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Former ND standout Willen will give pro basketball a try in Denmark
Ryan Willen accomplished his dream that started in the driveway of his family's Cape Girardeau home when he was 3 years old.
The 23-year old is heading to Aalborg, Denmark, as a professional basketball player.
Willen signed with the Aalborg Vikings, a professional A league team in Denmark in early August and is heading there at the end of the month.
"After my [college] season ended I signed with an agent," Willen said. "He spoke to American recruiters for teams, and I ended up getting a good deal in Denmark."
He said he began to consider playing professionally as his college began to take off.
"I knew it was always a possibility because we've had guys each year from Lafayette go to a lot of different countries and play professional basketball," Willen said. "So after I graduated, I decided that I'd at least give it a go for a year."
The dream was put on hold in April when Willen broke his ankle during a pickup basketball game.
"I was coming back from New York City from a job interview, and I got back just in time for pickup basketball," Willen said. "We were down in the gym -- it was the last game. I was trying to catch an alley-oop and I got hit when I jumped. I got knocked off balance and I put my left foot down, and it broke."
The resulting surgery put his professional career in limbo.
"It was definitely disappointing at first," Willen said. "I spent four weeks waiting to decide if I was going to have surgery, which was a lifetime to be on crutches and not know what was going on with my future. When I finally did have surgery, it was another six weeks after that before I was even walking again."
The ankle nearly is recovered fully, but Willen admits it still bothers him a little.
Willen started making a name for himself locally as a sophomore at Notre Dame. He helped lead the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish in Class 4 his junior year and a state championship his senior year.
"As a sophomore in high school, I didn't know I would have the chance to play professional basketball," Willen said. "But as a kid, that was always the goal -- to go play pro ball and earn a living doing something fun."
The opportunity presented itself because of an impressive college career at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.
Willen ranks sixth all-time in scoring at Lafayette, and he became only the 13th player to achieve 1,000 points and 500 rebounds at the school.
He graduated in May with a major in neuroscience, and he was honored with the school's 1913 Award, which recognizes the year's scholar athlete. Willen also earned the scholar athlete of the year award for the Patriot League.
Trying to secure an opportunity to play basketball professionally wasn't Willen's only planning for the future. He also applied to medical schools in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Missouri.
"The future is still undecided," he said. "I'm applying to medical schools, so Plan 1 would be to go play for a year, enjoy it and go to medical school after that. Plan B would be if I was really successful in basketball, to play more after that. Maybe move up a few leagues, go to a different country and see more of the world."