Most Ivy League basketball teams start their seasons in late autumn before playing their first competitive games in November.
For the men’s and women’s basketball teams, the return to the hardwood came much sooner: Both teams, accompanied by their coaching staffs and team managers, traveled to Italy for 10 days at the end of August for four games of competitive basketball, incredible sights and copious amounts of gelato.
In preparation for the trip, the men’s team set several goals for its time abroad.
“On the court, we wanted to compete hard and learn how to play with each other,” said Cedric Kuakumensah ’16. “Off the court, we wanted to just enjoy our coaches and enjoy spending time with each other.”
But first, the men’s team boarded a bus for Newark, New Jersey.
In Newark, the squad hopped on an eight-hour flight to Milan. While a few players managed to get some rest, others struggled to get comfortable on the plane. The latter group included the 6-foot-9 Kuakumensah. The forward said he found it frustrating as passengers reclined back onto his legs, giving him little space to get comfortable during the lengthy voyage. But the discomfort proved to be a minor grievance when the team finally touched down in Italy.
According to the team’s blog, on which several players chronicled the trip, the Bears’ first day in Italy was similar to many others during the 10-day trip — filled with sightseeing and pizza.
After some much needed rest, the team awoke on its second day to its first taste of international competition. Before the game, the squad first faced another lengthy bus ride. With the Alps framing the background, the Bears rode further north into Italy’s Piedmont region to take on Valsesia Basket.
Though Bruno claimed a win in the first contest, the team was taken aback by the Italian style of play.
“The Italian players were definitely different,” Kuakumensah said. “They play at a higher tempo and there is not much defense. They just try to score a lot.”
Adding to the unique style of play, the Bears were also initially thrown off by some differences in the game’s rules. A stricter first step rule resulted in more traveling violations than the team would usually garner at home. While it is popular in the United States to allow players a quick step into their shots, referees in Italy showed little tolerance for the move.
After a day off from play to sightsee along the shores of Lake Como and travel to Florence, the Bears were in action again against the strong Virtus Bologna team, which boasts two former-NBA players — Allan Ray and Dexter Pittman. While Bruno continued acclimating to the new style of play to which they were introduced just two nights before, Virtus Bologna had defeated Stanford University’s men’s basketball team by 12 points.
The Bears came out strong against their Italian opponents, trailing by just seven at halftime, but the NBA-caliber competition outlasted Bruno and handed the team its sole loss of the trip.
In the remaining days, the team traveled to Rome, where they explored the city’s historic streets. Perhaps inspired by the eternal city’s history of conquest, the squad deftly handled Tiber Basket and LUISS Universita by a combined margin of 46 points.
Overall, the trip abroad proved to be an invaluable learning and bonding experience for the team.
“We definitely learned a lot in Italy that can help us in the regular season,” Kuakumensah said. “The trip was good for our chemistry and trying out our new offense.”
For the eight representatives of the women’s team — Megan Reilly ’18, Kennedy Martin ’18, Savannah Johnson ’18, Janie White ’18, Rebecca Musgrove ’17, KJ Veldman ’17, Jordin Alexander ’16, Natalie Ball ’16 and Ellise Sharpe ’16 — it was an unusual but incredible experience.
A typical day was made up of both basketball and cultural activities — in addition to stretching sessions, practice and games on game days, the girls spent much of their time exploring the city they were in. The trip spanned four main destinations — Rome, the Vatican City, Florence and Milan. Of these four destinations, Florence may have emerged as the team’s favorite.
“My favorite destination — and I think the team would agree — was Florence,” Ball said. “We all enjoyed bargaining in the leather markets, touring the city, going to the Duomo di Florence and seeing the statue of David.”
Sharpe also noted the impressiveness of the Colosseum, the original Bellagio and Lake Como.
The Bears enjoyed all Italy had to offer, including the local cuisine and tourist attractions. Day-to-day schedules included just about as much gelato as basketball, which Sharpe and Ball both wholeheartedly praised.
Regarding basketball, the overseas start provided many advantages for a fledgling Brown squad. Facing Italian teams that were admittedly overmatched helped the Bears try out and refine different plays and sets in a more competitive setting than intrasquad scrimmages.
“The teams we played all seemed to see the floor well and moved the ball well around the defense,” Ball said. “However, they did not have an attack mentality on offense that we see in most of the teams we play — the competition was not as strong … but it allowed us to improve and perfect our offensive and defensive sets.”
Sharpe noted that the Bears “want to press more this year” and that the games in Italy helped them experiment with that approach before the season.
“We learned how to push the ball more up the court and have more ball movement on offense to get the open shot,” Ball said. “I also think our communication on defense significantly improved and all of these improvements carried over in our work in preseason.”
“We learned a lot about our teammates’ strengths and how much more we can run on teams,” Sharpe said. “We want to do a lot more pressing this year, which will most likely lead to a lot of transition points.”
Bruno ended its trip with a perfect 4-0 record, typically blowing out its opponent with a mixture of an increased tempo and high-pressure defense.
But Ball and Sharpe stressed that the trip was about a lot more than on-the-court performance. Spending a week and a half in another country with teammates brought them closer together off the court as well.
“Our goals were to become closer as a team and get to know each other off the court,” Sharpe said. “We had some goals from last season that we wanted to take advantage of and wanted to win while we were there.”
It was certainly a unique experience for the Bears, a team whose furthest travels took it to Iowa last season. Usually, basketball teams make their preseason adjustments in their home cities before embarking on the season, but this Brown team got its work done in a place a little further — and a little more special — than Rhode Island.
“I mean, Providence doesn’t have the leaning tower of Pisa,” Sharpe said with a laugh.