City game in a cool place
OPAVOGUR, Iceland - A rain squall had blown through during dinner, leaving puddles and a slight drizzle. Most days it rains for little spells, but Tyrone Garland doesn't own an umbrella. Do they even sell umbrellas in Iceland? The former La Salle Explorers basketball star, famous for his Southwest Philly Floater, has learned rain and even snow are inconveniences here, wind the worthy opponent.
Garland flipped up the hood on his jacket. This was maybe a stinningskaldi, no more than a strong breeze.
Just wait, though. By midweek, an allhvasst was coming, a moderate gale. Possibly stronger, even an ofsaveður, a violent storm, with expected hurricane gusts, keeping most of the tour buses off the roads for the morning. ("Will the bus be going to the airport? . . . Hopefully.") Just after noon, the big North Atlantic winds moved on, and the sun briefly proved its existence.
When he's in his bedroom at night, in this town that translates to Seal Pup Bay, Garland said of that wind: "It will be talking to you. It seems like it will be moving the house. It sounds like the windows are about to break."
The locals are used to all this, of course. The Iceland Review once counted 56 Icelandic words for types of wind. Maybe it was just a gentle breeze that brought Garland here. In Iceland, that sort of breeze is called - and we could not make this up - a gola. A moderate breeze, a stinningsgola.
The coincidence of this means nothing to locals, who follow NBA basketball, some religiously, but don't know this dreadlocked 24-year-old who arrived in September played his college ball at Tom Gola Arena, named for the greatest La Salle Explorer of them all.
If fate sent Garland here, living in a home with Norwegian empty-nesters, the assist goes to La Salle's director of basketball operations, Matt Bloom, who had served as main host for an Icelandic coach, Larus Jonsson, who had arrived at La Salle the autumn before last, spending a month at 20th and Olney as part of a program for international coaches.
When Jonsson landed the head coaching job at Breidablik, a semipro outfit in Kopavogur, he could pay one player a little bit, an American. He was looking for a guard, a ball-handler. He called Bloom, who recommended Garland, who hadn't found a professional job the previous season. The offer wasn't much, barely more than a break-even deal, but Garland didn't hesitate.
"It's not about the money," Garland said right away. "It's about getting my foot in the door, finally."
A week before, a boy named Viktor had come up to Garland, wanting one of his headbands. Garland used to give them out after La Salle games, but back then he got a new one for every game. Here, he had two for the season, one black and one white. He explained this to the 12-year-old, who gave him a sad look.
Garland gave him the black headband. He felt he didn't have much choice. Viktor had previously come up and asked how many points he was going to score the next game, then asked whether Garland was going to shoot a Southwest Philly Floater.
How do you know about that?
The boy had Googled him.
The interview still lives on YouTube. The late Craig Sager with Garland postgame after La Salle had just advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Garland had driven for the game-winner against Mississippi.
"What do you call that shot you just made?" Sager asked.
"That's the Southwest Philly Floater, man," Garland said, then he pointed to the camera. "Shout-out to my cousin Bern, shout-out to my mom. . . . All you all! Southwest!"
Sager loved it.
"The Southwest Philly Floater," Sager said as Garland kept nodding. "That's the difference in the game, 76-74, back to you."
"I just kind of blacked out, went with it," Garland says now of that interview.
(Cousin Bern had called Tyrone before that game. They had talked about how he had gotten shots blocked in the previous NCAA game, that he had to bring out the floater.)
Garland's place, and even that interview, is secure in Big Five lore. On the list of Big Five shots made over the last quarter century, put the Southwest Philly Floater third behind Kris Jenkins' 2016 NCAA game-winner and the shot 'Nova's Scottie Reynolds made at the end against Pittsburgh to get to the Final Four in 2009. That was the furthest La Salle had advanced in March Madness since 1955, since Gola's time. Also, consider the Southwest Philly Floater a prime candidate for No. 1 on La Salle's list over the last half century.
The fact that Garland named it made it more lasting. "If you don't have the floater in your game," he still says, "you're not from Southwest." But even in Philadelphia, Garland knows he can't live forever on one shot that arced over a post defender and banked off a backboard in Kansas City, Mo., after he had sliced through traffic in the lane.
Other than a brief professional turn in Canada (and a bad experience with an agent), Garland was out of work. He wasn't expecting the NBA after graduating from La Salle in 2014. But he admitted getting pretty down when he couldn't find another job overseas. He'd frequent pickup games at Myers Recreation Center in Southwest Philly, the place he'd first picked up the game. Wherever there was high-level play, he'd get to it. Or he'd go to La Salle and lift weights. Maybe it was time to get a job away from hoops.
