Multiculturalism has touched more than just the traditional business life in Joensuu. Basketball club Kataja Basket has had a hand in normalising multiculturalism for decades. Kataja’s executive manager Johannes Lasaroff sat down with Talent Hub Joensuu to talk about Kataja Basket’s challenges and triumphs, and how international talent has contributed to the club’s success.
Executive manager Johannes Lasaroff is no stranger to sports. Lasaroff has been with Kataja Basket for years. Initially a player, he got the job with Kataja after graduating from the university. As the executive manager, Lasaroff oversees the club’s finances and communications, and organises the club’s activities.
Encouraged by its parent club Joensuun Kataja ry, which has been the driving force behind the region’s sports scene since the early 20th century, basketball in Joensuu began to form into what it is now in the mid-1900s. The club’s representative team Joensuun Kataja was founded in 1955, and in the following decades the team moved on to compete on the national level, and began to play against foreign teams as well. Eventually Kataja’s first foreign player, American Leon Huff, joined the team in 1975. Huff stayed with Joensuun Kataja for five years, although he spent one season in Turkey between his seasons under Kataja.
“Leon Huff came to us in the seventies. Very memorable. People still remember him, and his son is in fact playing for the national team”, Lasaroff tells. Huff is still remembered in Joensuu by his nicknames “Leksa” or “Huhvi”. Huff has stayed in Finland, and moved on from playing to coaching. Kataja was eager to recruit more American players. The second and third American players came in 1978 and 1980, and since then international talent has only been recruited more frequently. Aside from Russian-born Aleksei Petrov, nearly all international players have been from the States.
Things took a turn for the worse near the end of the century. Around the late 1980s, a highly xenophobic group of skinheads began to emerge in Joensuu. Headed by a thightly-knit group of young local men, the group would go on to grow and commit acts of violence and hundreds of crimes in the 1990s. Joensuun Kataja was not spared.
“In 1995 we had this American player, Darryl Parker, who upon walking home one day became a target of racism, and he was chased with baseball bats. This led to Parker’s contract being dissolved, because he was afraid of being here and had to go home”, Lasaroff recalls. Eventually the skinhead issue subsided, but the incident received widespread attention. Joensuu still suffers a degree of notoriety because of this. Kataja, Lasaroff points out, has spent years alleviating that.
“What happened was a turning point for Kataja as well. Our mission to make Joensuu more international formed when we realized that Joensuu’s reputation had to be fixed. A large number of local businesses started supporting us, and out budget grew. We got into the national league at the time”, Lasaroff recounts.
“Since then our mission has been to improve the image of the city. We’ve been figureheads in that, since we’ve always had foreign players. Even today all our foreign players feel welcome. People don’t experience that kind of racism anymore. We’ve succeeded in that mission.”Johannes Lasaroff
Nowadays Kataja’s team hosts five American players, and playing abroad is an annual occurrence despite the recent hiatus. Along with American players, Kataja employs a Russian worker in the office and occasional non-Finnish volunteers. Lasaroff smiles and notes that sometimes it is hard to keep track of different nationalities after getting used to working in a multicultural setting and that you learn not to pay attention to nationality. In the field with players and volunteers, English is the main language, although Finnish is still used in the office.
“We haven’t really needed other languages. Verbal communication is less important [on the basketball court]. How the players move and motion is very important for teamwork [during play].”
Other practical challenges occur outside matches and practice. To gain residential permits, new players have to go identify themselves at Migri’s offices in Kuopio, which could be confusing if not for the help from the organisation. “I’m not saying that it’s any more difficult in Finland than it would be elsewhere, but it’s a concrete issue that always irks me. How can it still be that you can’t deal with that over here?” Lasaroff wonders. “But, surely it’s changing for the better.”
Then there is the matter of the new setting itself – Joensuu. A city of some 77 000 people may be big here, but little more than a footnote compared to the cities beyond the Atlantic. Although it has been noted that many migrants have come to enjoy Joensuu’s relative peace, the cultural shock is something that is on the minds of Kataja, when a new player is being brought in.
“We’ve had new players coming from big cities like New York City, and they end up googling Joensuu. I don’t think that it fully sinks in at that point, and they’re probably going through the same thing as Huff in his time. It’s hard to communicate such a huge contrast between the cities, and when they fly to the Joensuu airport through the autumn dark on a propeller plane, look down to see absolutely no lights, and the captain announces the landing, it must be suspenseful. That’s the stage where the club is needed, and in our case, you need the team’s support as well. The team is even more important, since it includes local peers and other Americans. The newcomers won’t be left alone,” Lasaroff stresses.
The cultural diversity is enriching on its own, but Kataja also has practical reasons for investing in international talent – reasons that in a way echo the workforce shortage experienced in multiple fields.
“Even though Korisliiga is a top-tier league, we don’t have enough top-tier Finnish players. We need international talent to manage.” And it’s not just a question of manpower. Learning about the American playstyle has been a huge benefit for Kataja. The team mixes and matches playstyles as needed, sometimes approaching opponents with an aggressive American one-on-one focus, and sometimes with a more tactical Finnish playstyle. “Depending on how the opposing team plays defence, we can approach them accordingly with different means. That’s why it’s important for us to bring in international players.”
It is clear that Kataja Basket has benefited from international talent. For other organisations and potential employers, Lasaroff states the gains companies can make by hiring internationals.
“We need more workers, and although the employment situation in Joensuu could be better, successful companies recruit new people, and for companies to prosper, they need diversity. You need talent that brings with them their own culture and ideas from abroad, so you can improve the business together, grow it, recruit more and employ more people. Then there’s exportation. It helps the export industry to have people from target markets.”
Finally, Lasaroff offers his insights into how to go about bringing in international talents.
“You need to be brave, and you need to take your time. Your first international recruit will be the most challenging process, but when you take the time, the next one will be much easier. What’s best, if you want to hire international talent, you can get help from Business Joensuu, the city, Luotsi and integration services. You won’t fail for lack of support.”
Text: Lauri Vuori