Tukiainen finds a home with Bruins

MINNEAPOLIS -- UCLA's Erica Tukiainen was once the sort-of shy, slightly "chubby" kid whose mother gently pushed her into basketball to help her come out of her shell and improve her fitness.

She was once a stranger in a strange land: A 12-year-old from Finland navigating greater Los Angeles -- which seemed to her almost like a new planet -- and looking after her mom and little brother, all of them learning English.

She was once the teenager who sprouted into an athletic 6-footer, baby flab gone, helping Windward High in L.A. win a California state hoops title, playing volleyball, running cross country … and going back to her homeland to compete for the Finnish junior national team in basketball.

She was once a freshman at UCLA -- her English now nearly flawless except for the odd idiom or slang term she had yet to add -- who had to face that her beloved, strong, family-rock grandmother, Hilkka, was slipping into the hell of Alzheimer's disease.

She was once a rising junior for the Bruins, going through a regime change, who embraced the new coach and her system, and cooked dinners for the younger players to make them feel more at home, too.

Who is Tukiainen now? She's the sum of all of that, a senior guard for the Bruins, double-majoring in pre-med and French. As No. 8 seed UCLA prepared to face No. 1 seed Nebraska on Tuesday night (ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPN360.com, 9:35 p.m. ET), Tukiainen -- pronounced Too-key-EYE-nen -- talked about the wonderful experience she has had at UCLA, capped off by playing in her first NCAA tournament.

"I think it has been absolutely awesome," she said of the transition to coach Nikki Caldwell in 2008. "It wasn't tough at all. Coach Nikki came in with a vision, a plan. So we were guided and nurtured into this structure. We needed it. And now that we've learned that, she gives us more freedom. It's kind of paradoxical, but with more structure, you get freedom."

Tukiainen, who turned 23 in January, was born in Helsinki. Her mother, Leena, decided to move to the United States along with children Erica and Daniel when Erica was about to turn 13. None spoke much English.

"I was already like a typical teenager, feeling the world didn't understand me," Erica said, chuckling. "But, literally, no one did understand me at first.

"Finland was not very diverse, at least not where I grew up, and the cultural exploration in Los Angeles was beyond my imagination. For some people, it can be overwhelming, but to me it was cool. I thought, 'I can fit in here' because you don't have to fit into a box. You can be something different and unique just by being yourself."

Leena got a job, and the children enrolled in school, so they had each other. But, initially, that was about all they had.

"My mother taught me I had to work for everything; nothing's going to be given to you," Tukiainen said. "In high school, I started to make friends. But we had a small family, no relatives here. So who can you trust and rely on if things aren't going so well? I saw that my mother had to go through that -- so I tried to help just by listening, even if I didn't have any words of advice."

Tukiainen found Windward High to be a "wonderful, nurturing environment" and praised her basketball coach there, Steve Smith, for "teaching me about the game and what it meant to be a great teammate."

A first-team all-state player as a prep senior, she stayed in L.A. by picking the Bruins and then-coach Kathy Olivier.

Tukiainen worked her way into the starting lineup as a junior when Caldwell took over. She has started all but three games this season, averaging 8.1 points.

She's the team's top 3-point shooter, with 49 on the season. In Sunday's first-round 74-54 win over NC State, she scored 12 points, hitting 3 of 4 shots from long range.

For all the solidity and consistency Tukiainen brings to the Bruins on court, she provides even more away from it.

"She's the one who says to the freshmen and the newcomers, 'Here's where that is,' shows them where to do laundry, gives them a ride somewhere, is just available to them," Caldwell said. "She's such a giver of herself and her time, and to me that's the greatest gift you can give.
And she does it asking nothing in return."

A six-week program Tukiainen took a few summers ago at UCLA brought her natural compassion into full flower. She was already starting to lean toward the medical profession because she enjoyed her science classes.

"This program talked about health care and helping underserved communities," she said. "And that's what really got me into it.

"My grandmother's illness also influenced me. To see your grandmother weaken physically and emotionally with Alzheimer's, it doesn't seem real. You feel helpless. She's in Finland, and we talk to her on the phone every day. She's doing OK, but she sometimes can't remember us. We remind her -- you almost have to take it with some humor."

Tukiainen will go back to Finland this summer, where she'll play for the national team. Then she thinks that likely will be it for competitive basketball. If she doesn't opt to keep playing overseas, she'll return to L.A., take an MCAT preparatory course and start the med-school application process.

She's open to all fields, but says she is leaning toward one in particular.

"What's really close to my heart is the disadvantaged people in society, like geriatrics," she said. "That may not be considered the most 'exciting' field to most people, but it's really important to me. Because we have the Baby Boom generation that is getting older and will need a lot of care."

As someone who grew up with a different model for health care in Finland, Tukiainen has been very interested in the health care debate here in her second home, the United States. She speaks with knowledge and honesty about both the positives and negatives of socialized health care in Finland.

"There are pros and cons to everything," she said. "But to me, your health is the most important thing in your life, so the bottom line is everyone should be able to have access to care."

Tukiainen thinks she might return to Finland to have a career and a family, or at the very least wants to make sure that if she has children, they learn the Finnish language and understand the culture. As for her, she speaks three languages now, having added French.

"Something about the French culture and the language itself is so romantic; I know that sounds goofy and cheesy, but I just like it," she said. "I got a chance to go to Paris this summer, too, so that was amazing. I was immersed in the culture and got to speak to the locals, as opposed to being just a tourist.

"I want to pick up Spanish, too, later on. I think languages come pretty easily to me."

Certainly, all forms of communicating seem to be second nature for her. Caldwell hopes to establish a long-term successful program at UCLA, and she says Tukiainen is the kind of foundation player a coach won't ever forget. One who wants to win -- but wants to do everything else right, too.

"Because what's more important even than winning is being a great teammate and having fun together, having those experiences," Tukiainen said. "That's what really prepares you for life. You can win as many games as you want, but if you haven't learned anything from it, it's not very meaningful."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.