Bloom said frustration didn't change Garland's nature. When Bloom's son Eli turned 3 last summer, Garland, his unofficial godfather, bought him an outfit designed to be from Southwest Philly, with capri pants and a tank top and KD sneakers. He also bought a light-up dinosaur and a puzzle book.
Bloom can't say enough good things about Garland. Buying those presents: "He wasn't working at the time."
Going back to 2013, Eli Bloom was four wins away from being Tyrone Bloom. Matt and his pregnant wife had agreed after reaching the Sweet 16, if La Salle somehow won that NCAA tournament, the whole damn thing, their baby would be named Tyrone.
The day before, the weather had awakened Garland. Not wind or rain or a crack of thunder.
"The whole room got bright," Garland said.
Actual sun. He's gone some days without seeing daylight. The shortest day in December was just 4 hours, 7 minutes between sunrise and sunset. In February, it still looks like midnight after 7 a.m., and the long sunrise doesn't begin until well after 9 a.m. (Garland won't be here for summer days when the sun is out for up to 22 hours.)
A basketball life is heavily nocturnal anyway. Garland sleeps most of the day, and his team usually practices in the evening since his younger teammates are still in school. In Iceland, you're allowed one American, and you'd better choose him carefully for the sake of both sides. If you need a point guard and your American is more of a wing, the marriage won't last.
Off the court, like in any relationship, chemistry matters. The rest of Breidablik's starting five's first names are Ragnar, Sveinbjorn, Snorri, and Egill. Right at introductions you know you're a long way from 54th and Yewdall in Southwest.
Garland's thought on that: "I try to find Southwest Philly in everywhere I go."
The names, he handles his own way. "I've got nicknames for all of them."
A very blond center, Sveinbjorn becomes Santa. An older teammate is OG. A hard-dunking teammate? Beast. Another guy is the Dancing Machine, after a trip the group made to a club in Reykjavik.
"He's a cool guy. Everybody gets along with him," teammate Bjarni Gunnarsson said of Garland before practice. "He's a leader for these guys, a fun guy to be around. I've played with Americans that stayed to themselves, didn't socialize with anyone on the team. That's like a bomb. You can't play with those type of players. You wouldn't want to be around people who don't want to talk with anyone."
Of the nicknames, Gunnarsson said: "It works better that way. Names are a bit different. He pronounces them a bit different, but everybody's cool with that."
Garland, who they call Old Head or T-Dog or Young Lion or just T, walked by just then.
"That's Beast right there," Garland said of Gunnarsson.
The name comes from on or off the court?
"Both," Gunnarsson said. "I beast everything."
Garland figures maybe it works better having just one American on the team. It forces him to integrate into the team and socialize. Language isn't an issue. Everyone's English is various forms of perfect. Practices are bilingual but mostly in English. The coach keeps it to English when he's addressing the whole team, might switch to Icelandic when talking to a group that doesn't include Garland.
Why call something a trodsla when you can just as easily call it a dunk? Hradaupphlaup? Stick to fastbreak. Even when Garland pronounces the name of his team, he says he isn't rolling the 'r' in Breidablik enough.
On the court, little seems foreign. International basketball is like a ladder, and you rarely get to start near the top. Garland has La Salle teammates from that Sweet 16 team playing in Hungary and Bulgaria and France and Turkey. The first division in Iceland is one of the lower steps, really the second division in the country behind the better-paying Dominos League, in which Drexel's sweet-shooting freshman Kari Jonsson already had made a name for himself before deciding on college ball. Everyone at Garland's club is familiar with Jonsson.
A huge benefit of coming here is that Garland gets to play point guard, since at 6-foot-1 he knows he has to establish that he can be a playmaker in addition to a scorer. He's averaging 26.6 points a game but also 5.8 assists. It reminds him of his days at Bartram High, makes him feel young again.
"There are a lot of in-betweeners, like scoring point guards, just loads," said Larus Jonsson, the coach. "But he's got talent. He can really score, and honestly he's probably the fastest guy with the ball up and down the court [in the league]. He's really fast."
And while Garland likes the idea of having the ball in his hands and finding teammates, "We need him to score 30 a game," said his coach. "That's just a fact. And he has the talent to do it in this league. Last game, we lost by 10, and he had 19."
Garland's deal includes food chits at local places such as Subway, so he usually stops there when he's getting a lift home from his coach or a teammate. There's a nearby market for "freezer food," as he calls it, although he adds: "Oh my God, the food is expensive. A regular sandwich is almost like $20. It's crazy."
