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Mottola gaining celebrity status back in Finland

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The woman from the Embassy of Finland who answered the phone was asked if she knew of Hanno Mottola.

"Oh yes," said Vuokko Ritari, an assistant information director at the embassy in Washington, D.C., her voice cracking with excitement. "He's a big hero."And why not? Mottola, a forward on the University of Utah basketball team, is furnishing a Finnish flavor to a great American event, the Final Four.

Ritari confessed she wasn't aware of Mottola until he graced one of seven regional covers on Sports Illustrated's NCAA Tournament preview edition earlier this month, spawning a number of phone calls and inquiries directed to the embassy about Mottola.

Of course, most Finns don't have the foggiest idea what the Final Four is. And up until recently, most hadn't heard of Hanno Mottola, either. But that is rapidly changing. Now that he has helped lead the Runnin' Utes to college basketball's greatest stage, he has become a household name, at least in his hometown of Helsinki. As a result, it's safe to say Utah has been adopted by the Finns. Ute boosters can count on a certain contingent of fans in the northern Europe nation cheering for their team.

Covered by thick forests and island-dotted lakes, Finland is just smaller in area than the state of Montana and has 5 million inhabitants, about as many as live in the basketball-crazy state of Indiana.

Basketball-crazy is not exactly an apt description of Finland, however. The Finns' passion is hockey. Teemu Selanne (who like Mottola hails from Helsinki) of the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks is the equivalent of Michael Jordan in terms of recognition and following in Finland. Yet basketball is gradually growing in popularity there, thanks in part to Mottola.

The 6-foot-10 sophomore is one of five Finns who played for Division I schools this season and is one of only three ever to compete in the Final Four. Which means Mottola is making headlines for "koripallo," which is what the Finns call basketball. Of course it helps that his older brother, Matias, is one of a few journalists covering the Final Four for Finnish media outlets.

"The papers are writing about it," said Timo Saarelainen, a Finn who played basketball at BYU in the mid-1980s. "Hanno's definitely heightened the interest in basketball, something no one else has been able to do. He's like a pioneer."

Saarelainen, the general sales manager for a television station in Memphis, Tenn., talks to friends and family in Helsinki once a week. He last visited Finland in February. "Ask the average Finn about the Final Four, they wouldn't know what you're talking about," he explained. "But in my circle of friends there, those who are linked to basketball, it's a big deal. It's exciting."

You'd have to be a rabid fan in Finland to tune into tonight's Utah-North Carolina game, which can be seen live in that country via a European cable television network. With a seven-hour time difference between San Antonio and Helsinki, tip off is slated for 3 a.m. Sunday, Finnish time. "One of my friends said he was going to set the alarm and watch it," said Saarelainen. "There are diehard fans who will watch."

Mottola is not the only Finnish player with local ties. BYU center Jarkko Ahlbom has taken some national pride in Mottola's trip to the Final Four. The two spoke just a day before the Utes departed for San Antonio. "I wished him good luck," said Ahlbom, who played with Mottola on the Finnish Junior National Team. "I told him to come back with a championship."

From what Ahlbom hears from his family at home, Mottola has become quite the celebrity. "Everybody knows Hanno now," he said.

While Mottola is a popular figure in Finland, certain folks in San Antonio are fond of him, too. He spent one year, in 1993-94, with the Theis family of San Antonio as an exchange student, attending Churchill High School.

Saarelainen, who met Mottola a couple of years ago in Finland, is hopeful the Utah star will eventually become the first Finn to play in the NBA. If that happens, Saarelainen says, basketball will receive a huge boost in Finland.

"Every sport needs a good ambassador like he is," said Saarelainen. "He's an example for kids. He can do a lot for the sport, not only in Finland, but in Europe as well."

And with all the attention Mottola is getting in the U.S., Finland has seen an unprecedented windfall of publicity among American sports fans (at least not since the 1952 Summer Olympics were held in Finland). Which is just fine with the Finns. As Finnish Embassy officials might say as the Utes battle the Tar Heels tonight, "Give 'em Helsinki, Hanno."