July 31, 2011 in Sports

Former Vandal, Cougar Hopson finds way to Argentina

Correspondent
 
Associated Press photo

Mac Hopson played in some rugged games with Idaho in the Western Athletic Conference, but nothing like he’s seen in Argentina.
(Full-size photo)

Phil and Lauren Hopson’s only son was born in Argentina in 1986, and soon after the new parents had the same thought: Perhaps their boy would return one day to the same South American country to play basketball like his father, and maybe he could even land on the Argentinean national team.

The idea didn’t seem outlandish then, nor does it now with Mac Hopson halfway to completing a vision his parents had long forgotten about until this past year.

A dual citizen of Argentina and the United States, Hopson quickly shifted his fledging professional basketball career in March from earthquake-torn Japan to the second-division Argentinean pro league. After hopping between three continents in a little more than a week, he helped guide Quilmes – a club in Mar del Plata, a coastal city about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires – to a league championship.

Earlier this summer the former University of Idaho and Washington State guard signed to play next season in Mar del Plata, only this time he will be in Argentina’s top league. Hopson will get more exposure and perhaps have a better chance of impressing Julio Lamas, the Argentinean national coach who knows his background.

If Hopson, 24, gets an invite to the national team, his father – another former Vandals basketball player – will be thrilled. But Phil is already amazed at how Mac ended up in basketball-obsessed Argentina last spring.

All it took was perhaps the worst natural disaster in Japan’s history.

• • •  

Nearly five months later, Hopson remembers exactly how long the 9.0 magnitude earthquake lasted. Or at least felt like it lasted.

Midafternoon on March 11, the Sendai 89ers of Japan’s top professional basketball league were en route to Niigata – part of another road trip in Hopson’s first year overseas. Their bus had pulled over at a convenience store, about 30 miles outside of Sendai, so the players could get snacks and use the bathroom.

Hopson was inside when the quake struck. The ground started gyrating and items in the store began crashing onto the floor.

“It lasted for about two minutes and kept getting stronger and stronger,” he said by phone from Portland last week. “I was scared. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Yet things could have been much worse. The 89ers left Sendai, a northeastern coastal city ravaged by the quake-triggered tsunami and the nearest major metro area to the earthquake’s epicenter, a mere 45 minutes before the first major shock.

Back in the U.S., Phil and Lauren watched the reports about Sendai and worried about their son’s safety. Was he still in Sendai or somewhere else? They had yet to hear from him, so they couldn’t be sure.

Hopson and his team, it turned out, had made it through the quake and resumed their trip. They reached Niigata before the league canceled the rest of the season.

“When the (earthquake) hit and the tsunami hit,” Phil said, “we were really concerned because we were watching on the news and we realized it was happening right there in the town he lived in. They kept talking about Sendai, Sendai. Everything was happening there.”

Hopson was able to contact his parents that night from Niigata, where he and the team slept in dorms. They returned to Sendai a week later, and Hopson saw up close the heart-wrenching destruction.

“It was crazy,” he said. “Miles of peopled lined up for gas and food. People (didn’t) have electricity. It was winter then. No heat. Man, it was a tough time for the people of Japan.”

More than 700 died or are missing in Sendai. Nationwide, the presumed death toll has reached 20,000.

About 10 days after the quake, Hopson made his way with a few other teammates through wild snowstorms and rain to Tokyo to fly back to the U.S.

His return to the Northwest wouldn’t last, though.

• • •  

Hopson shone in his lone abbreviated season in Japan, averaging 21.6 points per game and garnering second-team all-league honors. Before he went to Sendai, however, he had been contacted by another team in Argentina.

The opportunity fell through the first time, but within a week of returning from Japan, Hopson again heard from an Argentinean team. This time it was playoff qualifier Quilmes, which had a roster spot open.

Hopson’s dual citizenship no doubt helped. Since he was born in Argentina and has a passport, he’s not considered an import – in Argentina or elsewhere in South America – and doesn’t take up the precious few spots allotted to U.S. players.

One of the Americans for Quilmes next season will be Brian Morris, Hopson’s friend and former North Idaho College player.

Hopson’s parents expect to make a trip to Argentina to visit Mac and travel to Marcos Juarez, the city that Phil played in for two years.

By then Hopson should be more attuned to the Argentinean style of basketball. He was taken aback last spring by how physical teams in the second division were compared to the Japanese league.

In one playoff game, he was slapped in the face twice. Neither time did a referee call a foul.

The fan bases in Argentina, where basketball is second only to soccer, are also intense. Hopson said fans often spit on opposing players and, less egregiously, break out in song throughout games.

It’s all part of the culture, one that Hopson hopes to soak up for the next year – and maybe much longer.


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