Teammates tell him this is the mildest winter in some years, but all that means is there isn't snow up to his knees. The winters don't feel too different than back home, Garland said. "But when that wind is blowing I know I'm at a different place."
Kopavogur is like the Upper Darby of Reykjavik, bordering the bigger city, and actually the second-biggest in Iceland behind Reykjavik, with 33,000 people. Think of Garland living in Drexel Hill on a residential street, with a bakery a few blocks down the road, in a neighborhood of single-family homes. His room, paid for by the club, is furnished and includes a flat-screen TV, maybe the most important part of the deal since Garland has a package that can find any show that is streaming anywhere.
His girlfriend visited for a few weeks over Christmas, able to take a $250 direct flight from Baltimore. They got to the Blue Lagoon, the massive geothermal pool with a mountain backdrop ("a beautiful scene"). He also has seen the northern lights, getting phone calls or texts from teammates or his coach telling him to walk outside to check out the show in the sky.
A lot of nights, though, Garland could be anywhere in the world alone. He talks to his mom most nights. ("Making sure I'm not getting homesick but making sure I miss her.") He might fall asleep after practice until the first college game back home comes on, usually midnight his time.
He catches most La Salle games and made a point all season of finding the games of Philly friends playing for Creighton, Miami, and Duke. He watches plenty of Villanova and all of the NBA. He might catch an episode of Friends or something on Netflix before he turns off the TV.
On a recent Tuesday, Garland got to practice a little early and sat on a bench looking at his Instagram feed and a text chain from friends back home. The biggest sport at the club is soccer, with a covered grandstand outside but also a regulation turf field indoors, with league games for all ages going all winter. The club also fields teams in swimming, karate, skiing, and chess.
The hoops facility is top-notch, baskets dropped from the ceiling at the push of a button, maybe on the level of a small college committed to the sport.
A boy from a youth team dribbled by wearing a 76ers jersey. Not surprising. There were Steph Curry and John Wall jerseys dribbling around, too. But this 12-year-old wore a Michael Carter-Williams jersey?
"His father is a big Sixers fan," Garland said.
The boy's mother, Hildur, happened to be sitting on the bench. She explained that her husband, Gudni, got the Carter-Williams shirt back when he was doing well with the Sixers. "He got traded the game after," she said.
Gudni Hafsteinsson came into the gym and told how Julius Erving had made him a Sixers fan in the '80s. "I stay a Sixers fan the whole time," he said, adding that he belongs to a Facebook group made up entirely of Sixers fans in Iceland.
Asked about the Southwest Philly Floater, Hafsteinsson picked up on the geography if not the shot.
"That's close to the Wells Fargo Center?" he said.
It's rare that any player overseas can predict the future. One-year deals are the norm, and not much is guaranteed, and there is no injured list. "It's like every game is an audition," Garland said. "Every moment you have to be a professional."
After a day off, the team reconvened, starting in a little huddle at center court. "I think the problem, we're just inviting people into the paint," Jonsson said of the bad start to the previous game.
Garland's own outside shot has seen ups and downs. The biggest up was just after Christmas, when he made 8 of 8 three-pointers. As the team huddled, Breidablik was in fourth place. The top team in the regular season automatically moves up to Iceland's top division. The next four go into a playoff; the semifinals and finals are each a best-of-five series, with the overall playoff winner also moving up to the first division.
If Breidablik were to pull that off, it would be easier for Garland to imagine staying here for another season under the northern lights. The club's budget would increase. Right now, the club has one of the lower budgets in the lower division, the whole team operating for maybe half of an NBA minimum salary. Jonsson is a full-time coach, but his responsibilities include coaching a youth team.
As practice got going, they began drilling full-court. A little laughter was allowed at practice. Most talk stayed in English. "Guys, a layup or a post-up," Jonsson said of what he wanted from one drill. The coach put in a new play: "OK, come over here, then he goes . . ."
Late in the session, going full-court, Garland took a pass on the left wing and took off for the hoop. He let go of the ball a few steps before the rim. Was that? . . . Why, yes, it had to be: a Southwest Philly Floater, migrated to an Icelandic gym. Garland's attempt hit the backboard, then the rim.
And then the shot fell off the rim. Hey, if it goes in the hoop every time, the rest of the world would come to Southwest Philly and steal it, right?
Garland's teammates know it when they see it, though. Most picked up on it from Garland's Twitter and Instagram profiles and did their own Googling.
"We use it all the time," Bjarni "Beast" Gunnarsson said of calling the shot by its proper name, even on the southwest coast of Iceland, wind picking up outside the gym, another long night beginning. "Southwest Philly Floater, man."