The word to describe my feelings as the last fans trickled out of the SSE Arena after Saturday’s championship game, leaving just the Scholars and staff of Sport Changes Life dazed and exhausted from the long week. We had accomplished the unthinkable; a non-profit foundation with fewer than 10 full-time employees pulling off the ONLY international basketball tournament certified by the NCAA. Over 15,000 people attended, the majority being young children of Ireland who were eager to witness live American basketball for the first time ever. Their excitement and enthusiasm was palpable. It was impossible to not look around and smile.
Most of what I experienced at the Classic is hard to put into words. Here are my highlights from the week, my best attempt to sum it all up.
Experiencing the San Francisco Dons’ Team Culture
I met USF upon their arrival in Dublin on Tuesday morning and was by their side until they departed Belfast early on Sunday. Right away I noticed how strong their team’s culture was, from the best player down to the manager. They did everything together and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I felt immediately appreciated and acknowledged, and all week the team generously included me in their practices, meetings, meals, and trips to sightsee around Belfast. The professionalism they demonstrated off the court directly translated in-game. They played team basketball; moving the ball around, hitting the open man, making the extra pass. Everyone had a role and executed it to perfection. We were one possession away from defeating Buffalo in the championship, a formidable opponent currently ranked as the #14 team in the country. As a basketball fan, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Special thanks to Kojak who helped me with USF all week as the local liaison. Wouldn’t have been the same without you!
Spending time with legend Dave Hopla
Dave Hopla holds the a variety of world records for shooting a basketball including most consecutive free throws, college 3 pointers, and NBA 3 pointers made. With impeccable form he is widely considered one of the best shooters on the planet. Dave travels the world teaching proper mechanics and explaining the level of work it takes to become the best of the best. It’s not uncommon for him to take 300 shots during one of his presentations and only miss one. For the past 30 years he’s worked as a shooting coach for a variety of NBA teams including the Timberwolves, Pistons, and Knicks. He’s worked directly with NBA players that I grew up watching, including Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. He is closely connected with Belfast as a former player in Ireland’s top league and was back to support the Classic as an ambassador. I chatted him up on multiple occasions. Dave lives up to his reputation as a talker with countless stories to tell. I was happy to listen.
The Fortnite craze is alive and well here in Ireland, strongest among pre-teen children. One of the dances from the record breaking video game is called “Flossing”. Occasionally during timeouts MC’s for the Classic would announce the Floss Cam, and kids would begin dancing in the crowd attempting to be featured on the jumbotron. Seeing hundreds of kids doing the same dance, faces locked in concentration, is a sight I won’t soon forget. More than anything it was rewarding to see how many kids were in the crowd and that they were having an absolute blast.
Sharing music tastes with Bill Cartwright
Bill Cartwright is an another basketball legend, 6 time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls as both a player and coach. He’s also a San Francisco alum who is still involved with the team, offering support and mentorship to currently players whenever possible. Bill was along for the team’s trip to Belfast and I ended up hanging out with him almost every day. My favorite memory was sitting next to him at a team dinner and talking music. We first talked classics and he shared the best concerts he’s ever been to; James Brown, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder. Then he asked me what I currently listen to so I showed him my Spotify and tried to explain what EDM was.
Belfast Christmas Market
After the Dons’ first game the team had some downtime in the hotel so I ventured around the block to the Belfast Christmas Market at City Hall. I was greeted by holiday cheer in every form imaginable. Christmas lights, sweaters and scarves for sale, and a huge variety of food and drink from all across the world. City Hall was one of the first Belfast landmarks I ever visited during our orientation week in August, so it was special to come back and see it completely transformed for the holidays. It reminded me how fast my time in Ireland is going.
These five highlights just begin to scratch the surface of what an incredible week it was. The best stretch since I’ve had since I left the States.
Watch our recap video below to see more magical footage from The Classic!