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  • Writer's pictureJoe Connor

Mr. Sports Travel Finds Former College Hoopers Thriving In Latin America

What's even better than enjoying basketball games as a fan and writer in 11 different countries over five months?


Playing basketball abroad – for as long as one’s talent, mind, and body allow.


“Italy, Finland, Qatar, Libya, Tunisia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Argentina – I was in (North) Macedonia for a little bit,” explains guard John Merchant when asked by Mr. Sports Travel to name all the countries he’s played in since his days at now-shuttered NCAA DII-Dowling College.


Oh, and he’s played in Bolivia, too.


The total ledger for this well-traveled Merchant? 10 countries in as many years – across five continents. Now all he needs is a call from a team in Australia or New Zealand to knock off Oceania. And then enjoy his retirement with some pickup aboard a summer cruise through Antarctica. Hey, why not hit all seven like Mr. Sports Travel, if his body allows?


“Well, it’s telling me, it’s telling me!” Merchant quipped following a prolonged ice bath to keep his 33-year-old physique in tune, adding later, “I’ve been blessed to be able to continue to play this game.”


The most recent journey for Mr. Sports Travel was primarily Latin America, with some Jamaica too – Ya Mon! I soaked in the sun and mostly professional ball, but also amateur hoops across Ecuador, Paraguay, Panama, and Peru. And I interviewed about a dozen former US college players – from ageless wonders to new kids on the block (full interviews: YouTube @mrsportstravel).


The one commonality driving each player I spoke with besides talent and remaining healthy? A genuine love of the game and an appreciation for experiencing new cultures.


“Man, I can tell you this,” said big man Raven Barber, then taking a long pause before continuing, “After college, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play professional basketball.”


Yet a decade after leaving Mount St. Mary’s, Barber, now 31, is still going strong, playing on his fourth continent and in his eighth country as a forward for one of the most storied clubs in Latin America, Argentina’s Boca Juniors.


“The (fan) atmosphere here has been the best,” he added.


Mr. Sports Travel can second that. A Boca Juniors game at always sold-out cracker box Luis Conde Gymnasium is a non-stop noise fest, with a ragtag band of diehards standing and playing what sounds like every loud instrument on the planet 30 minutes before tip-off. And continuously throughout the game – not just during timeouts. And during halftime, and – wait for it – more than 20 minutes after the final buzzer when the stands are virtually empty (except, of course, for the band).


“It’s like this every single game – no matter who we’re playing,” said Barber, as our interview at center court gets interrupted because the band has decided to play – even louder. Did I already mention the game has been over for more than 20 minutes?


Laughs Barber: “The music is always going.”


The non-stop pre-game, in-game, and post-game band noise isn’t the only major difference between Latin America hoops and the US college game. Some of the others I observed:


Short seasons: Multiple leagues play around 15 games or less – a season! Yet there may be two campaigns in one country over a 12-month period too (like spring versus fall).


Pre-tip: In Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere players shake hands – literally – right after the national anthem. Sportsmanship!


Style of play: “A lot more physical, shot clock is 24 (seconds) versus the college 30. They don’t call as many fouls,” said Mitchell Kirsch, 24, one of the new kids on the block who has played in the top Colombian circuit and at Claremont McKenna. Many leagues play four, 10-minute quarters versus two, 20-minute halves.


Turnovers – roster too: Because of the fast pace, turnovers are often common. Rosters too. Merchant just completed his sixth season in Cali – third as Captain. However, most foreign players are lucky if they return to the same club for a second consecutive season.


Team makeup and reinforcements: In the US college game, the non-American is the anomaly – yet those players speak English. In Latin America, each club usually has no more than three non-natives – and most don’t speak the native tongue. And former US college players may join a new team late in a season, like for a playoff push. Jeremy Ireland, 26, who played at Elmhurst College, had flights over two days in March, starting from a small mountain town in India to his new club in southern Chile. Now he’s playing in Ecuador. Said Ireland: “It’s been crazy.”


