Final Four: International players, parents reunite on sport's biggest stage
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The questions kept streaming in. South Carolina’s Maik Kotsar sat inside the Gamecocks’ locker room here and answered them all, often with a smile. One topic in particular, though, seemed to make the freshman from Estonia glow brighter.
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“It’s really exciting,” Kotsar said. “For them to see me play in such a huge stage, for them to be here for a one-in-the-lifetime opportunity, it’s going to be special.”
Kotsar is one of 15 players on the four teams in Phoenix who were born outside the United States, a figure indicative of the broader growth of international talent on collegiate rosters. Since the 2006-07 season, the number of international players on college rosters has grown nearly 40 percent, from 423 to 597, according to a roster analysis from Rukkus.com.
Where they’re from and where they end up in college covers the map. But there’s a uniform feeling of joy among players who have relatives in town for the Final Four.
“I’m very glad to have my family here so they can see this,” said Gonzaga freshman Rui Hachimura, just the fifth Japanese-born player to play men’s college basketball. “I’m so glad.”
Hachimura’s mother and sister also were in Los Angeles for the Bulldogs’ big win over Arizona in December. But for many other players, it will be their first time seeing family in months.
“I haven’t seen them since last summer,” Oregon junior Kavell Bigby-Williams, who is from London, said of his mom and sister. “I look forward to spending some time with them and having them see me play.”
Gonzaga freshman forward Killian Tillie hadn’t seen his brother in almost a year until Thursday night, when he and Tillie’s mother arrived from France. Tillie’s mother had visited Gonzaga’s campus in Spokane, Wash., in February, but she didn’t get to see him play because he had been sidelined with an ankle sprain.
Tillie’s brother plays professional volleyball in France, so with conflicting schedules, it’s often difficult to arrange frequent visits. After the Bulldogs toppled Xavier in the Elite Eight, though, Tillie made a pitch to his family.
“I told them, ‘It’s the Final Four. I don’t get to do this every year,’” he said. “So they decided to come, and it’s pretty fun to have them.”
For many people outside of the U.S., especially for those from smaller countries that don’t follow college basketball closely, it can be difficult to comprehend the scale and the interest shown in the Final Four.
“Not a lot of people understand it from overseas,” Oregon junior Roman Sorkin said. “Everybody knows about it, but not really how big it is.”
The 6-foot-10 forward from Israel was able to see his mom, who arrived in Phoenix on Thursday night, at the team hotel. The Ducks’ game against North Carolina will be the first time in three seasons Sorkin’s mom will see him play in person.
“She chose the right game,” Sorkin said.
For Gonzaga fifth-year senior center Przemek Karnowski, this weekend will be the last time his family will be able to see him sport the Bulldog uniform. Karnowski’s parents typically visit from Poland once a year. Most of the time, Karnowski said, they come around Christmas. This season they waited until late February to be in attendance for senior night and the West Coast Conference tournament.
Karnowski’s dad has returned and will be among the sold-out crowd Saturday night cheering for the Zags.
“I saw them not a long time ago,” Karnowski said. “At the same time, I’m really happy that my dad can come again.”
Tony Stubblefield, a longtime assistant coach at Oregon, said parents getting to see their kids play always is important. But the situation for international players is different.
“[Many of the] guys from out of the country, this is the first time their parents will get the chance to really see them play, and then to have them have the opportunity to see them play at this setting at the Final Four?” Stubblefield said. “I don’t think there’s anything better that you could ask for.”