'Better Off Against Men': Why a Family Chose Life Abroad to Prep Son for NBA

Malika AndrewsFeatured Columnist IJune 21, 2017

Photo courtesy of Theresa Hartenstein

PORTLAND — It's the second day of Hoop Summit practice in Portland, Oregon, and Isaiah Hartenstein does not want to be disrupted. The World Team's practice ended 20 minutes ago and the USA Basketball publicist has told him twice that reporters and scouts want to speak with him, but the 7-footer just nods, picks up a basketball, sets his feet and puts up another left-handed hook shot over a trainer.

After making five shots in a row, he seems satisfied and shakes hands with the trainer who was feeding him the ball. But instead of coming over to talk to reporters, he walked over to his father, Florian, who was keeping tabs on the workout from a seat behind the basket. Although Florian had coached Isaiah for years, he hadn't said a word while he watched his son shoot.

There is little resemblance between the two men other than their height and narrow noses. Isaiah is blond, while Florian is half African-American and five shades darker than his fair-skinned son, who says he identifies as a quarter-black.

"A lot of people, when they see my dad, are like, 'Oh, you're black?' And I'm like 'yeah,'" Isaiah said, laughing.

Florian, who played center for the University of Oregon, has taught his son everything he knows about the game and has helped direct Isaiah's unusual path to becoming an NBA prospect.

Now 19 and a projected first-round pick this Thursday, Isaiah spent much of his childhood learning the game while living in Germany, where his father played professionally. More recently, Isaiah passed on the chance to play college basketball in the U.S. to spend the past season playing for a professional team in Lithuania, where the 250-pound teenager has impressed with his versatility, easy ability to space the floor and nimble ball-handling for someone his size. Rather than play NCAA basketball like his father, Isaiah opted to play professionally in Europe before making the jump to the NBA.

Isaiah Hartenstein with his father, Florian, who has been helping his son prepare for the NBA draft.
Isaiah Hartenstein with his father, Florian, who has been helping his son prepare for the NBA draft.Photo courtesy of Isaiah Hartenstein

"I thought he would be better off staying in Europe," Florian said. "You can do a lot more skill work, and there's always a slight risk for big men who play only at the [center] position in college. And we just thought it was a better fit. I mean, it's different for every player, but in his case, we thought he was better off playing against men."


To hear his family tell it, Isaiah Hartenstein was destined to play basketball. Florian met Isaiah's mother, Theresa, while he was in high school and she was attending Oregon. They later married, and Isaiah was born in 1998 at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon.

At the time, Florian was playing basketball for the Ducks. Theresa would shuttle baby Isaiah and his older sister, Jasmine, from their home near campus to Ducks games to watch their dad play.

Isaiah grew up rooting for the Tune Squad to beat the Monstars and watching Brandon Roy play for the Portland Trail Blazers. As a toddler, he would bring his basketball to games at Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena but was told he couldn't throw it during games. And he knew that after late game nights, dad got to sleep in the next day and he shouldn't be bothered.

"Since he was a baby, he never had stuffed animals; he always had a ball," Theresa said. "I tried to get him to play soccer. He didn't like that because there was too much dirt. He tried baseball. That was dirty, too. Football he was, like, 'Yeah, not my thing.' So, he just kept going back to basketball."

After living across an ocean from his father, Isaiah and the rest of his family joined Florian in Germany, where he was playing professionally.
After living across an ocean from his father, Isaiah and the rest of his family joined Florian in Germany, where he was playing professionally.Photo courtesy of Theresa Hartenstein

After Florian finished at Oregon, he signed with the Giessen 46ers, a professional team in Germany. Theresa and the kids stayed back in Eugene—where most of their extended family lived—so that the kids could start in the American school system. The plan was for Florian to join them back in Eugene after the season ended. Instead, he ended up signing a two-year extension. For three years, Theresa and the kids would shuttle back and forth to Germany every holiday, long weekend or day off from school.

