By Mike Foster and Brandon Gillet
Johnny Berhanemeskel (BSocSc ʼ15), the highest scoring Gee-Gees basketball player of all time, and 2015 CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) Men’s Basketball Player of the Year, has gone all the way to Estonia to play professionally, with the TLU Kalev team.
And this Estonian team must be happy to have him on its side. After all, it was Berhanemeskel who scored 26 points in Canada’s 91-65 July 2015 win over Estonia to clinch seventh place at the Summer Universiade games in Gwanju, South Korea. In his final year as a guard with the Gee-Gees, he finished the season with 2,000 points—the highest in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) men’s basketball scoring and the third-highest in the history of the CIS league.
Berhanemeskel says he always wanted to take his basketball career as far as he could. Growing up, he remembers a stage around Grade 10 where he wanted to drop all the other sports and see how far he could take basketball. Then, when he was in his fifth and final year studying economics at uOttawa, he started talking to agents and joined the Two Points Agency, based in Europe.
“We put together some tapes of my games and were able to generate some interest from a few teams in Germany, Belgium, Poland and Estonia. In the end, after weighing up all of the pros and cons, we chose TLU Kalev in Estonia. This is my rookie year, and I felt TLU Kalev would be a solid place to begin. We play in a local league against other Estonian teams as well as the Baltic league, which includes teams from Lithuania and Latvia,” says Berhanemeskel.
One difference he’s noticed about the game in Europe is that it’s more physical. Referees seem less likely to blow their whistles to call fouls. He’s adapting his game, however, and learning how to gel with his teammates.
“Being on the rookie side of things again, you learn a lot about how certain things work, the flow of the game and where you can help your team,” says Berhanemeskel, adding that his experience as a Gee-Gee has helped.
“I came into the University of Ottawa as mainly just a shooter. The coaches and I focused on really trying to add stuff to my game each year so that I could be as versatile as possible. Every season, I came back as a slightly different player,” says Berhanemeskel.
His style of play is efficient and simple. And now he’s focusing on upping his game and pursuing his dream. As for other adjustments to life in Estonia, he says the food—based on the standard meat, potatoes and vegetables diet—is “fairly good, which is always a bonus.” However, he is staying away from the pickled sauces.
“I’m truly grateful to be where I am today. It’s not all daisies and flowers though…it does come with its hardships—finding ways to get better every day and having to bounce back from a game where you may not have been at your best. It has been a new experience and I’m just taking it day by day.”
Spikes and serves in Finland
When Myriam English (BEd ʼ15) finally acted upon her dream of becoming a professional volleyball player, it didn’t take long before she was snapped up by a team in Finland. Less than a week after she had sent videos of her game highlights to an agency, she received an offer.
English says she decided to go for it, although leaving a teaching career on the sidelines was not an easy decision to make.
“I really debated whether to pursue this dream of playing volleyball or drop it to pursue my other dream of being a teacher. I had a good chat with my family. My brother said, ‘If not now, when?’ And my mother said she always knew I would one day play in Europe.”
As a Gee-Gee in the University of Ottawa’s women’s volleyball program, English was named uOttawa’s female athlete of the year for the 2013-2014 varsity season and was MVP for the team in 2014 and 2015. After her rookie year in 2010, she rose from the second-team all-star to the CIS first-team all-Canadian and OUA first-team all-star.
English says none of these achievements would have been possible without her amazing teammates and coaches.
She says that being a Gee-Gee taught her a lot about dedication and hard work, as well as how to manage her time between sports and studies.
“You know you’re going to be on the road several weekends in a row, so you know you have to stay up late on a Tuesday night to finish that paper in time to keep the weekend free. It’s all about getting your priorities straight,” says English. “Nothing is a given and you have to work in order to be successful. I’m going into this team with the same mentality.”
Playing volleyball in Europe can be quite lucrative, with top setters making up to $100,000. But English, who plays left-side position, says she’s not making anywhere near that.
“This year and this experience isn’t about the money for me. It’s about playing the sport I love and experiencing a new country,” she says, adding that she is even picking up a few words in what is possibly the world’s most difficult language.
“Finnish is extremely hard to understand and to learn. I have already learned a couple of words but I won’t be fluent in Finnish by the time I leave here. Thank you is kittos and good is hoova—nothing at all close to the languages I know!”
Never give up
Ettore Lattanzio (BA [Classical Studies] ʼ15) is no stranger to hard knocks. He was drafted to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers then soon afterwards returned home to join the Ottawa Redblacks.
Now nearing the end of his first season as a pro football player in the CFL, Lattanzio shares what it was like making the transition from Gee-Gee to Redblack.
“When I went on the field the first time as a pro it was very exciting, but I was also nervous,” says Lattanzio. “It’s your first time so you don’t want to make a mistake. You want to know if you can play at that level.”
Lattanzio had trained with Redblacks players in the off-season because he knew he had to up his game.
“You can never really ‘train for football.’ The only thing that can get you ready for football is playing football,” says Lattanzio.
That attitude came in handy when he was moved to a practice roster on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and later released.
“It was surreal because I was prepared mentally to be in Winnipeg for half a year, and when I got released and came back home my agent asked, ‘So what do you want to do?’ Some guys pack it up and say they don’t want to do it anymore,” says Lattanzio. “Some guys can’t take the loss, but I said ‘you know what…Ottawa was interested in me, so why don’t you give them a shout?”
Lattanzio had a meeting with the team the day after he landed in Ottawa and was signed the next week.
“It’s been a blessing. And they’re playing me. I’ve been in nine games,” Lattanzio says. “I’ll have a better idea of what I need to do to prepare for next season now that I know what it’s like to play pro.”
He has some advice for aspiring pros on the Gee-Gees rosters.
“It’s not like college, and there are a lot of people who want your job,” Lattanzio says. “It’s a business and people are playing to put food on the table…that’s a game changer. You’re going to have to dig in deep and prepare for possible hard times, but it’s all worth it in the end.”
These three athletes also have something else in common—they all benefitted from a $4,500-a-year athletic support fund while they were Gee-Gees. Find out how you can give a gift to help support Gee-Gees athletes like them.
Johnny Berhanemeskel holds court as the highest-scoring basketball Gee-Gee. Photo: Richard A. Whittaker