Jasonn Hannibal's last stint as a professional basketball player before he earned a spot on the Wizards' 2017 Summer League team was in Iran, a full 18 months before the Wizards brought him to Las Vegas and assigned him the No. 64 jersey number. The sport of basketball had already taken him from his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario in Canada to the University of Portland in Oregon to Slovenia for two years then to Kosovo, then to two different teams in Mexico and finally the Middle East, a region of the world generally associated with many things, basketball not one of them.
Hannibal, 29, had experienced plenty of bumps in the road, including in Slovenia where he tore his meniscus while playing in his league's All-Star Game. But Iran, though shortlived, altered his life in numerous ways.
For one, the lifestyle was an unrelenting culture shock. Hannibal learned that quickly on a broiling day in January. After walking outdoors in shorts his general manager pulled him aside and told him that was prohibited. So was making any sort of physical contact with women in public.
Hannibal, who was the only non-Iranian player on the team, remembers one experience early on that truly opened his eyes to just how far away from home he was.
"We were driving to the gym one day and a bus rode by. I saw all the women sitting in the back and the men sitting up front. I asked one of my teammates ‘what’s going on over there?’ He said ‘that’s how it is.’ In North America, we’re used to different things that are normal to us. When I go over there, I see things that are odd to me but are normal to them," he said.
Hannibal was in Iran just weeks before he received a call from his mother at three in the morning. She was distraught. His father had passed. Now he had to travel over 6,000 miles to attend the funeral.
It took several connecting flights for Hannibal to reach Ontario and by the time the services were done, his team in Iran had already moved on.
"I tried to get back to my team but they didn’t want me anymore. Because I didn’t have stats, I was only there for a month, [my agent] couldn’t get me on another team," he said.
It would be natural to doubt the future and Hannibal surely did. It had been nine months since he left Iran when Andrew Nicholson, then a forward for the Wizards, invited Hannibal to watch some preseason games in Washington. Hannibal and Nicholson are close friends, having both grown up in Mississauga.
Hannibal and some of his buddies packed a car and drove down to D.C. After one of those Wizards' exhibition games, he ran into Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' senior vice president of basketball operations.
"Tommy was surprised I wasn’t playing anywhere because I’m so big. I told him I am still looking and hopefully I would be able to get on a team somewhere. He basically told me that if I helped them for the whole year in player development, that he would put me on the summer league team. That’s how it came around," Hannibal said.
So, Hannibal did just that. For the entire 2016-17 season, he served as a player development intern on the Wizards' staff. He rebounded and passed to set up John Wall, Bradley Beal and others during pregame shooting drills. He played in pickup games in practice. At 6-10, he could help simulate opposing big men by defending the rim.
Player development and coaching is something Hannibal enjoys and hopes to do once his playing days are over. But they aren't over. This past year he never considered his career as a professional basketball as finished. The Summer League remained a goal he worked on tirelessly in his spare time.
At night, hours after Wizards practice was over, he would return to the gym to work on his conditioning on an exercise bike. He played in pickup games with Wizards players and staff members whenever he could. He battled video coordinator Jimmy Bradshaw and other staff assistants in full court games of 1-on-1.
Over the summer, Hannibal trains at a gym called FITS in Toronto. After the Wizards' season ended, he returned there to get ready for Summer League. Once the trainers found out what was next, their directives were simple.
"They were like ‘get on the track. Get on the track, get in the stairwell.’ And that’s it. Running up the stairs, jumping up the stairs, shuttles, all kinds of stuff," he said.
Hannibal is also now driven by a new motivation.
"Unfortunately, my father is not still here. But now I feel like I have a different why for what I do. Every time I’m on the court, even if I’m a little tired, I think ‘I’ve gotta do this for dad.’ Just sprint a little harder or go a little harder," he said.
Hannibal has the height of an NBA big man and, as a member of the team staff, was often wearing Wizards gear this past season. That would cause confusion at home games where just about every night fans would ask him for autographs or mistake him for Ian Mahinmi or Daniel Ochefu. Sometimes he would oblige at the urge of a kid's parents. Once he signed one, the autograph requests would come in droves.
He is 6-10 and goes by the imposing name of 'Hannibal,' yet Jasonn has the demeanor of a gentle giant. His response to those asking for autographs or pictures would sometimes be: "I'm just a rebounder."
He wasn't actually on the team. Now, with the Wizards' Summer League squad, he can't say that anymore.