefansson, Carpisa president Mario Maione figured he had a player who would be good for the club.

"Worst case scenario, Stefansson's presence will help increase female attendance," Maione said.

Oh yes, there is that aspect to Stefansson. He's tall at 1.95m, blonde and blue-eyed.

Maione was right. It didn't take long for Stefansson to steal the hearts of the Neapolitan ladies who have turned up in big numbers to watch his moves.
 
The female attention has not distracted the "Iceman".

"I don't consider myself a sex symbol," said Stefansson to PA Sport, "although I recently went to hospital to undergo a test and the nurses didn't want me to leave!"

Stefansson sold on hoops

He could have been a model, but like many of his generation, he fell under the spell of Michael Jordan.

In a country that is home to 300,000 citizens where winter sports and football are the main pastimes, the Reykjavik native swapped the ice rink for the hardwood.

"I started to play the game when I was 10," he said. "When I was growing up, once a week we would get an NBA basketball game on TV and it was usually the Chicago Bulls because they were so good.

"It was all about Jordan, that's what I wanted to be and that is what triggered me. I practised two or three times a day with age groups above me and I worked very hard."

His determination to improve saw the then 15-year-old Stefansson leave the frosty climate and cross the Atlantic to land in sunny California. He spent two years playing Division I for Artesia High School before returning home with a sun tan and more importantly, with an improved game.

"It was a very good experience for me," he said. "It helped me a lot as a basketball player."

Stefansson, still a teenager, made an immediate impact with his first club. He helped KR Reykjavik win the Icelandic league in 2000 and earned the Rookie of the Year award. The following season saw him earn Most Valuable Player honours.

Scouts began to hear about an emerging talent in Iceland. At 18 he made his debut in the Bundesliga with TBB Trier.

"It was an opportunity to play professionally and that is what I wanted," he said.

Stefansson shone. His average of 13 points per game was third best on the team while he was second in assists. He had bigger plans, though, and declared for the 2003 NBA draft. Though his name was never called, he caught a break.

"(Mavericks assistant coach) Donnie Nelson watched me play one day and I guess he liked what he saw," said Stefansson.

Nelson's father, Don Nelson, spent many years in the NBA, both as a player and coach. He developed a reputation for signing unproven players from overseas, most famously Dirk Nowitzki. Donnie Nelson also had an affinity with foreign players. He is an assistant coach with Lithuania's national side.

Stefansson put pen-to-paper on a contract with the Mavs in 2003, becoming one of the first Icelandic player to sign for an NBA franchise.

"It was a dream come true," he said. "My goal had always been to play in the NBA."

Unfortunately for Stefansson, the adventure did not play out as he'd hoped. The Mavericks had All-Star guard Steve Nash.

Stefansson spent the 2003-04 campaign on the injured list with a sprained left ankle. Dallas and Stefansson agreed that he needed to play, so the club waived him on September 1 2004.

"I sat on the bench the first year," he said. "When you are used to playing plenty of minutes and you find yourself on the bench, it's  very frustrating.

"I knew that if I stayed, I would have probably sat on the bench for another year and I wasn't prepared to do that, so I returned to Europe."

Loving life in Russia, Italy
He won the FIBA Europe League crown with Dynamo St Petersburg in an undefeated season, and last summer he moved to Lega A. Stefansson's partnership with American guard Lynn Greer has turned Napoli into the Lega A's highest scoring team and one of the best sides in the competition this season.

Napoli won the Coppa Italia earlier this year and are on course to qualify for the play-offs.

Twenty-seven games into the season and Carpisa were fifth in the table with 18 wins.

Stefansson doesn't experience the glamour of the NBA on a daily basis but he has no regrets.

"I think it was a good experience for me to see the NBA side of it," he said.

"I didn't develop as well as I would have in Europe for that year.

"If you only practice and you don't play, it doesn't help.

"But playing with Nash in training was an amazing experience.

"I learned a lot from those guys."

Nash moved to the Phoenix Suns and was the NBA's MVP for the 2004-05 campaign.

Stefansson has been an inspiration for children back in Iceland.

"I think it's great that they see me as an icon," he said.

"I hope that I have contributed to raise the profile of the game in my country. We are a small nation and we have a semi-professional league at the moment but hopefully in the future, this will change."

Stefansson's dream of playing with Iceland in a top international tournament has yet to materialise but he hasn't lost hope.

"We have young players coming up who are really talented," he said. "Of course, we are never going to have the amount of talent as other nations but I believe the national team can improve. Perhaps in 10 years time we may have a competitive side."

For the time being, Stefansson's aim is to continue to shine in Europe. Last season with Dynamo St Petersburg, he averaged 12.3 points in 18 FIBA Europe League games.

He has more modest numbers in Italy at 8.7 points per contest but players should never be judged solely on their statistics. Otherwise, Piero Bucchi would not be playing Stefansson almost 28 minutes per contest.

St Petersburg is a magnificent city in Russia but Italy has been wonderful. There was no doubt that Stefansson would come in out of the cold when Napoli called.

"I enjoyed my experience in Russia," he said. "We had a very good team and I have fond memories of winning the Cup. But I'm happy to have joined Napoli.
"The Italian league is very strong and we have a great coach and players."

Not to mention the devoted Carpisa fans, who shower Stefansson with gifts, such as home-made cakes as well as teddy bears.

"I think the fans are really sweet," he said.

Stefansson doesn't take the presents home and for good reason.

Although he claims his girlfriend isn't jealous, she has however, moved to Naples to keep an eye on her man.

"Whether it's in Iceland or in Italy, women want to command," said Stefansson.

From Cindy Garcia-Bennett, PA Sport, Rome