Two years ago, the Iowa Energy was hosting an open tryout for a couple of hundred players in the Chicago suburbs. Just when the Energy coaching staff was ready to get things started, three players burst in.
Stefhon Hannah and two of his buddies were en route from the other side of the city when they ran into a little problem.
“We were kind of close to the gym. We were a little early, too,” Hannah said. “The car just broke down. We were sitting there, and we were looking at the time. We were trying to see what was wrong with the car, and everybody just grabbed their bags, and we ran. We just started running to the gym.
“We didn’t know where we were going. We were on the side of the highway. We just started running,” Hannah recalled with a laugh. “We got in somebody’s neighborhood, and we were asking people where we were going. I happened to call one of my friends, and he had somebody come get us. It was crazy. We got there just in time.”
It’s the kind of persistence Hannah has showed time and again during his career, the kind of determination that has driven him to become one of the top guards in the D-League. Hannah will get another chance to prove it tonight, when the Wizards hit the road to face the Bakersfield Jam in Game 1 of their best-of-3 quarterfinal series.
Hannah has overcome many obstacles in his professional career: A blown-out knee, the proving ground of the open tryout, getting passed on by the Energy not once, but twice.
Hannah began his pro career with stops in Cyprus and Lithuania. But in the summer of 2009, he suffered a torn ACL and partially torn MCL and ended up sitting out the whole season. Then came the opportunity to try out for the Energy. He was invited to camp, but the Energy had a veteran team and waived him.
“It was like mentally I was gone,” Hannah said. “I stopped working out. I stopped doing a lot of stuff. I wasn’t getting any calls from overseas, and I had no agent. I was just at home and down.”
But when the Energy brought him back, Hannah was ready. He didn’t play much early in the season — in 40 games he averaged just 7.6 points. But he bided his time and eventually cracked the starting lineup late in the season. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Hannah was an integral part of Iowa’s lineup.
Hannah more than doubled his production in the postseason, averaging 15.5 points per game. The highlight came when Hannah poured in 31 points in Iowa’s championship-clinching victory.
“It happened to work out in my favor at the end,” Hannah said. “… I got to play with some great guys and got to learn a lot about the game. It was a great experience.”
With the NBA lockout, Hannah decided to return overseas, playing in the Philippines and Poland. But once the labor impasse was resolved, Hannah knew he wanted to come back to the U.S.
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“When I was over there, I was cool. But when the lockout ended … I wasn’t focused,” Hannah said. “I talked to my mother, my brothers, a lot of people I take advice from. I had a talk with (former teammate) Moses Ehambe, too. … There were so many signs telling me to come home.”
Hannah assumed that meant returning to the Energy.
When Iowa took a pass, Bjorkgren was more than happy to pluck Hannah from their former team.
“Stef is fearless, a super competitor who wants to win very badly,” Bjorkgren said. “He’s a good on-ball defender. He’ll poke at you and pester you and dog you full-court. He can shoot, and he’s very crafty with the basketball. He can score in different ways — shooting 3s, taking it to the rim.”
Hannah was worried about the weather in Bismarck, but otherwise liked the idea of reuniting with Bjorkgren.
“I was excited, because I love Coach Nate,” Hannah said. “He’s got a passion for basketball that I desire. I love that in a coach.”
Hannah has emerged as a force, averaging 18.4 points and ranking second in the league in steals (2.1). He was especially good down the stretch, scoring 25.2 points per game as the Wizards closed the season on a 9-2 surge.
Hannah’s chemistry with veteran guard Maurice Baker has been especially good.
“We’re totally different,” Baker said. “I rebound, handle the ball, get us in the offense. Stef shoots, handles the ball, passes well and defends. It’s two different animals out there. If he’s got It, I’ll just go run and spot up. If I’ve got it, he’ll go run and spot up. We feed off each other, and we’re playing well right now.”
Baker helped lead the Wizards to a D-League title in 2007, and Hannah helped Iowa win it last year. They’d like to win another one together.
“My goal is to play in the NBA, but I’ve got a different goal right now, me and this team. … We want to win a championship,” Hannah said. “That’s what I’m focusing on. If I get a call-up to the NBA, that’s a blessing.”