Being apart from his dad was hard for Isaiah. After all, the two not only have similar noses, but also walk similarly and even use some of the same phrases. Isaiah remembers that back then he didn't have FaceTime, so even though they talked on the phone often, it wasn't the same. It was difficult for Florian, too, especially because his own father wasn't in the picture growing up. He didn't want the same for Isaiah. In 2008, after Florian came back for a Christmas visit, it was decided that the separation was too difficult and that the whole family would move back to Quakenbruck, Germany.

"For some people that play overseas, it works for [the family] to stay in the States and the husband to be overseas. But our family is so close, it was so hard for the kids," Theresa said. "I thought anything that we can do here, we can give up. But we can't rewind the clock as they are growing up to keep that bond."

Despite interest from colleges in the U.S., Hartenstein and his family felt he would improve his draft stock more quickly by playing against more mature players in Europe.
Despite interest from colleges in the U.S., Hartenstein and his family felt he would improve his draft stock more quickly by playing against more mature players in Europe.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Theresa says the deal was that if the kids did not assimilate well into their new lives in Germany, Florian would finish the season and the whole family would come back together. She says both of them were "willing to make sacrifices" to keep the family together.

Moving to Quakenbruckwhich Isaiah describes as "a small farm town" in the northwest corner of Germanywas an adjustment. Both children spoke little German, and soccer, not basketball, was the dominant sport. Isaiah had his father back with him and so he didn't miss the U.S. so much, but still had to make some adjustments. Learning the language was the hardest part.

"All [the other kids] wanted to do was play soccer and video games. Basketball wasn't big over there," Isaiah said. "You had to watch soccer. During recess you weren't playing basketball or football; you were playing soccer. I got used to it after a while."

That didn't stop Isaiah from playing basketball. "As long as he had a gym and a ball and his dad was there, they didn't care," Theresa said.

As Florian recalled: "We had a basketball carpet in the house. We had a basketball hoop, all that kind of stuff. [Basketball] was always part of it. And then once he came over to Germany, again he was in the gym all the time. I had the chance to coach him after that a little bit. And so, we were a basketball family. He never really had a chance to not play."

But basketball wasn't as big a part of school life the way it is in the United States. Instead, Isaiah started his youth career with MTV Giessen before playing for the Artland Dragons in Quakenbruck. In the 2013-14 season, he led Artland to the German championship in the under-16 league and was named the Most Valuable Player. In 2014, he played in the Jordan Brand Classic's International Game and scored four points and snatched five rebounds in 18 minutes.

His play overseas caught the attention of a handful of American colleges, even though he was only 15 years old when he played his first professional game. Although he retained his amateur status through his first year with Artland by choosing to go unpaid, he soon decided to stay in Europe and continue playing professionally, thereby giving up his college eligibility.

By staying in Europe, Hartenstein has tried to expand his shooting range to fit in more seamlessly with the NBA's emphasis on big men who can stretch the floor.
By staying in Europe, Hartenstein has tried to expand his shooting range to fit in more seamlessly with the NBA's emphasis on big men who can stretch the floor.Photo courtesy of Theresa Hartenstein

"I didn't really feel that I could find the right college fit for me, and I just saw the opportunity to learn a lot and play by [staying overseas]," he explained. "I just wanted to get myself ready. I'm already living by myself."

So after one season with Artland in the BBLthe highest level of German basketballIsaiah signed a paid contract with the Lithuanian club, Zalgiris Kaunas, where he teamed with former Gonzaga star Kevin Pangos.

Florian believes bypassing the NCAA allowed his son a better opportunity to develop skills he will need in the NBA, such as playing with the ball in his hands and moving around the perimeter.

"Right now is a time where most big guys have to be able to play from the outside," Florian said. "That was one of the goals. We had a feeling that if he were to go to college, he would just clean up around the basket, just because he's 7 feet tall. And in Europe, he has more of a chancethe coaches believe he can also play from the outside. So, I think for his development and the style of basketball he plays, European basketball was better."

