Björn Michaelsen

By Ben Waldman

Moments before his fifth and final home opener as a Ryerson Ram in November, Björn Michaelsen stood at centre court.

The six-foot-eight forward from Otterburn Park, Que., had stood in the spot hundreds of times before, usually with a basketball floating several feet above his head, trying to time his jump properly, eyeing the orange eagerly.

This time, Michaelsen wasn't staring at his usual opponent, but the crowd in front of him. He held not his weapon of choice, that orange globe, but one that sent shivers racing down his spine: a microphone.

Along with co-captain Jahmal Jones, it was Michaelsen's duty to welcome the fans, give an opening speech and greet NBA legend Bill Walton, who was there to throw the ceremonial jump ball.

"That was my nightmare," Michaelsen says, wincing as he recalls his nerves.

"Speaking in front of that many people is a lot different than playing a game of basketball."

It doesn't seem all too imposing, but Michaelsen, 25, can't imagine doing anything like it four years earlier, when he could hardly speak English and his career was just getting started.

Michaelsen was born with a slight hearing impairment, a condition that affected his ability to communicate as a child. His parents, both bilingual, chose one language to teach him, with French being the obvious choice in their predominantly francophone community.

For years, Michaelsen struggled to share his thoughts, in French or English, written or verbal, a dilemma that caused him incredible stress.

"Not being able to express myself made me angry," Michaelsen says. "I couldn't express myself, so I couldn't communicate what I wanted to say to anybody."

Each day in high school, Michaelsen made the 35-minute commute from Otterburn Park to École Secondaire Saint-Joseph, a private school in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., where most residents spoke French, many spoke Spanish and few spoke English. More importantly, almost none played basketball.


"I couldn't express myself, so I couldn't communicate what I wanted to say to anybody."

"When I got there I had to find teammates just by walking through the hall," Michaelsen says.

He got a lot of attention soon after, playing for the Saint-Bruno Cougars club team alongside future Harvard standout Laurent Rivard and McGill guard Simon Bibeau, two of the top players in the country.

With the duo flanking him, Michaelsen's game started to speak in ways he still had trouble doing, only two years after picking up the sport in a fluke accident, albeit one he caused.

"I was going to school, rollerblading downhill and they were doing construction and I didn't really understand the construction signs. I saw that there was a gap, just with small rocks and instead of stopping, I decided to try and jump over it," Michaelsen remembers. "I really regretted that decision."

Just a few weeks before a hockey tryout, his hand was broken with no chance to recover in time.

Then, he found his calling in the post: his niche, his home, his place of work. Basketball made sense to him and that injury, Michaelsen says, was the force that led him there.

Since then, Michaelsen has broken his hand five more times. "I can't even tell you which one," he says, staring at his palms.

On the first possession of his first game at Ryerson, Michaelsen jumped for a rebound and collided with veteran teammate Ryan McNeilly. His head met Michaelsen's mouth, and the rookie's teeth were knocked inward, forcing him out of the lineup for several weeks.

In the final regular season home game of his career, Michaelsen rose up for a rebound and fell hard on his shoulder, quickly leaving to the locker room.

"All I could say was, 'Please, not something serious,'" teammate Adika Peter-McNeilly said before Michaelsen returned to the bench.

"I am so impressed with his resilience," Ryerson head coach Roy Rana says as he counts through Michaelsen's injuries. "There were times when I thought he would say, 'Enough, I've been injured enough,' but he kept going for his teammates."

Injuries have shaped his career, but all of the bumps and bruises have contributed to Michaelsen's irrepressible spirit both on and off the court. As an engineering student, Michaelsen was required to write an English proficiency test, needing at least a B to pass. He failed three times, but in the summer of 2014, he improved drastically.

"Not only did I pass the fourth time, I got an A," he says with a grin. "It hurt my pride a little bit to be successful at [basketball] but not English. It was definitely special to get that grade."


""There were times when I thought he would say, 'Enough, I've been injured enough,' but he kept going for his teammates."

As much as he loves basketball, Michaelsen is still a self-professed nerd.

He keeps The Settlers of Catan, a strategy board game, in his locker, has considered creating an algorithm to calculate optimum arc and velocity on his shot and is a three-time Academic All-Canadian. He voraciously reads books by Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other astrophysicists.

"I love the science of the unknown. The kind of stuff that happens every day, everywhere, but you don't see," Michaelsen says. "People take it for granted, but I want to know how it all works."

His favourite book is Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. He finds it fascinating and engrossing.

Hawking, like Michaelsen, experienced difficulty communicating the thoughts in his head to those around him, but the British physicist overcame the odds to become one of the greatest minds of modern history.

Michaelsen is not Stephen Hawking; he would never dream of comparing himself to him, but Michaelsen just co-authored his first research paper based on his lab work on particle behaviour.

After all of his years struggling to write or speak in English or French, Michaelsen's paper will likely be published in the coming months.

The basketball-playing, physics-obsessed nerd has come a long way since he arrived at Ryerson.

Michaelsen stood at centre court on opening night.

He spoke.