Spaniards living large with Wesmen Import hoopsters create interesting dynamic on court, says coach
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It’s a small world after all.
When Spanish guard Alberto Gordo announced his commitment to the University of Winnipeg Wesmen’s men’s basketball team last year, a family friend reached out with some unexpected news.
“This guy I’ve known for a really long time called my dad and said, ‘Oh hey, I have five cousins in Winnipeg.’ And my dad said ‘You got five cousins in that city? In the middle of Canada?’ I come from really far away, so him having a lot of family here, it’s something that’s surprising, for sure,” Gordo, who hails from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, told the Free Press at the Duckworth Centre on Wednesday.
“I’ve already met them and will be spending some time with them over the holidays.”
That’s not the only connection to home for the freshman. Gordo, who is 6-foot-3 and averaged 13.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game in the under-18 Spanish club championships last year, is one of two Spaniards who suit up for the Wesmen. Mikhail Mikhailov, a 6-foot-9 forward from Madrid, is in his second season at the U of W.
Mikhailov returned home for the holidays but will be back in town for next week’s Wesmen Classic (Dec. 28-30). The Wesmen entered the holiday break in third place in the Canada West conference with a 6-2 record. They play the Algoma Thunderbirds (0-10) in the quarterfinals of the Wesmen Classic next Wednesday at 6 p.m. The Manitoba Bisons (7-1) play the Ottawa Gee-Gees (8-1) immediately after.
“When I left for home (for the holidays), I thought ‘Should I go?’ because I feel like Winnipeg is my second home. Everyone there is like family to me,” said Mikhailov in a phone interview from Spain.
“And it makes the experience a lot better knowing you have someone from your country who you can speak to in your native language. Sometimes when we play against other teams, we speak to each other in Spanish so other teams don’t know what we’re going to do. It improves team chemistry and my overall experience in Winnipeg.”
A former Canadian coach who now lives in Spain helping Spanish talent find North American schools to play at got Gordo and Mikhailov in touch with Wesmen head coach Mike Raimbault.
“In Europe, there’s no university basketball team like there is here. If you play on your university team in Europe, it’s nothing like this, it’s just like some guys playing for fun,” said Gordo.
“The first place to offer me a scholarship was Winnipeg… When I started to get recruited here, I talked to Mikhail over the phone. When he explained how things work here, I really thought this was somewhere that I could fit in.”
Their passports aren’t the only thing these Spaniards, who didn’t know each other prior to coming to Winnipeg, have in common as they’re also both following in their fathers’ footsteps. Gordo’s dad played semi-pro basketball in Spain while serving in the Air Force. Mikhailov’s dad, who’s also named Mikhail Mikhailov, won silver medals at the 1994 and 1998 FIBA World Championships with Russia. The 6-9 centre also played professionally in Spain which is where he put down roots and started a family.
“When I was a kid, I played many sports, but I had more interest in basketball knowing that my dad used to play pro,” Mikhailov said. “I try every day to fulfil his legacy and try to be like him.”
Being away from family is one thing, but to no one’s surprise, the biggest adjustment for Gordo and Mikhailov has been dealing with winter on the Canadian prairies.
Gordo’s hometown was 22 C on Wednesday.
“There was a day that was almost -40 C and I was like ‘OK, I’ve never felt this before.’ I live five minutes away from the school, so it’s nothing. I’m used to doing that walk now. Once you get inside, you’re back to a normal temperature so it’s not that bad,” said Gordo. “But if I had to walk 30 or 40 minutes, then it’d be a different story.”
U Sports basketball teams are allowed to have a maximum of three import players. One of Raimbault’s best finds, 6-9 Bulgarian forward Spas Nikolov, graduated last season, opening the door for Mikhailov to have a larger role.
Mikhailov has started all eight games this season and is averaging 9.1 points and 7.0 rebounds. Prior to coming to Winnipeg, Mikhailov played high school basketball in Kansas and spent a summer with a 17U travel team organized by Indiana Pacers shooting guard Buddy Hield.
Gordo, who turned 18 in September, has carved out a role for himself off the bench and is averaging 7.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. Gordo scored a season-high 20 points against Thompson Rivers last month.
“Aside from filling a need on the court, I think (international players) also create a bit of an interesting dynamic within the group. Meshing people from different environments and cultures certainly makes it interesting,” said Raimbault.
“Mikhailov adds some much-needed size to our roster. His combination of athleticism and size has been really beneficial to us… (And Gordo) is obviously super talented. He’s got good size for his position. Although he’s young, he’s very mature. There was no doubt that he’d be able to transition to life away from home.”
The pair of Spaniards want to be pillars that Raimbault can build around in coming years.
“I just want to be that guy other teams fear and have to play a specific defence against. This is my first year, and what I’m building right now will build up every year after this. And when I hit my senior year, I want to be the guy playing the most minutes and running the team.,” said Gordo.
“My goal is for other coaches to see me and say, ‘I’d love it if this guy was on my team.’”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...
Updated on Wednesday, December 21, 2022 8:26 PM CST: changes word in sentence