Chasing a dream

Massanutten Military Academy's Kasper Christiansen works out during practice on Monday. Christiansen is hoping to make his mark in the U.S. after leaving his family in Denmark. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Kasper Christiansen recently was required to write a final paper for a class at Massanutten Military Academy, the topic being either the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, or the easiest. For Christiansen, his biggest life choice fell into both categories.

Christiansen, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark, has long had a dream of playing professional basketball. Standing at a towering 6-foot-11, with a shooting touch from the perimeter to create mismatches, he certainly looks the part of a basketball player. But in his native country, Christiansen said Monday, there is a limit on just how far such an ambition can carry.

“You can’t really pursue the basketball dream,” he said of Denmark, whose top professional league, Basketligaen, was founded in 1998 and consists of 10 teams. “I mean you can play. We have great basketball programs. But if you really wanna make something out of it you’ve gotta move to America. That’s the best spot, right?”

Therein was the choice Christiansen had to make.

In Denmark, Christiansen was attending school about 10 minutes from his home in Copenhagen and struggling to balance his schoolwork with the basketball he was playing for a team in Vaerlose. He spent four hours a day riding a train to and from Vaerlose and was nearly failing school when he came to the conclusion that he could either quit basketball to renew his focus on his education or move to the United States and begin a new life centered around chasing the basketball dream.

Massanutten Military Academy's Kasper Christiansen, who is from Copenhagen, said “You can’t really pursue the basketball dream” in Denmark. That's why, he said, he is in America. Rich Cooley/Daily

Christiansen’s decision was a no-brainer – his desire to play basketball was too great, and to pursue that dream he needed to play in the U.S. He needed to earn a spot on an American college roster that might prepare him for a possible professional future.

But the decision that was so simple in his mind also wasn’t.

“Of course I love playing basketball. It’s the love of my life. I had to leave Denmark to pursue my dream, right?” said Christiansen, long a fan of the NBA. “But at the same time I had to leave everyone I love behind. And that’s been tough. That’s been tough, real, real tough.”

Christiansen, having just turned 18, arrived in the U.S. in early September 2015 in Delray Beach, Florida, where he joined the Elev8 Sports Institute’s postgraduate basketball program, then led by Chad Myers, Christiansen’s current postgrad coach at MMA.

Language barrier wasn’t a problem for Christiansen – he’s bilingual and fluent in English, a product of his Danish education and his love of Hollywood movies. But when his mother and sister returned home after helping Christiansen settle in at Elev8, he was left without an emotional support system in a foreign country. Within the first couple months, however, he had made close friends, he said, and formed a strong bond with Myers, who has kept in regular contact with Christiansen’s family.

Christiansen required a similar adjustment on the court, one that he said took him about half a season at Elev8 to complete. American basketball, compared to its European counterpart, is much faster, places less emphasis on ball movement and screens and features far superior athletes, said Christiansen.

Acclimation process aside, Myers said the 6-11 forward’s potential was evident from the first day Christiansen stepped onto the court at Elev8, although Myers had to break him of some of his European habits.

“He wanted to hang out on the perimeter a lot there, and here you’re looked at, if you’re not going inside some and you’re that big then you can be labeled a little as ‘soft’ or you don’t wanna go inside,” Myers said. “Like when he was running, most of the time in America you tell big guys or the trail man to run to the rim. Well in Europe a lot of times they play, they play five out now, so guys run to the corner or they run to the slots. So as he was in transition he would run to like a different spot. … I realized it wasn’t just him doing that, I think that’s how he’s always done it his whole life. It’s like his natural custom when we’re playing pickup or anything, he’s running to the corner or the slot.”

As Christiansen adjusted to a new style, he quickly drew the attention of college coaches. Myers recalled a time when Louisville head coach Rick Pitino visited Elev8 and pointed out Christiansen as the player with the most upside in a gym that also included 10 future NCAA Division I signees.

Even so, Christiansen, who followed Myers to MMA when the head coach returned for his second stint at the school last April, is still waiting for that one offer that will allow the 19-year-old forward to make his college decision.

Myers said Christiansen received four or five scholarship offers early in the recruiting process but that Christiansen was “kind of unsure what he was gonna do.” Christiansen said James Madison University, the University of Richmond and Elon had previously shown interest, and although things have quieted down on the recruiting front since the start of MMA’s season in October, Myers said he expects Christiansen to have at least 10 offers in hand by season’s end.

In the meantime, Christiansen will continue his transformation into a more appealing college prospect. That includes adding about 20 pounds to his current 205-pound frame – Christiansen said he’s been told by college coaches that he’s too skinny – and becoming a stronger post presence. In Denmark Christiansen said he was strictly a perimeter player, but at MMA he’s being asked to play a more traditional post role, eschewing much of his 3-point shooting in favor of growing himself as a rebounder and shot blocker.

“I think he’s turned a corner with us, like spending more time in the gym working on his individual game, taking the weight room serious,” said Myers, who has coached nearly 40 current NCAA Division I players. “All that stuff is gonna make him – either he can end up making money playing basketball one day or he could just be, you know, kind of what he is. But his upside and his ceiling is so high I think it all depends on what Kasper wants to do, if that’s a fair statement.”

Through MMA’s first 16 games entering the week, Christiansen was averaging 6.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while attempting less than one 3-pointer per contest. He worked his way into the Colonels’ starting five during the second week in December, all while trying to handle to stress of playing for his basketball future.

“It’s a great pressure. I mean every time you step on the court you’re like yeah, today’s the day. Today’s the day I get that scholarship I want. It makes you fight for it,” Christiansen said. “I mean there’s always that thought, what if I don’t get it?”

Whether the future holds that one scholarship that will push Christiansen closer to realizing his dream remains unclear, but what is certain is that he has never second-guessed the greatest decision of his life.

“I’ve experienced a lot of different cultures and this is a great life experience, no matter what happens in the future,” Christiansen said. “It was a good choice for me and I can’t wait to see what happens.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com