OXFORD, Ohio – In the rolling hills of Ohio, consider the global options coach John Cooper has with his Miami (Ohio) team.
There is a guard from Serbia, a forward from Croatia, a forward from Nigeria—not to be confused with the guard from Niger—who can speak four languages, the guard from Belgium—who can also speak four languages, one of them Arabic—and twin freshmen brothers. Except, they’re from just outside Kansas City.In other words, a lot of dialects can bounce around that Red Hawks locker room.
“I think it’s easy, 15 different languages,” Abdoulaye Harouna, the guard from Niger, said.
“You should be in some of our practices,” Cooper said. “They’re going in languages and languages. I’m asking, all right, how do you say that in this language?”
College basketball has long had a growing international flavor. Remember Buddy Hield leading Oklahoma to the Final Four last April? That all started in the Bahamas. You could almost win a Melbourne election with Saint Mary’s roster this season. The unbeaten Gaels are edging toward the top 10 with seven Australians.
Meanwhile, Miami has become the United Nations.
“What’s interesting is, when you talk about European players, or kids from Africa, one of the things they have prided themselves on in their countries is playing team basketball. Obviously, over here, we’re in love with the fantastic individual play, so sometimes it’s even a little bit harder when you bring [American] guys in who have been stars of their AAU team. Sometimes you have to corral that. Whereas, I get a European kid over here. He’s trying to fit in. He’s trying to please. Mom and Dad aren’t necessarily in the stands, so the transition as far as the team game is a little bit easier.”
What’s not so easy is getting students comfortable in a strange land, far from home.“That part is what you always worry about,” Cooper said. “I know for Thanksgiving, typically, I’m going to have most of the European and African kids because I know they may not have many places to go. I think in many ways it has matured them. It has forced them to grow up quicker. Some of our kids haven’t been home for years. Harouna, when he went home this summer, it was the first time he had been home in four years. They’re very independent because they’ve had to be.”
But, even when the players were living in other countries, they had an idea of American basketball.
In fact, Harouna’s favorite player as child, who he watched on television in Niger, was Allen Iverson of Philadelphia.
“I was short, and I thought he’s a short guy,” he said.
And, one thing about so many players from so many different places. There’s a unifying force to it all.
“The feeling is really beautiful knowing you’re not by yourself,” said Harouna, who nodded toward teammate Milos Jovic. “I’m from Africa, he’s from Serbia. But we’re kind of in the same boat, far from home.”
Jovic agreed.“When you have so many international teammates, it makes things easier because they know what kind of things that are going through your mind,” said Jovic.
They follow their love of the game here.
“I’ve been a basketball player all my life. The NBA in Serbia is the dream of dreams,” Jovic said. He ended up in the Midwest at Miami. No, not the one in Coral Gables.
“Some of my friends still think I’m in Florida because they’ve heard of that one,” Jovic said. “I’ve got to explain it.”
So, the RedHawks learn about each other, their similarities and their differences. One minute it might be Jovic and Croatia’s Bruno Solomun conversing in a mix of Serbian and Croatian.
“There is a time in practice when we are talking, and nobody understands us. People are looking at us, what are you talking about?” Jovic said.
The next moment, it’ll be Belgium’s Dion Wade speaking French with Harouna, or Harouna chatting in an African dialect with Nigeria’s Ben Eke Kazee.
And there in the middle is the coach trying to keep up with it all. How to get all the name pronunciations correct?“Good luck,” Cooper said. “I just go by the easiest name. But when you start getting into the last names or adding some of them, I don’t do well with those. I know some Dutch because I lived in the Netherlands, so I can speak some Dutch with Dion. The Croatian and Serbian kids continue to teach me words. Those are hard. The African kids, they have . . . it’s not even languages but different dialects, and I don’t know many of those.”
But everyone seems to understand one another, and Cooper sees that as a benefit when he recruits the next international prospect.
“The fact that he knows he’ll come into a program that has other international kids. Kids who can speak to their existence and how their transition has worked for them bodes well for us.”
Miami is 4-5 with a revved-up offense and hoping to break a streak of seven consecutive losing seasons. Freshman Michael Weathers leads with his 20.6 point average, and his twin brother, Marcus, is chipping in eight. Maybe they can’t speak Dutch, but winning feels good in any language.