Aug. 19, 2012
PARIS - Late on his team's last night in this storied city, with a visit to the Eiffel Tower still to come, UVa men's basketball coach Tony Bennett stood up in a crowded wing of a restaurant not far from the River Seine, tapped his glass for quiet and then raised a toast.
Bennett first saluted Antonio Autore, the unflappable Italian guide who accompanied the Cavaliers as they made their way through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Then he thanked UVa athletics director Craig Littlepage, who was seated nearby, for making the trip possible.
Early the next morning at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where the Wahoos were waiting to board their eight-hour flight home, Bennett expanded on his remarks.
"Craig and the athletic department afforded us the opportunity to really have, in my opinion, a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Bennett said. "To see some of the most famous sites in the history of the world and to do that as young men, as teenagers - one of them, [freshman Mike] Tobey, doesn't even have a driver's license -- it's significant.
"You don't really appreciate what this chance means. Coming to a school like this, you get the opportunities from an educational standpoint and a competitive standpoint, but then you take one of these trips, and it's really a significant thing."
The NCAA allows a Division I team to tour foreign countries once every four years, and a traveling party that included 17 UVa students -- 15 players, plus managers Luke Ford and Johnny Carpenter -- left the United States on Aug. 6. It landed in the Netherlands the next morning. The group returned 10 days later after visiting four of Europe's most historic cities -- Amsterdam, Bruges, Antwerp and Paris -- and enjoying, for the most part, spectacular weather.
"Never experienced anything like this ever before," junior swingman Joe Harris said. "It was a great trip."
Along the way, the `Hoos played five games: two against the Netherlands B team; one against Gembo, a Belgian club team; and two against AMW France, whose big men in the opener included the Washington Wizards' Kevin Seraphin. Virginia went 2-3, winning its first and last games.
"I think it was a great trip for all of us," senior point guard Jontel Evans said. "We learned a lot about ourselves and as a team, and together as a team we grew together."
Littlepage, a former basketball coach, said benefits of the tour include "the building of relationships among the players and, with so many new guys in the fold for us, giving them experience with the returning players. When they begin with their formal workouts in September, there won't be as much of a transition period in terms of just getting to know guys' personalities and what guys can do on the floor."
Anthony Gill, who transferred to UVa from South Carolina after the 2011-12 academic year, was not permitted, under NCAA rules, to go on the tour. Of the 15 players who made the trip, seven were not at the University when the 2011-12 academic year began: Tobey, Evan Nolte, Justin Anderson, Taylor Barnette and Teven Jones, a guard who enrolled in January, and walk-ons Justin Miller and Caid Kirven. Of the 15, only sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, who's recovering from a foot injury, did not play in Europe.
"It was great that we could get a head start on what to expect and get a little bit of experience," said Barnette, a 6-2 guard from Lexington, Ky., "and to play with the guys, to know how they play. It was just a really good experience to get to know everybody really well."
Evans said: "I feel like we bonded really well. We came together as a team, and we're a lot closer than we were before we got here."
For 10 days, the players spent virtually every waking hour together. In Amsterdam, they dodged wave after wave of bicycles, visited the Anne Frank House, toured the stadium that hosted the 1928 Summer Olympics, shopped for soccer jerseys, and boated on the city's famed canals.
In Antwerp, they snacked on Belgian waffles with ice cream, sometimes two or three times a day, at the Crème de la Crème shop near the team's hotel.
In Paris, they visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, battled huge crowds to view the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, sampled escargot, learned about the role of the guillotine in the French Revolution, posed for photos with tourists awestruck by the height of the players -- especially the 7-foot Tobey -- and marveled at the city's lights from high up on the Eiffel Tower.
"There were a lot of real good learning experiences for the players beyond the court," Littlepage said.
Several of the players and support staff also visited Roland Garros, site of the French Open tennis championships, and saw Parc des Princes, the stadium that's home to the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club.
"A lot of us haven't been to Europe before," Harris said, "and for us to all experience it together, we made a lot of great memories, and it's something that I personally will never forget, and I know a lot of my teammates feel the same way."
At the Louvre, one player was admitted for free - Tobey, who won't turn 18 until October. The ID he presented to museum officials as proof of his age?
"I showed them my learner's permit," Tobey said, "because I don't have my [driver's] license yet."
Dick Bossinade joined the tour on Aug. 10, adding an element of unpredictability to the proceedings. Bossinade, a mustachioed bus driver from the Netherlands, picked up the `Hoos in Amsterdam and chauffeured them to Belgium and, later, to France. Like many Europeans, he favors skinny jeans and form-fitting shirts, and his fearless tactics behind the wheel endeared him to the `Hoos, who in turn won him over.
"I'm sure I will long remember you ... beautiful people," Bossinade told the players before posing for a photo with them near the tour's end.
On his first morning with the team, Bossinade missed the entrance to a rest area near the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. No worries. He pulled over, put the bus in reverse and, after a short warning -- "This might be a little illegal," he said -- backed up about a quarter-mile along an exit ramp into the parking lot.
