What do you think when you hear the phrase “March Madness” or “Final Four?” Do you think of Justin Jackson and UNC, Nigel Williams-Goss and Gonzaga or whichever teams and players you love most? Regardless of what team won your March Madness bracket, you’re thinking of an American team, which is assumedly made up of American players.
But 25 percent of the players in this year’s top teams are international athletes, making the Final Four something we can no longer fully can claim as only American. Twelve countries, including the US, were represented in the Final Four this year — which is two short of how many countries participated in the first Olympic games of 1896. These 12 are just a pale comparison to the 47 different countries represented in the NCAA total. Much like America during the great European migration, basketball is beginning to change. The Albert Einsteins, Madeleine Albrights and Joseph Pulitzers of college basketball are starting to make themselves known.
If this is a basketball migration, then Gonzaga is the Ellis Island of basketball. Its roster currently represents five countries outside of the United States, including Polish Przemek Karnowski. Seeing his big, intimidating frame and beard in person makes it easy to see why he is so effective as a player. It’s hard to believe that such a formidable presence on the court would be so timid off the court, but such was the case when Karnowski showed up to Gonzaga. Completely engulfed in a strange and foreign world, Karnowski understandably missed home a lot, mentioning how much he loves his mom’s soups. Five years later, he is doing everything he can to make his fellow international players feel welcome, stating that he likes to show them around and help them with the basics that nobody thinks about, like where to get their hair cut.
One of these international players is Rui Hachimura, a freshman from Japan on the Gonzaga team. When Hachimura came to America, he barely spoke any English. He had to take extra English classes during the summer before he could take classes. Most of the interviews he did this season had to be translated between Japanese and English. To reporters on Thursday, Coach Mark Few commented on Hachimura’s struggle with the language barrier, saying “He’s really been battling … and now he’s kind of getting a little more comfortable with that.”
Yoko Miyaji, a Japanese reporter who has followed Hachimura all season, told The Record that Gonzaga originally wanted him to redshirt — when a player sits out a year in order to extend their playing eligibility — so that he could improve his English. Hachimura decided not to because he wanted to feel like he was a part of the team, and to have the chance to play. While Hachimura has not gotten to play major minutes, he’s going through the same rigorous practices as his teammates while being mentored by Karnowski. Even as a freshman, he has appeared in 21 games for Gonzaga, averaging five minutes, 2.4 points and 1.7 rebounds off the bench. Hachimura commented to reporters that he’s excited to see how much growth he’ll achieve in the next four years and feels like his playing is continuously improving. Coach Few agreed, stating “He’s going to be a very, very good player.”
Chris Silva, the Gamecock sophomore forward from Gabon, also faced some difficulty when coming to the States. He was 16 years old when he moved to America by himself to play at Roselle Catholic High in New Jersey. After navigating four layovers on his way to JFK airport, he finally greeted his future high school coach with three words he knew in English: “I go NBA.” Five years later, he is well on his way, with Gamecocks assistant coach Matt Figger saying of Silva, “When he plays, we win.” The journey to South Carolina was not an easy one for Silva, however.
“I was young. I wanted to chase my dreams. I just went for it … But it was hard,” Silva said about his decision to come to the U.S. He mentioned how even though coming to the U.S. was a hard decision, his father, who was also a basketball player, fully supported him and his decision — even though that means they now only get to talk once a month.
Adjusting to life in a foreign country is always easier with fellow expatriates around, as the three Canadians from Oregon have found out. PAC 12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks said that the Canadians all have “a sense of comradery, even though sometimes have differences.” Brooks stated several times that basketball in Canada is on the rise, and that they are not to be discounted or overlooked.
Oregon coach Dana Altman agreed with his star player and said, “I think Canada is really starting to get a lot more recruiting action … Because of the success that a number of the young men from Canada have had, I think it’s opened a lot of doors for Canadian players.”
Paula, Kieran and Mackinley, basketball fans from Canada, all confirmed that basketball is becoming more and more popular back home. Travelling down for the Final Four, they said they were there to support the Canadians, with Oregon being their favorite because it has the most Canadian players. Mackinley had brought with him a Canadian flag and managed to get Oregon’s Canadians to sign it.
His flag was not the only one I spotted during the weekend. Amid the flags bearing gamecocks, bulldogs, Os and NCs, you could pick out the stripes of France or Canada’s maple leaf. I couldn’t help but assume that there might have been more fans than anyone realized who were cheering for not just one team but individual international players. It felt like these international players were promises of the future — a future where fans like Paula, Kieran and Mackinley could come to the Final Four to watch their family, friends or neighbors play alongside the Americans.