Learning from the Wolfpack, Jantunen and Finland are ready to howl
LIEPAJA (FIBA U18 European Championship 2018) – If you ever thought Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz and basketball don't go together, look no further than Team Finland and think again.
In 1949, the Austrian zoologist and ethologist introduced the scientific concept of cuteness or baby schema, the Kindchenschema, arguing that youthful characteristics and infantile features trigger care-taking behavior, an evolutionary adaptation to enhance offspring survival.
Close your eyes and imagine babies. Or puppies. Kittens. Cubs. Cuteness, right?
While Finnish basketball figuratively refers to their senior national team as Susijengi (wolfpack), and their youth national teams consequently as Sudenpennut (wolf cubs), there is also a literal connection between the two, ensuring the evolution of the sport in the country continues in the right direction.
Take 18-year-old forward Mikael Jantunen as an example. Playing currently in his fourth FIBA youth competition and having debuted for the senior team in the latest window of FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers, Jantunen is slowly but surely transitioning from cub to wolf.
The Helsinki native started out playing football, but after towering over his teammates, his coach recommended him to try basketball, and he stuck with it. Much to the delight of Finnish basketball.
Starting off by being coached by Finland international Sasu Salin at a junior camp for his first team, Wartti Basket, Jantunen soon moved into the national team mix himself, getting his first call-up for the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016.
"It was my first call-up and it was straight to the World Cup with the U17 team, so it was kind of surprising, but I knew everybody from the team already, which made it easy to get into the game. It was a fun experience and helped [me] to get even closer with my teammates," Jantunen remembers.
Two more youth tournaments were to follow, with the outcome still present in his memory. At the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016, Finland were making a splash, but ended up losing their only game in the Quarter-Finals, 80-78 against Turkey.
"We played extremely well as a team; I think our top scorer averaged just over 10 points. The loss against Turkey by two points in overtime was rough for us, but we picked ourselves up and won the next two games. It proves how strong we are as a team and one defeat does not keep us down."
Getting back on their feet also proved vital at last year's FIBA U18 European Championship, where Finland were halted in the Round of 16 by France.
"We played well against France, until the last five or six minutes, where we lost focus and that cost us the Quarter-Finals. But we won the next game and stayed in Division A. That's the most important part. That's why we're here now."
The battle against relegation is something that this Finnish generation has not experienced yet, a sign that the work being invested in the wolfpack and its cubs is paying off.
"We're a team that is together. I've never been in a team like this. We have good players, we have skilled players, we're not the tallest team, but we play together, and this is the main part of this program," explains Jantunen, who has taken on the role as team captain at the event in Latvia.
Togetherness as a team. Togetherness as a basketball program.
"When we're practicing at the start of the summer, we don't do it separately. We get to practice with the senior men's players. It really helps us grow, and it helps that they play kind of the same way as we do. We see that it works at the highest level and that increases the motivation to keep working on the same game style. It is a big motivator as many of them came from the same high school that we young players are going through."
The 6ft 7in (2.00m) forward joined the Helsinki Basketball Academy (HBA) Marsky in 2016, having spent the first nine grades in a Swedish-speaking school. One of HBA's best-known alumni is none other than Lauri Markkanen, but the NBA star is not the only one serving as a mentor for the youth players.
Another well-known face, Tuukka Kotti, made his national team debut back in August 2000, just months after Jantunen was born. Fast forward 18 years, and the two of them have suited up together in the World Cup Qualifiers – plenty of knowledge for Jantunen to take in.
"Their experience shows in so many ways, so it's difficult to single out one. I'm just glad that they are good at teaching and they take time to help me. I learned a lot from these guys because they took the time to tell me if I made any mistakes and how to get them fixed.
"A year ago, I was in the stands watching Finland v Iceland at the [FIBA] EuroBasket, and now I was on the court for the same game. It was a different experience. I played only a couple of minutes, but it was still amazing. It shows you that the work you put in gives you progress and helps you," offered Jantunen, recalling how it felt to play in front of 12,183 fans.
While breaking through into the Susijengi squad remains one of his main goals, the athletic forward has his eyes set on the here and now, looking to continue the successful run with his teammates and book a ticket for next year's FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup with a top-five finish.
"We want to finish at this tournament as high as we can and get a World Cup spot for next year."
Jantunen is doing his part to achieve the goal by running the court, sharing the ball and battling under the boards, averaging 20 points, 8 rebounds and 4.5 assists over the first two Group Phase games. It is the next step in his and his team's evolution.
When the wolf cubs step out for their next games, don't get fooled by their cuteness. Listen to their howl. They are part of the pack and here to stay.