Isaiah had to promise Theresa he would go back to school and get a degree, but he's happy with his decision. He got an apartment in Lithuania, the first place he has ever lived in on his own, and his family stayed back in Germany. He arranged for one specific addition in his contract: the approval to play in the Nike Hoop Summit, which held special meaning for him given that he had grown up watching his father play for a school that has become synonymous with the sneaker company.

"For me it was special," Isaiah said. "I looked up to a lot of people that played here. A lot of NBA players came out of here."


The scouts at the Trail Blazers' practice facility murmur about how well Isaiah plays above the rim.

"He's quick, but also very physical," one said.

While Florian thinks the athleticism of the NBA may take his son some time to adjust to, he also believes his son's size and diverse skills will allow him to eventually thrive.
While Florian thinks the athleticism of the NBA may take his son some time to adjust to, he also believes his son's size and diverse skills will allow him to eventually thrive.Photo courtesy of Theresa Hartenstein

That combination comes from the "playing against men" plan that Theresa, Florian and Isaiah all point to as one of the key reasons the family decided to have him forgo college. In addition to what he's learned on the court from playing in the pro leagues, Isaiah believes he already carries himself like a rookie, and he hopes that will set him apart in predraft interviews with NBA teams.

You wouldn't know Isaiah is a teenager just by looking at him. His body has filled out, he has broad shoulders and he is well-spoken. His high basketball IQ comes across in his conversations. And his family says he doesn't drink or smokesomething he learned from his parentsnor has he ever had a girlfriend.

"He's watched any kind of video about how to be successful and how the people that are in the industry are successful and also what not to do," Theresa said. "When he was little it was, like, 'I don't have time for a girlfriend; I don't even have time for PlayStation. The day I'm not in the gym, someone else is in the gym getting better than me. So I need to stay grounded and stay focused.' We try to support him in that and tell him that sometimes your attitude off the court will help you in the long run."

There are still potential areas of improvement on the court. Scouting website DraftExpress notes that his perimeter shooting is lacking due to questionable mechanics and that he doesn't always play to his full size.

Some of that was apparent in the World Select Team's loss to Michael Porter and the USA Team in the Hoop Summit game. Hartenstein scored 10 points, had two blocks and four rebounds in front of some childhood friends and local family that came up to Portland to watch him.

"There was stuff that I liked, but for me I was probably a little disappointed," Isaiah said after the game. "I didn't take the game on my back, and I know how I should've performed and I didn't do that."

He doesn't waste much time dwelling on his performance, though. And he doesn't even want to be asked about the NBA draft. He had to get back on a plane the same night to return to his team in Lithuania. After his season ended, he planned to talk to his agent, BJ Armstrong, to decide whether he will make the trip to New York to attend the draft.

Florian, who is now a youth coach in Germany, will help him as he goes back to the drawing board and begins to prepare for the NBA. He compares Isaiah's game to Dirk Nowitzki's and thinks that his biggest challenge in adjusting to the NBA could be speed. But he thinks Isaiah is well-prepared.

"The NBA is very athletic," Florian said. "That might be a little bit of a challenge. But I believe that [his] physicality will make up for that. And then, at the end of the day, it's just getting used to it. I think he has a lot of potential, and hopefully, he can figure out how to get there."

For the entire Hartenstein family, the long, cross-Atlantic journey to the NBA is now little more than a month away.

"He's given himself a chance to play at the highest level if he wants to," Florian said. "And it's all I could ever want for him. I mean, he's put a lot of work in. He's missed out on a lot of parties and a lot of fun stuff just to be in the gym. He used to be in the gym for four to six hours a day just to work on his stuff. And as a kid, if you have that discipline at that young age…I have a lot of respect for that."

         

Malika Andrews covers baseball and basketball for Bleacher Report, and sports for the New York Times. Her work has previously appeared at the Denver Post, Yahoo Sports and the Associated Press. Follow Malika on Twitter @malika_andrews.

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