Finnish power forward Pekka Markkanen has fond memories of his one year in the United States — specifically Kansas.
“I have never ever seen fans who really are in a basketball game (as they are at Kansas). And they were so nice. I always felt they supported me 100 percent. I can only say a big thank you. They will always have a place in my heart,” Markkanen said in an email interview with the Star.
He started for a 1989-90 KU team that went 30-5, finished second in the Big Eight (11-3) and went 1-1 in the NCAA Tournament.
“Fans, friendly people, great facilities and tornadoes,” the 6-foot-10, 49-year-old Jvaskyla, Finland native cracked of what he remembers about a year in Lawrence in which he averaged 6.9 points and 3.9 rebounds for a team that helped put Jayhawk basketball back on the national map in Roy Williams’ second season at KU.
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Williams first KU team could not compete in the NCAA Tournament because of a year’s NCAA probation.
“I am Facebook friends with many former teammates,” Markkanen said of the likes of Mark Randall, Jeff Gueldner, Terry Brown, Kevin Pritchard, Rick Calloway and others.
He’s hoping to run into some of them during a pair of trips he’s making to the U.S. this winter. Pekka has plans to travel to Tucson, Ariz., to watch his son, Lauri Markkanen, play for Arizona.
The 7-foot, 230-pound freshman is listed as a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by draftexpress.com and a top 20 pick by ESPN.com.
“If he stays healthy, he will play basketball as a professional at some level,” Pekka Markkanen said.
Lauri, who plays both inside and out, chose U of A over Utah and North Carolina in recruiting.
“He plays as a (stretch) 4. All players in that position at Arizona were seniors last year. (It was) the best chance to get playing time from Day One,” Pekka Markkanen said, explaining his son’s choice.
KU was not one of the schools involved with Markkanen. The Jayhawks return 6-10 Carlton Bragg at the 4 for the upcoming season. Bragg is another player who can score both inside and on the perimeter.
“I think Lauri has the talent to be an All-Star (NBA) player,” Finland senior team coach Henrik Dittman told FIBA.com as quoted by the Arizona Daily Star. Markkanen averaged 24.9 points a game for Team Finland in this summer’s FIBA U20 European Championships. He later scored 24 points of 8-for-13 shooting against the Polish national team in the Ergo Super Cup.
“I really think Markkanen eventually ends up in or near the top five of the 2017 Draft. Seven-foot, agile, shoots it, can handle. A lot to like,” Mike Schmitz of Draftexpress.com wrote on Twitter.
Lauri’s brother, Eero Markkanen, is a standout pro soccer player for Real Madrid Castilla and member of the Finnish National Soccer Team.
“I used to play soccer for 10 years before I started basketball. Naturally I am very proud of what he does,” Pekka said. Another son, 6-foot-7 Miikka Markkanen, has played pro basketball in Finland but has been hampered by injuries.
Pekka, who hasn’t been back in Lawrence since his one season ended in 1990 — he came to KU with two years of eligibility but used just one — after all these years explained why he and wife, Riikka, elected to leave KU and head home. The Jayhawks reached the Final Four in what would have been Pekka’s senior season.
“There was not a really good chance to go for the NBA,” said Markkanen. “It was a tough decision. In the big picture it was the right choice. I was already studying in a university in Finland. I couldn’t graduate from KU (as quickly as if he returned to the university where he had more credits).”
Pekka, who earned a degree in physical education, played professionally many years in Spain, Hungary, Germany, France and Finland. He works for Johnson and Johnson.
“I am pretty satisfied with what I have done during my career,” Pekka said.
One of his best games remains the one at KU in which he held LSU center Shaquille O’Neal to 10 points (LSU’s Chris Jackson had 32 and KU’s Mark Randall 25) in the Jayhawks’ 89-83 victory over the Tigers on Nov. 17, 1989, in Baton Rouge, La.
That victory — in the second round of the Preseason NIT — sent KU to New York where the Jayhawks shocked UNLV, 91-77, in the semifinals and St. John’s, 66-57, in the title game.
“I blocked his shot twice,” Pekka said of Shaq, “but he also blocked me. That’s the only game where I scored zero points.”