Facilities and Transport: Vary from country to country, but in general, many lack the basics, including showers. The post-game ice bath Merchant took was in the dark outside under a canopy – in a large raft you can buy at Dick’s Sporting Goods. And there are rarely flights like at the NCAA Division I level. Many players hop on the post-game bus in sweatpants and tops.


Yet long bus rides haven’t stopped the 30-somethings. Merchant and Barber helped their clubs to the post-season. Jerry Evans (Nevada) and Miles Bowman Jr. (High Point) teamed to win a title in Chile’s top league. The soft-spoken Evans, 32, was MVP for Concepcion which had to first get through Ancud.


“They always have a great crowd,” the well-traveled Evans commented, “It’s like a packed, high-school type environment.”


Evans, who has played in seven countries, is spot on. After Boca Juniors, Ancud was Mr. Sports Travels’ favorite experience. The game I enjoyed in this small town on Chiloe Island one late Sunday afternoon in March was sold out – and here too, the music never stopped. But it wasn’t the only place. Some other hotbeds based on the countries I visited:


Bolivia: The place to be? Potosi, which boasts four teams in the country’s top league. One of the highest cities in the world at more than 13,000 feet, two clubs that call it home also makeup of the fiercest rivalries on the continent: Calero versus Pichincha.


Brazil: Franca – the hands-down basketball capital. It’s captured the South American Club Championship six times. Bowman, who has played in eight countries, including against Brazil in international tournaments, said “Argentina is more talented, but Brazil, they really play (the best) basketball as a team.” I enjoyed two São Paulo rivalries on back-to-back nights: Pinheiros hosting São Paulo and Paulistano welcoming Corinthians.


Colombia: Quibdo in remote Chocó state, a Wild West outpost with fewer stops lights and even less security.


Kirsch: “Guys come from work with machetes on their hips – it is absolutely insane.”


Jamaica: “The loudest atmosphere is Stadium Courts,” said retired big-man Kimani Ffriend (Nebraska) and I can attest to that, too. The outdoor courts also host the city championship and they’re located across the way from the country’s gigantic national track and field stadium that features several statues out front of its gold medal winning Olympic track stars like Usain Bolt. These days Ffriend is luring American and Canadian youth programs to visit the island to play against their counterparts. And should politics be in his future, who wouldn’t at least smile at a “You’ve got a Ffriend in me!” highway billboard.


Panama: Al Brown Gymnasium in Colón, a rough-and-tumble city on the Caribbean and gateway to the Panama Canal. And new this year, an under-23 men’s league with 22 teams mostly comprised of clubs from Colon that play three times per week at Brown, named after its native son who became Latin America’s first world boxing champ. The objective? Scholarships to play college ball in the US; many speak English.


Paraguay: Asunción, including when its private American School hosts its annual all-sports festival that welcomes private schools from across the country. Its poorly lit gym and dark maple floor, combined with a packed-in gymnasium and never-ending band music, is something else.


Uruguay: In a men’s World Cup qualifier in Montevideo, I watched Uruguay’s national team take a half-time lead into the locker room over the US (the Americans awoke from their coma and dominated the second half to win). Gerardo Isla, 31, who played at Colombia College in Missouri, has represented his native Chile since he was 16 years old. To hear Isla tell it, Uruguay and Venezuela are now the second tier after Brazil and Argentina. And next time I’m in Montevideo I’ve “got to catch a game between Goes and Aguada,” sugguested Ancud’s Rakim Brown, 30, who’s also suited up in Argentina and at Humboldt State.


And if you’re a soon-to-be retired US college basketball player seeking to keep the dream alive – that doesn’t include the NBA – you might get more than you wish for if you take the global plunge, too.


“I met my wife at a basketball game and now we have two kids,” chuckled Irin Stark, 33, who played at St. Thomas Aquinas. Stark has played in six other countries, but the bulk has been in Bolivia. “After a game, she wanted to take a photo with me. I didn’t speak Spanish, so I asked someone to translate to tell her I wanted her phone number.”


Love. Marriage. Basketball.


Take it away Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World.


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To learn more about Joe Connor, also known as Mr. Sports Travel, visit his website: www.mrsportstravel.com or follow him on social media:


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