LOGAN — Dimitri Jorssen played lumberjack, chopping wood for a stove that was the only source of heat in his small room in Susanville, Calif., where he says winters are as cold as they are in Logan.
Many days, he hitchhiked 10 miles to school at Lassen College. He knew it was dangerous, but it was the only way to get there sometimes until he finally got a junky old car and became enough of a mechanic to get it running. "I didn't have the money to have someone fix it," he says.
He found practicing basketball at Lassen every day after school much different from back home in Theux, Belgium, where short practices were held only a few times a week. And he found communicating with Lassen players from all over the United States, with their accents and different customs, hard. Some simply didn't try to talk much to the 7-foot Belgian who was only on their team for a year anyway. He was there to learn enough to join the Utah State program, which placed him at Lassen after he was discovered in Europe by former Aggie Eric Franson.
"When you can't talk to anybody, it's like being in jail," recalls Jorssen of his early days at Lassen. He speaks English like an American now but took three months to become conversant in Susanville.
He often thought of going home. "Oh yeah. I had never been away from my parents," he says. "Everything I ever knew was 12,000 miles away."
Jorssen's motivation to tough it out? "My love of basketball," he says. That and an independent streak that wanted to see him be a ballplayer in America. "It was something I wanted to prove to myself — to finally be able to reach my potential in something that I love."
After three years on the USU team, Jorssen plays his last two home games — along with fellow seniors Shawn Daniels, Bernard Rock, Curtis Bobb and Dion Bailey — Thursday night in the Smith Spectrum at 7 against UC Santa Barbara and Saturday at 5 on ESPN-TV against Cal Poly.
"It's gone by fast. At times I felt like it was taking forever, but now that I look back, it was just the blink of an eye. It's going to be pretty emotional for all of us," says Jorssen, the only senior with more than these last two most-remarkable years in the program.
As a sophomore, Jorssen played behind Donny Johnson and Pharoah Davis on a 15-13 team transitioning from Larry Eustachy's coaching to Stew Morrill's. When Eustachy left, Jorssen asked Franson if he should go to Iowa State or stay in Logan. Jorssen is glad he stayed.
"It worked out great for me," he says. He has visions of playing professionally, either in the NBA or Europe. With his size and good shot, he has a chance.
Jorssen moved into the starting lineup last season, when the Aggies set a school record for wins in a season at 28-6.
They followed with what is now a 22-5 record that could approach last year's total should they win these last two and defend their Big West Tournament championship next week. This team won 26 games in a row over conference opponents — 19 last season — before falling on Jan. 31 to league leader Irvine.
It can go unbeaten at home this season if it takes care of third-place UCSB and seventh-place CP this week.
"It's always fun on a winning team," Jorssen says. "It doesn't get much better than that. We've been playing well together, and it's a really cool group of guys to work with. I wish I had one more year."
It took a year at Lassen to get him to where he could even sit on the Aggie bench as a sophomore. American ball is complicated, especially when it's learned in a foreign language.
"It was real tiring," Jorssen remembers. He'd had three years of English in school in Belgium, and his father is an English teacher, but that just scratched the surface.
Jorssen felt homesick at times, and he knew his parents worried about their only child. "I'm their 7-foot baby," he says. "It's really hard for them." But they supported his dream, too. They've come to see him each year and will be back for his Logan wedding May 25.
Jorssen, an extrovert who nonetheless enjoyed living alone here in the United States, has dated Emily for 14 months. He was shooting baskets in the Spectrum when someone planning a halftime show struck up a conversation, saying he knew a girl who wanted to meet Jorssen. Emily, a USU freshman, went to Belgium with him last summer, and his parents were delighted with her, he says.
She hopes to become a nurse, and when his ballplaying days are done, he plans to become a contractor, with a love of renovating old buildings. The wedding date is after graduation and before the pro tryout camps to which he hopes to be invited.