The lights dim in Worthen Arena. Ball State Men’s Basketball is coming off of a loss, and fans trickle out into the concourse as the players slowly walk off the court, disappearing into the tunnel.
The arena is silent, and all that can be heard are janitors shifting around trash bags. However, for freshman guard Teemu Suokas, his night had only begun.
It’s just him, the basketball and the hoop. Suokas’ biggest goal is becoming a great basketball player, so shooting around after a game has become habitual.
Hard work is a part of Suokas’ daily life, starting as a kid playing basketball in his driveway against his older brother and father in Helsinki, Finland. Suokas said he always lost to them, but he worked on his game to improve after those losses.
“[My brother] started playing basketball when he was young. I would always watch his game, and that was the reason I decided I wanted to play,” Suokas said. “When I first tried it, I didn’t want to stop. I made up my mind when I was young that I wanted to play professionally. I still love the game as much as I did the first time.”
After graduating from playing his brother and father, he played for the Finland Junior National Team at the U16 and U18 levels. In 2019, Suokas played for HBA-Marsky of the Helsinki Basketball Academy on the junior national team under head coach Hanno Mӧttӧlä, who started for the Utah Utes in the 1998 NCAA Championship against Kentucky and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2000. Suokas helped lead the team to a 21-0 record, and Mӧttӧlä praised his drive to become a better player.
“Teemu has been a self-motivated athlete as long as I have known him,” Mӧttӧlä said. “He has that inner drive to push himself every day that you need to become a high-level pro one day. Teemu was one of the players at Helsinki Basketball Academy that set the tone for others to follow.”
Beyond his work ethic, Suokas’ athleticism is what jumped out to Mӧttӧlä and his teammates, which is why he brought him aboard to play basketball in the first place.
“In Finland, our approach to coaching is very athlete-driven,” Mӧttӧlä said. “Players, their development and future is [the] most important thing to us. We want to help young athletes to become self-driven because we believe that creates the best chance for them to reach their goals.”
The next step for Suokas was taking what he learned in Finland and applying it to collegiate basketball in the United States. Suokas praised Mӧttӧlä for shaping who he is as a person and preparing him for playing basketball in the United States.
“[Mӧttӧlä] was a great player,” Suokas said. “He had a lot to give. He just taught me a lot of things about basketball and the basics. He has seen it all, and … he helped me get here.”
Ball State associate head coach Jason Grunkemeyer learned about Suokas through conversations with Mӧttӧlä. Mӧttӧlä sent a few club players to the United States to work out, and Suokas stood out the most. When Ball State head coach James Whitford saw film of Suokas, he was immediately impressed.
“One of the things I love about Teemu is his passion,” Whitford said. “That kind of passion has always been an instrumental piece in guys breaking through. Teemu has it in spades.”
Soon after, Suokas became the first European player to ever join Ball State Men’s Basketball. At first, he said, he was surprised that the Cardinals hadn’t had a European player in 100 years. Then, he was encouraged that he was the first.
“I think it is a pretty big thing to be the first European player,” Suokas said. “It makes me think why I was the first one. It makes me feel special or something like that. When I came here, I didn’t know if it was a good thing to be the first European player or not. I think it’s a good thing.”
Whitford said he didn’t go out of his way to recruit European players, but he felt Suokas was a perfect fit for the team and loves the diversity he provides.
“One of the things I love about college basketball is that you get such diversity,” Whitford said. “You get racial diversity, social and economic diversity, geography diversity and you get people who come from all different walks of life.”
Being the first European player in the program has included some bumps in the road, as the process of coming to the United States was everything but easy for him.
When citizens of Finland turn 18, they must participate in a six-month military program, and Suokas was no exception, but he was able to complete the program in four months in the summer of 2020. While he said he didn’t enjoy it, he believes it helped his self-discipline, which translated to the basketball court.
Suokas’ military training in Finland took place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, delaying his arrival in the United States. Once he finally came to the U.S., he had to quarantine for two weeks before meeting his Ball State teammates.
At the time, Suokas said, he still didn’t know English well, and adjusting to a new language brought challenges for him.
“It was pretty hard,” Suokas said. “I am not saying I speak English that well yet, but when I first got here, I was a lot worse. It was really hard to communicate with the other players. I had to do that fast because we play basketball. Everyone helped me so much.”
Whitford said he would joke with Suokas and tell him he will have mastered the language when he starts dreaming in English.
Communication on the court was also a challenge for Suokas at first, Whitford said, but Suokas’ commitment to improving hasn’t wavered. Whenever Whitford leaves the film room to take calls from the media, he will look to his right in the practice gym and see Suokas as the last man on the court.
Senior guard Ishmael El-Amin saw that the minute he joined the team. Despite Suokas not playing many minutes as a freshman, El-Amin, Ball State’s leading scorer, believes Suokas’ time in the gym will pay off.
“It is a testament to him, and it’s going to pay off,” El-Amin said. “The game is going to start clicking for him, and it will start slowing down. He just knows to stay in the gym regardless of him playing or not.”
Redshirt junior guard Jarron Coleman echoed El-Amin’s sentiments regarding Suokas and his hard work.
“He is the hardest-working player we have,” Coleman said. “He is working out every day before and after practice. He is a freak — I can’t even lie.”
Like everyone else said, Whitford believes that is simply who Suokas is, and that alone will bring him success.
“He is a really hard worker,” Whitford said. “I think because of that, he is going to have some great days here as a Cardinal.”