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Josh Akognon's basket-Baltic adventure


They couldn't find it.

"Ya'll going somewhere that ain't on the map," Josh's mother, Alfreda, exclaimed, shaking her head. "Oh Lord, help us."

Eventually, however, the Akognons found their spot: Estonia, northernmost of the Baltic states, nestled between Russia and the Gulf of Finland. The family's advice: Dress warmly.

Turns out, that was a wise suggestion. Tallinn, the Estonian capital Josh and Ariana currently call home, is farther north than Stockholm, Sweden, or Juneau, Alaska.

"I think yesterday it was negative-10," Josh Akognon said by phone recently, skirting the 10-hour time difference. "The doors are actually freezing shut, to the point where you have to yank on them to open 'em. There's ice inside the car, so you gotta scrape your windshield outside and inside the car. I couldn't get my back trunk open for a month, because it was just frozen shut. Finally it gave a little sun here for about two or three days, and that defrosted my lock."

Culture shock

Kalev/Cramo, Akognon's basketball club for the past three-plus months, has set up the couple in a comfortable apartment, Internet and utilities paid for, and has loaned them a new-model car. But there have been challenges that go beyond the cold. The electrical outlets are different in Europe, so Akognon had to buy converters for the recreational trappings of the young American — Xbox, Wii, etc. Then there was the Christmas tradition of blood sausages.

"The minute you cut into it, everything disgusting comes out," Akognon said. "It's blood and cream. So I actually ate a little bit of that. It was definitely awful."

Ariana Akognon, who played point guard at Washington State (when her last name was Scales) and actually filled in for a team in Estonia, finds it hard to read the Estonians.

"The thing about here is that the sun hardly ever comes out so people always look so gloomy or depressed," she wrote via e-mail. "There is never any type of emotion on their faces. Like at home when you walk past someone they give you a head nod or a smile, here they just stare and keep walking."

By far the biggest hurdle for the Akognons has been the language. Their Estonian doesn't go much beyond "tere," which means hello, and most people there speak little English. Ariana remembered getting off of the Kalev/Cramo team bus on a road trip and trying to buy a snack in a small market. Prices weren't marked, and she and the cashier wound up staring blankly at one another.

"I stood there holding my money and then she just grabbed the amount that was needed to pay for the food," Ariana Akognon wrote.

The Akognons are devout Christians, and Josh Akognon was excited recently to hear about an English-speaking church in Tallinn. He and center Ken Johnson, who played at Ohio State and had a brief stint with the Miami Heat in 2002-03, set off to find it one Sunday.

"We had no luck at all," Akognon said. "The GPS was taking us one way, we thought it was the other way, so we actually didn't even find the church."

Even if they spoke fluent Estonian, the Akognons wouldn't exactly blend in. There are practically no black people in the Baltics.

"It's funny, because when you're out here and they see you, they know you play basketball," Akognon said. "I don't think people know who I am, but they're honking their horns and they're yelling out the window, &‘Good game!' I have a ski mask that I have on that covers up everything except my eyes, so you know that you can't see my face. But I think they just see the skin around my eyes and know I'm black, so they say &‘Good game! Great game!' They know you're not in Estonia just to live in Estonia."

All in all, it has not been a seamless experience. Josh, who turned 24 on Feb. 10, is barely out of college. Ariana, 25, never had been outside the United States (though her father is a German immigrant). It's an adventure, all right, but that's not always what newlyweds are looking for.

"That first week was tough. It was tough," Josh Akognon said. "We were contemplating going back home. ... I know a lot of my other friends have come over here to Europe and been back home within 24 hours, literally."

Akognon said he, too, might have given up. Two things salvaged his Estonian experience: Ariana and basketball.

Isolated by language and culture, the Akognons have grown closer than ever. Ariana travels on the bus with Josh to many away games.

"Sometimes Josh says he feels weird because I am the only female on the bus and he doesnt want anyone else to feel uncomfortable ... lol," Ariana wrote. "But that is Josh. He always thinks someone is thinking things like that."

And now the Akognons have more reason to bond. They recently found out that Ariana is pregnant, due to give birth in September. They have been shopping for maternity items in Tallinn malls.

As for the basketball, the quality has varied by league. Kalev/Cramo has played in three. Akognon said the competition is just so-so in the local Estonia league. But the team also plays in both the Baltic League, which includes Lithuania and Latvia, and a wider league called the VTB, with teams in Russia and the Ukraine.

"There's a lot of great players, a lot of guys I've played with at NBA draft workouts, over here in the Baltic League and in Russia," Akognon said. "I got to play with J.R. Holden (who played at Bucknell and has become a minor celebrity in Russia), who's been over here for a while, and Trajan Langdon, he played at Duke. All these guys that have showed me this is as much competition as in America. They're really raising the bar as far as talent over here."

Akognon has had to accustom himself to different officiating. As one example, you can grab the ball right off the rim and it's not goaltending. Flopping is rampant, but if a referee feels you did it too blatantly, he'll hit you with a technical foul — which automatically brings a $1,000 fine.

And the fans? Akognon experienced little at Washington State or Cal State Fullerton that could have prepared him for the rabid Eastern European crowds.

"The whole arenas out here are just crazy," he said. "They've got horns that go off the whole game. They got drums, they got everything over here. ... They're really passionate, and they take it hard when you lose. And they think it's very disrespectful if anybody leaves before the game's over."

Akognon has played in 30-point blowouts, and practically no one exited the building until the final buzzer.

He is pleased with his development this winter. Akognon flourished as a shooting guard in college — the 2 position — but NBA scouts and coaches want him to be able to play the point. The Kalev/Cramo system is perfect for him, because the two backcourt players share the two roles.

After a slow start, Akognon is averaging 16.8 points per game among the three leagues. That's a far cry from the 23.9 he averaged at Fullerton, where he won honorable mention on the All-America team, but he seems to be having more fun in the process.

"Professional basketball to me is very easy, because of the fact they rarely double-team you, they rarely box-and-one you or face-guard you," he said. "You come off the screen, you're not looking at two guys running at you. ... It's great competition, but at the same time it's fun playing basketball again, because I'm not getting so much attention."

If all goes well for Akognon, Estonia won't be a long-term destination but rather an interesting side trip on the way to an NBA career. He hasn't given up on that dream. In fact, come September, Ariana will be home with her family in Topeka, Kan., and Josh hopes to be in the NBA Summer League.

"That's the one thing that everyone needs to understand, that I'm not over here for anything else," Akognon said. "If I'm not playing good on the floor, it's gonna be bad off the floor. I definitely feel like whenever I get on the floor, I have to become better. I have to show people in America that I'm getting better, than I'm not just over here taking in the sights."