Olympic memories from Seawolf Hall of Famer Hansi Gnad

by joey  |   

It's hard to envision a David and Goliath story when everyone involved is nearly seven feet tall... but that's the best way to describe the men's basketball tournament at the 1992 Olympics.

When the USA played Germany, the odds were heavily in the Americans' favor. On one side, you had single-name legends like Magic, Barkley, Bird, Pippen, Malone and, yes, Air Jordan himself. On the other, you had-it must be said-an outmatched squad, helmed by captain Hansi Gnad. But among Anchorage basketball fans, that name is just as recognizable as any member of the Dream Team.

Hansi, who played from 1983-1987, remains first all-time in rebounds and blocks for UAA (Photo courtesy UAA Athletics).

Hansi, who played from 1983-1987, remains first all-time in career rebounds and blocks for UAA. (Photo courtesy UAA Athletics)

Hansi, an inaugural inductee into the Seawolf Hall of Fame, is now a professional coach in Germany. He recently called in via Skype to reminisce about his time on the German national team and his roots at UAA. And though he didn't win the gold in Barcelona ("We had the pleasure to get whooped by them by almost 40," Hansi laughed), he did end up with an Olympic memory much more valuable.

Technical fouls and broken glass

Hansi, who played at UAA from 1983-1987, remains one of the most dominant Seawolf basketball players-he's still first all-time in rebounds and blocks, and third in steals-but he didn't pick up a basketball until he was nearly 18 years old.

Formerly a competitive swimmer, Hansi had the height advantage for basketball and the focus for top-level training. That combination caught the eye of UAA coach Harry Larrabee when he visited Langen, the hometown of one of his players.

"He's 6 foot 9? I'll take him. I can teach him basketball," Hansi recalled of Harry's decision to sign him. "He took the chance."

Hansi arrived in Anchorage with height, talent, but not a lot of English. "I still remember the first time I walked in the gym, the TV wanted to interview me. I think I could say yes or no, that was it," he laughed.

Check out this incredible team photo from Hansi's sophomore season (Photo courtesy of UAA Athletics).

Check out this incredible team photo from Hansi's sophomore season. (Photo courtesy of UAA Athletics)

Prior to arriving on campus, he worked the summer construction season in Alaska. That experience definitely colored his vocabulary. For every four-letter word he shot out at practice, Coach Harry made him run a lap with a 10-pound dumbbell over his head. "I don't know how many laps I ran. Too many," he sighed.

And switching to German didn't help. During a Great Alaska Shootout game against reigning NCAA champs NC State, Hansi started cussing the Wolfpack in German from the bench. His outburst prompted a technical foul from the ref just because it sounded bad. The next game, Coach Harry made Hansi wear a mouthpiece to shut him up.

In conversation, Hansi is warm and relaxed, but he could regale you for hours with hotheaded stories from those days (during some lighthearted freshman hazing, he once threw an older teammate off his back and through a window at baggage claim in Seattle. "I never had to carry bags again," Hansi joked).

Wild anecdotes aside, though, he adapted to life in Anchorage and excelled on the court. His dominant numbers earned him a spot in the Seawolf Hall of Fame's first class in 2001. When he could finally return to campus, during the 2010 Shootout, the crowd honored him with a standing ovation at halftime.

"The whole situation was so special to me," he recalled of the award. "This school has opened so many doors for me in life and in sports, and I'm so grateful to the whole program. Then, I get an achievement like this. It was incredible."

Hansi, center, accepted his Seawolf Hall of Fame plaque during the 2010 Great Alaska Shootout (Photo by Michael Dinneen / UAA Athletics).

Hansi, center, accepted his Seawolf Hall of Fame plaque during the 2010 Great Alaska Shootout.(Photo by Michael Dinneen / UAA Athletics)

Olympic memories: Playing the Dream Team in 1992

After college, Hansi played 16 successful seasons of pro ball in Europe's top leagues (his first year, he helped win the German championship for Cologne). Meanwhile, he played a record 183 games for the German national team, earning the title of Honorable Captain For Life. He's now on the sideline, but still in the game, serving as a co-trainer for Bayer Giants Leverkusen, one of his former clubs, and coaching the club's teenage team.

Hansi captained Germany during their 1993 European championship in Eurobasket, still one the national team's biggest successes (Photo courtesy Bild).

As captain (or kapitän), Hansi led Germany to the European championship in Eurobasket 1993, still one the national team's biggest successes (Photo courtesy Bild).

Throughout his long ongoing career, one of the biggest basketball moments was playing the Dream Team in 1992.

"That was the first time they let all the pros play-the first time ever that a team from America came with their best players," Hansi noted. Prior to 1992, Olympic basketball was strictly for amateurs, meaning college kids-many of them teenagers-made the bulk of the roster.

But not anymore. Everyone was so sure the Americans would win that Michael Jordan spent most of his time in Barcelona golfing.

At the start of the 12-team tournament, announcers introduced each squad to the crowd. "When the American Dream Team walked in, this place went entirely nuts," Hansi remembered. "It was incredible. You stood there for a half hour with goosebumps."

Germany won their first two games-against Spain and Angola-before facing the Americans. As the starting center, Hansi matched up against 7-foot Patrick Ewing. The game was a blowout, 111-68 (though, it should be noted, the Americans smoked their competition by an average of nearly 44 points, using zero timeouts throughout the tournament).

"We played against the best players that ever existed. I don't think there was ever a better team than in 1992," he said. "Bird, Ewing, Jordan, Johnson, that never happened again. It was such a special event for everyone there."

And though he didn't medal at the Games, he did find something far more valuable. "The most important thing about those Olympics... I met my wife there," he said. He and Silke, who played on the women's handball team for Germany, have been married since 1995. They live in Leverkusen with their two teenage sons, Justin and Robin, both of whom played on Hansi's youth basketball team.

"The Olympics were cool as a player, but it gave me something else much much more important," Hansi said of his family.

But, though basketball defines his life, his family hasn't seen where it all started. "I can't believe my family hasn't been there yet," he said of Anchorage. "It would be very important for me ... to take them where I spent the prime time of my life."

But don't expect a summer tourist trip. "It would have to be during basketball, not summertime when it's beautiful," he laughed. "I want to see some action. I want to see some games."

Click here for more great team photos from the 1980s.

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