Class of ’22: Georgian student-athlete realizes basketball dream

May 05, 2022
Willy Isiani is defended by an opposing player during a Titans men’s basketball game.

To mark the graduation of the Class of 2022, Marketing & Communications is profiling several students who were nominated by staff and faculty for their contributions to the University and their potential to make a difference after graduation. Find more information about 2022 commencement exercises.

Nothing has been normal or easy for University of Detroit Mercy men’s basketball student-athlete Willy Isiani. He once had scholarship offers from several colleges, but they were pulled over eligibility concerns. He was once a star athlete in soccer, but gave up the sport when he couldn't play on the same team as his brother.

Isiani was even vacationing with family in the mountains of Georgia when Russia went to war against the country in 2008.

 "We were in the mountains because it gets really hot in the summer and my family loves nature, so we were there and the war started," said Isiani. "Everyone started driving back to the capital and we drove past the city of Gori, right before it was attacked and the bridges were knocked out, the same one we just were able to get over and back into the capital. If we didn't make it, we would have been stuck. I was 11 years old and I have to say, it was terrifying, but I was so young, I couldn't comprehend everything."

Even at Detroit Mercy, Isiani started his career with an injury and had to wait for a ruling by the NCAA before he could play. But four years later, it was worth it all for the first Titan from the country of Georgia, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration this month.

"I remember when I was on a plane coming here, I was excited," said Isiani. "I had other colleges, like Florida Gulf Coast, Santa Barbara and Loyola Marymount, all back down after offering scholarships because of the work they had to do to get me playing.

"But Detroit Mercy stayed with me; I am grateful for that. I am the first one in my family to go to an American university."

Isiani started playing the game he loved when he was six years old, but it wasn't basketball: It was soccer. He was the team’s goalie and played alongside his brother for five years until he had to play in older leagues. That ultimately led Isiani to the hardcourt.

"The reason I played was for us to play together," Isiani said. “My grandmother was a really good basketball player and she was on the Soviet Union national team. My mom liked basketball and there was a place to play right across the street. The coach was a great coach, well known; I just started playing and I loved it."

Eventually, Isiani became so good, he was part of the U-16 and U-18 Georgia National Team, where he was selected MVP.

"When I was 15 years old, the U-16 team was playing in Bosnia and a Spanish coach saw me and loved my game and offered me a chance to play semi-professional in Spain,” Isiani said. “It is like a scholarship; you go there for school and you get a scholarship."

After a couple of years, Isiani had a chance to go pro, but he turned down professional contracts with the dream of playing college basketball in the United States.

Willy Isiani is defended by an opposing player during a Titans men’s basketball game."It was always my goal to play college ball in America," said Isiani. "I wanted to experience playing college basketball here. If I wasn't in a university, then I would have had to serve two years in the reserve army in Georgia."

Colleges were scouting Isiani and a few offered scholarships, but sometimes with foreign student-athletes, meeting the requirements for NCAA eligibility can be difficult. When some of the college offers fell through, Isiani was contacted by a prep school in Los Angeles to grow his skill and get him to a Division I school.

The road to a scholarship from a U.S. school still proved to be tough as more colleges turned Isiani away, except one from the Motor City. Isiani looked into Detroit Mercy, the city and head coach Mike Davis, and he was sold.

"I was home when I got the offer from coach Tracy Dildy. I had a week to get here and I had to do everything so fast. The embassy was great. I was lucky, they helped me get a visa in one day when it normally takes longer.

"Detroit is a very popular city. I researched it more and liked it, and I looked up coach Davis and the program. I was excited and thought it was a great fit for me."

Isiani dealt with some injuries early on at Detroit Mercy, but was ruled eligible by the NCAA and made his debut on Jan. 5, 2019.

In four years, he has seen his game change from a stretch four-player, to an inside presence, battling for rebounds and taking charges. His offense, however, is still designed around 3-pointers.

"When I first played, I was just excited to reach that goal, and through these years, there have been some hardships as a program, but we keep getting better,” Isiani said.

The four years have not been easy for Isiani. He’s had to deal with roster changes, a global pandemic and the feeling that maybe Detroit Mercy wasn’t for him.

"I always liked to stay in one place, so I am happy I stayed here," Isiani said. "Sometimes, ideas to transfer came to me, but I liked the University, we were getting better and I am happy that I stayed."

Another reason he loved that he stayed is the education that he will graduate with.

"I learned a lot of things in my major from my professors," Isiani said. "They have a great curriculum here. I have learned not only the basics of everything, but have a lot more knowledge in areas that I wanted to know about and expand on.

"I am the first in my family to go to an American university and to graduate. There is going to be a big celebration when I get back home."

Isiani is also deciding on what the future holds for him, but he knows one thing: It will definitely include the game of basketball. 

"I have a couple of offers to play professionally," said Isiani. "I can always go back to play in Georgia, but I want to see what offers other places have and obviously see the money with the contracts. I have trained for a long time and I don't want to give up playing right now."

By P.J. Gradowski. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.