TERRE HAUTE —
Anyone who has visited a foreign land knows how much it can enrich one’s life.
Indiana State men’s basketball players Manny Arop, Brandon Burnett and Justin Gant all learned that first-hand as each went on separate international trips this season.
What they also learned is that a trip overseas can help them on the basketball court as well.
Each Sycamore had a little bit of a different experience as they globe-trotted. Burnett, a sophomore in the upcoming season, took a “traditional” trip with a team of Midwestern-based players to Belgium, England and the Netherlands with a team representing the Global Sports Academy in August.
Gant, a junior, went to Ivory Coast in western Africa in July and August with Athletes In Action, an organization devoted to using basketball as a conduit for missionary work in the Christian faith.
Arop, a senior, had a double-dip of international experience as he played on the Canadian Men’s Development Team that participated in the World University Games in Kazan, Russia in July. Before the Canadians got to Russia, they played a series of exhibitions in China in June.
“All three of those guys had tremendous experiences and we have to thank a lot of people because it’ll be something they talk about the rest of their lives,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Oh Canada ... Arop goes global
Once the spring semester ended at ISU, Arop hit the road for his country.
Arop’s family emigrated to Canada (specifically, Saskatchewan) when he was 9. His family came from war-torn Sudan via Kenya. Arop has dual citizenship in Sudan and Canada.
He has represented Canada before in its National Elite Development Academy. He played in the FIBA Americas tournament in Argentina in 2008.
“I’ve been doing it since I was 17. Anytime I get an opportunity to represent Canada, it’s an honor. I was blessed to be able to be part of a good team that competed internationally,” Arop said.
The Canadian Developmental Team trained first in Portland, Ore. The idea was to get accustomed to one another, but Arop said that process was easy.
“We did a great job playing together. A lot of us knew each other growing up, whether we played AAU or in an international tournament together. It was a kind of reunion. It was fun,” Arop said.
Next was a trip to central China where several of the national teams headed to the World University Games — or Universiade, as its known worldwide — played a series of warm-up exhibitions. Arop’s Canadian served notice they’d be a force to be reckoned with in Kazan as they went 9-0, including several wins against the United States.
Upon arrival in Kazan — a central Russian city about 500 miles east of Moscow — the Canadians kept on winning.
Canada won its group, including a 94-85 victory over the United States. Canada advanced through the medal stage before it lost a semifinal match, 78-68 to Russia on its home floor. Canada then fell 87-74 to Serbia in the bronze medal game.
“It was great competition. We had some players who play at the highest level here and a lot of players who play in Canada. To be able to have two months of great competition in the summer? That’s a blessing,” Arop said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the gold.”
Arop didn’t say it, but also unfortunate was that Arop didn’t get consistent playing time. He came off the bench and didn’t play in a few of Canada’s games.
“He didn’t get the minutes he would’ve liked and he’s hungry. He was texting us and calling us about how excited he was to get back with his guys. He knows it was a great accomplishment, but it made him hungrier because of the playing time he got,” said Lansing, who also noted what an honor it was to have an international player on the roster.
As for the experience, Arop wouldn’t trade it. The World University Games are akin to the Olympics (ISU women’s track and field thrower Felisha Johnson and ISU men’s track and field hurdler Greggmar Swift also competed) and Arop enjoyed the interaction and the hospitality given in Kazan.
“It was a blast. The whole set-up was great. They had a village there and it was great to be around athletes from different countries and cultures. We saw some of the best athletes in the world. The city was so welcoming,” Arop said.
Gant in Africa
Gant, a Terre Haute native, didn’t necessarily have an international trip in mind in the offseason, but when a spot opened on the Athletes In Action team headed to the Ivory Coast, he jumped at it.
“I played AAU with [Wright State’s] Kendall Griffin. They had a forward spot open and Kendall told them about me. It seemed like an interesting opportunity. I always wanted to go on a mission trip, so when the opportunity came I was excited about it,” Gant said.
Gant raised money for the trip in a fundraiser at his church and in a public event at Terre Haute’s Buffalo Wild Wings. A team primarily comprised of Midwestern-based players made the 21-hour journey to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the largest city in the west African nation in late July.
Among those with the AIA team was former Indiana Pacer and CBS broadcaster Clark Kellogg. His son Nick, who plays at Ohio University, went on the trip.
Ivory Coast, or Cote d’Ivoire as it’s self-identified, is better off than some of its west African neighbors, but it’s still a developing country. It was a stark contrast to what Gant was used to in the United States.
“It was definitely a culture shock. There’s a lot of things that go on we’re not used to. It was cool to meet with people over there and see the different world views they have and how they live their lives,” Gant said.
The language difference — Ivory Coast is a former French colony and Abidjan is the third-largest French-speaking city in the world — was one of the biggest barriers, but Gant enjoyed the competition. AIA played against teams from Congo, Tunisia and Cape Verde.
“We played against guys who were a lot older and experienced. Tunisia was well-coached and had some big guys. There were different styles and some different rules, so it was interesting to see how we did against that,” Gant said.
Of course, the missionary aspect of the trip was also an emphasis for AIA’s players.
“With Athletes In Action, they share their faith along with playing basketball. Justin had a tremendous experience,” Lansing said.
Burnett to Europe
Burnett is hoping to earn some more minutes in ISU’s rotation in the upcoming season. So the chance to get game time was something he jumped at.
The Global Sports Academy team was Midwest-based. Evansville’s Ryan Sawvell and Purdue’s Te’ron Johnson were Burnett’s teammates on the trip. Most of the games on the trip played were in Belgium, and in all of the major Belgian cities, but games were also played in Holland (Amsterdam) and London.
Burnett said they had time to sightsee. Usually, sightseeing would take place in the morning with games in the evening.
“[Europe] was a different, but I liked it, I liked it a lot. It’s a lot more relaxed. People are a lot more worried about their governments,” Burnett said.
Global Sports Academy played five games and went 4-1 primarily against Belgian teams International rules were used.
Statistics were not kept, but Burnett admitted that he didn’t have a lot of respect for European basketball before the trip, but the experience changed his mind.
“Their style of play is great. I gained a lot more respect for the players over there. They play hard. I used to look down on them, but now I have a lot of respect for them,” Burnett said.
As for his improving game, seeing the game in a different way is what Burnett thought benefited him most.
“It just gives you a different style of play. You see the court different to get your teammates open. It helped in a lot of aspects,” Burnett said.
Lansing reinforced Burnett’s decision to go to Europe as he has seen the Arizona native improve from last season.
“He didn’t get to play a lot last year, so for him to get game experience at any level is tremendous. He’s put in tons and tons of work. You can see the difference in him. It’s really going to help him get quality minutes for us,” Lansing said.
In the end, international trips are for personal enhancement, but the hope is that it also serves to make the players better for the Sycamores.
ISU had one of its first full-team workouts last week. Arop thinks the international trips will serve the Sycamores well.
“Everyone did a great job of developing their game. Gant went to Africa. Brandon went to Europe,” said Arop, who said the improvement wasn’t restricted to the jet-setters.
“J.O. was always in the gym. We had guys doing different things to improve their games. Everyone went and did something. You could see it in this first workout today that everyone got better and grew maturity-wise,” Arop added.