The University of Iowa men’s basketball trip to Europe has me thinking back to 1981, when coach Lute Olson took his Hawks to play in South America. There were many differences traveling and playing back then, but one thing is constant: a rich opportunity to broaden young men’s horizons. I asked Olson and some of my teammates for their reflections and, interestingly, very few of the cherished memories had to do with basketball.
Overseas travel was different in 1981 — no internet, social media, fax machines or cell phones. Basketball was hardly the global game it is today. It’s hard to imagine arranging such a trip dependent on the postal service and international phone calls over static-filled, echoing landlines. We experienced logistical nightmares and playing conditions today’s kids couldn’t imagine: open air gyms enclosed on three sides, a court surrounded by a 10-feet-tall chain link fence — we were told it was needed to protect the referees. We played on courts of concrete and slippery linoleum, reminding me of my elementary school gym. And, perhaps worst of all, at a few games, the only available basketballs were made of rubber.
Today, the kids and coaches will know who they are playing before they arrive. They can easily Google information about the venues, itineraries and they may even have scouting reports. We arrived in Sao Paulo to rumors we’d face a young phenom named Oscar Schmidt. None of us had yet heard of the future Hall of Famer and all-time leading scorer in Olympic history. In Buenos Aires, we literally bumped into Hawkeye great Sky King, who just happened to play for our final opponent. Who knew?
Coach Olson was limited by pages of typed itineraries in poorly translated English. We once went to the wrong airport. The first Argentina itinerary stated a game time of 11 p.m. Unable to reach anyone by phone, the coaches concluded it must be a typo and we showed up at 8 p.m. only to find a disserted parking lot and a locked gymnasium. Finally, a custodian arrived and let us in. Thirty minutes later, others straggled in for the warm-up game. We took the court near midnight.
Three decades ago, the games were big news even in cities the size of Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. Our games were televised, gyms were sold out and there were lengthy write ups in each morning’s papers. In rural Argentine cities of Salta and Tucumán, our games felt like moments of national diplomacy. We exchanged gifts and flags with dual national anthem ceremonies making us feel like we were representing the United States of America.
Though there is always plenty of opportunity for cultural confusion, I doubt the Hawks in Europe will experience the challenges we faced on the court. Before the first game, Coach Olson warned us that we’d better be ahead by 20 in the second half because the referees would start to call the game against us. Frankly, we didn’t believe him. Nothing in our experience prepared us for what was about to happen when every loose ball, every ball out of bounds, and every foul went against us during the game’s final 10 minutes.
In a three-game series against the Brazilian champion knotted at one win each, Steve Krafcisin hit a shot falling down with players draped all over him to win by one as time ran out. Lute quickly ushered us to the locker room and locked the door, worried if we lingered the refs would concoct a way to give our opponents one more chance to win. The next morning, the Sao Paulo newspapers reported the refs had tried to steal the game.
While the fans aggressively rooted for the local teams, they also were delighted by us, rabidly cheering great plays and swooning over players such as Steve Carfino, whose charisma and mixed-race background convinced Brazilians he was one of their own. After an incredible left-handed dunk by Vince Brookins over an Argentine player, he was showered with chants of “Vincent! Vincent!”
Legendary Iowa trainer John Strief brought suitcases full of Iowa gear, intending to give T-shirts and hats to opposing teams and the inevitable Hawkeye fans that will show anywhere, but he soon realized that giving away gear to customs officials avoided lengthy searches and the risk of things going missing at border crossings.
Bobby Hansen told me Coach McCaffery’s motivation for this trip derives directly from the educational and cultural opportunity, and though 10 extra practices and four games is significant, basketball clearly takes a back seat. Imagine Dom Uhl’s pride and the perspective gained by his teammates returning home to visit Germany with him? Most of our interactions in ’81 were warm, casual and friendly, but Hansen reminded me of one very serious conversation that stands out of several of us. In a rural Argentine airport, we met a U.S.-educated Minister of State. Just nine months before the Falklands War, with Argentina riddled by economic strife and political repression, we received a remarkably candid and in-depth historic and economic perspective of Latin America.
Traveling overseas forces the kids to compare and contrast distinct cultural differences. I clearly remember sitting on our modest Copacabana Hotel rooftop at sunset trying to image the lives of the locals as I absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of Rio with its stunningly beautiful beaches and mountains. Just as I was gaining a perspective, the contrast I felt upon arriving in stylish Buenos Aires — with its European fashion and stately old-world architecture — was almost like stepping into another world. These are the experiences that inform one's view of the world and can change the direction of a young life.
Coach Olson waxed poetic about the people we met in ‘81, which in my case would be truly life-altering, as I would eventually find my way back to Brazil to play professionally. No Nicholas Baer, I was a walk-on who rarely played at Iowa. My opportunity only manifested due to relationships forged while on that tour. Today’s Hawkeyes will likely experience a boost in performance from this trip during the upcoming season, but the real boost will be to their character, as the shine and influence from these memories will last a lifetime.
Jon Darsee is a frequent contributor to the Register's feature pages. He was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. He lives in Iowa City.