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September 10, 2012BroncoBlitz.com recently caught up with Western Michigan men's basketball head coach Steve Hawkins. In Part two of our four part series, the head coach discusses the language barrier, a "small-world" moment in the city of Florence, and the emergence of team bonding throughout the trip.
BroncoBlitz.com: What were some of the most challenging aspects of essentially living and staying for a week in a foreign country?
Coach Hawkins: You can really break that question down into two pieces. There's the basketball challenges and then there's just the "American lifestyle" challenges. We were there the hottest week of the year. And there's not a lot of places that have ice. Trying to get ice cold anything when it comes to drinks is very difficult. You're really thirsty because it's hot.
The other part of it was probably adjusting to the food. A lot of the kids loved it. I did too. But there's not a lot of variety and there's no standby. There is variety but when you're on a budget, it's not exactly like the kids can afford a $40 steak or whatever so a lot of it was pasta and pizza. Their pizza's are very different. It's not like what we would think of pizza here. You think, "Oh pizza, well I can live off of pizza." Some of the pizza there is very, very different. Instead of having sauce, you may have tomatoes instead of the sauce. So it's just different.
Kevin (Lehmann), our trainer, asked me beforehand, "The last time you went on this trip, what was something that you didn't bring that you wish you would have brought?" And I said snacks. That's because you're not always going to find something there that really hits home. You're not finding vending machines and you're not finding ice cold sodas. That was a little bit challenging, as much as anything else.
And then of course the language barrier. We had a professor who teaches Italian here at Western and he came in and spent a day with our guys before we went. It was important for me that the kids, at a minimum, be polite in Italian and be able to say, "Where is something?" And generally speaking, if you just make an attempt at Italian they are thrilled and then they'll speak back in English. They really appreciate that you're trying to speak their language and that you're not the ugly arrogant American. That was very important to me.
Can you imagine a guy from Italy walking into McDonalds and speaking Italian or German, expecting somebody on the other side of the counter to know it? But yet that's what we're getting ready to do. We're going over there and we expect somebody to learn how to speak English or be able to speak English back. And in Florence especially, that was a lot more challenging. You're smack in the middle of Italy and not as many people speak it well.
I met a great guy in Florence. The coaches, we all ate at this one restaurant (a steakhouse). The steak florentine was what they said you have to get if you're in Florence. You have to get the steak florentine. Everybody knows what it is, and most of the places serve it. This guy looked like something out of the Soprano's. He's just this great big heavy set guy and he's speaking heavy Italian, and he's just screaming out at people. He was the owner of the restaurant. And then afterwards he wanted to meet me. So I told him how much we enjoyed the food and everything. Well it turns out his brother is from Florence, but he owns an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills called Madeo. And I've been there. Being from there, I had eaten there. He showed me the card and I said "Yeah I've been there!" And then our waiter had actually spent four years in Detroit as a waiter. He had a tattoo of the old english D on his arm and so he was kind of working as a translator between me and him. We were all fast friends at the end of the night.
We've considered going to Australia every time we've done this, but with it being so Americanized, I don't think we'd get the trip that I want the kids to get. I want them to be out of their comfort zone. I want part of their educational experience to expand. I think they'll be a lot more tolerant of foreigners once they step foot back on our campus and when there's people that don't speak the language well. I think they'll have an appreciation for being in a country where you can't speak well or communicate well, and be more tolerant of those things. And hopefully that's something they will take with them the rest of their lives and they can teach their own kids the same thing someday. That's something that meant a lot to me too.
BroncoBlitz.com: Can you talk a little bit about what you noticed throughout the trip in terms of team bonding and team chemistry off the court?
Coach Hawkins: Couldn't have been better. I just love this team. And there's such a different vibe right now. (Dan) Loney probably put it best on his questionnaire. He said he was a little nervous having lost so many seniors last year. But the way the freshmen fit in and how coachable they are... they're listening to the seniors, they're listening to the juniors, they're listening to the coaches, they're helping each other off the floor...
If somebody makes a shot, they compliment each other. When somebody makes a nice pass, the chemistry is there. They're all happy. And one of the things that I saw, and this could probably explain it as well as anything... I could walk out of the hotel in Rome and I see four kids walking together.
"Where you guys heading?"
"Oh, we're heading down to the Trevi Fountain."
Okay so the next day I see those same four guys, and they're walking with three different players. And the next day there's seven of them walking together now. There are zero cliques. I saw people walking with people every day that was different than the day before. Sometimes it was a group of two or three and sometimes it was a group of eleven. But they were all mixed and matched. And the chemistry came through on the [questionnaires] back to me. They all talked in one way, shape, or form about bonding.
BroncoBlitz.com: Can you explain the idea behind the gift exchanges?
Coach Hawkins: It was our understanding going in that we were going to be doing gift exchanges. It turned out to be a gift exchange. We exchanged with them. They didn't give anything to us. So we've got a lot of people running around with Western Michigan basketball t-shirts over there right now. It's not uncommon to see. I know a couple of our kids exchanged t-shirts and a couple other guys exchanged jersey's.
If you're a fan of soccer, it's not uncommon to see guys take off their jersey's right after the match and hand it to their opponent, and then the other guy hands them theirs. It's a sportsmanship gesture that is often done in what they call "friendlies." They're called exhibition games for us. Sportsmanship is a universal language. One of our kids, as a part of his questionnaire, wrote that it was fun for him to see that the sport he loves reaches out into every corner of the world. Now there's people playing it all over and at a very high level as well.
Coming up in part three of our four part series, head coach Steve Hawkins goes through and takes an in-depth look at each of the Broncos 4 games overseas.
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