In Paris, Bossinade flawlessly executed high-degree-of-difficulty U-turns on busy city streets, to applause from his passengers.
"I'll never forget Dick," Harris said, laughing. "That guy's one of a kind. We'll never have a bus driver like him ever again."
Autore, the tour guide, was another favorite. When the former Amsterdam resident wasn't helping assistant coach Ron "Giovanni" Sanchez learn to speak Italian, Autore tirelessly worked to ensure the team stayed on schedule at its various stops and provided expert commentary on European culture.
He also knew something about the history of UVa. On the Cavaliers' final day in Paris, Autore asked Bossinade to stop the bus near the Seine, next to a statue of the University's founder, Thomas Jefferson.
"This might be a little illegal," Autore said, joking about Dick's parking job, before instructing the players to dash off the bus, assemble for a quick team photo in front of the statue, and then race back to their seats.
"Run like a bullet!" Autore commanded, a phrase the group would repeat often during the rest of the trip.
The Eiffel Tower proved immensely popular with the players. They took elevators to the second level, which is about 380 feet off the ground but still some 600 feet from the top.
"That's a long way up, man," said assistant coach Jason Williford, craning his neck to gaze at the tower's peak.
"That's a long way down," said junior forward Akil Mitchell, looking the other direction.
Paris was the favorite city of many UVa players, Harris included.
"Seeing some of the guys cringe when we got up to the Eiffel Tower was pretty funny," he said. "Seeing Tobey shaking and not wanting to go anywhere near the edge was funny, and then just getting a chance to go in the Louvre and do that sort of stuff was pretty cool, too. You see all that stuff in movies, and it was great."
And then there was the scene Tuesday afternoon at the Radisson, where 12 players - all except Nolte, Mitchell and Barnette - got trapped between floors on an elevator for about 45 minutes.
"I was scared," sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson recalled that night. "I was real scared."
Barnette said: "I'm glad I missed it. I heard it was pretty miserable in there. They gave me a hard time for not being in there with them, but they were the ones that got on and got it stuck, though."
Mitchell has no regrets, either, about missing that team-building experience.
"No, not at all," he said, smiling. "I got my 45-minute nap, and I'm good."
The Cavaliers are coming off a season in which they won 22 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The best player from that team, All-ACC forward Mike Scott, is now with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, and Bennett experimented with lineups throughout the tour, starting the same group only twice.
Harris led the `Hoos in scoring in Europe, averaging 15.6 points. Mitchell averaged 13.4 points, Tobey 11.2, Evans 9.6, Anderson 8.2, Jesperson 7.3, Nolte 6.8 and sophomore big man Darion Atkins 6.0.
Evans averaged 7.8 assists, and the 6-8, 234-pound Mitchell was UVa's top rebounder, pulling down 50 boards in the five games.
"I'm just trying to keep moving forward and making strides, trying to become a better leader and a better player overall, so I feel like I was able to do that a little bit through this trip," said Mitchell, one of the Cavaliers' returning starters, along with Evans and Harris.
From a basketball perspective, Bennett said, the tour "definitely was eye-opening. Not that any of us coaches didn't think we have a lot of work to do, but now I certainly hope that the players understand how much work needs to be done and how far away we are from being the kind of team we need to be, but also that it can be attainable when they play the right way."
Evans said: "I feel like after the first couple of games we had an idea of what it takes to play Virginia defense. The first few games I didn't think we had any identity on that end."
For Bennett, the most satisfying game of the tour was the last one -- the rematch with AMW France. Twenty-four hours earlier, the 'Hoos had lost by four points. On this night, Virginia trailed for only 19 seconds -- all in the first quarter -- and rolled to an 82-65 win.
"I thought we came into a little better appreciation and understanding of the way in which we'll have to approach the game, how we'll have to play to give ourselves a chance," Bennett said.
"Out of all five games, the last game got the most physical, extremely physical. And we had been kind of preaching to the players that when we play against some of these guys, they may not be quite as fast as in the American game, but there's going to be a level of physicality that'll be different to you. And I thought I saw a few guys maybe who were uncomfortable with it early [on the tour] start to get initiated into the kind of physicality you need.
"I was really pleased with how physical the game got at the end and to see that our guys didn't just say it was too much. They battled, and I think that'll be valuable, and we'll be able to call on some of those experiences."
The Cavaliers landed at Dulles International Airport around 3:15 p.m., Eastern, on Thursday. Most of the players immediately headed from Dulles to their homes. Only five rode the bus back to John Paul Jones Arena: Mitchell, Jones, Evans, Thomas Rogers and Doug Browman.
Classes don't start at UVa until Aug. 28, so the players and coaches have some time off before preparations for 2012-13 resume. Bennett will fly to Wisconsin next week to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of his parents, and his players are scattered around the country. Rest assured, though, their European adventure won't soon be forgotten.
"Great memories," Bennett said. "There'll be so many references made to this trip, I've got a feeling."