|Members of the Jacksonvile basketball team play stickball in the Dominican Republic. (Jacksonville Athletics)|
In our Trippin' series, we're talking to teams as they return from preseason trips to foreign locales. Check here for all Trippin'-related stories.
Cliff Warren and his Dolphins didn't expect this trip to be as big as it turned out.
The Jacksonville head coach spoke over the phone for 30 minutes about his team's short jaunt over to the Dominican Republic last week, and most of his talking didn't revolve around basketball. During the week-long excursion, Warren said he, his coaches and his players had powerful days and nights together, strong moments of bonding. Moments that ended in personal stories and streams of tears.
He said the team was completely open with each other about the trip, their personal lives, the things they grew to cherish and how grateful they were to be in the position they'd been blessed with. The things they saw in the DR catalyzed these things. I've talked with coaches for three straight summers now about these overseas trips. No one has seemed as affected by one like Warren and his team were here.
"For example, we went to an orphanage," Warren said. "There were 150 girls between the ages of 6 and 19. Afterward, we asked, 'How did you guys feel?' So each player talked about what they saw. What they felt. The most minute portion of it was the basketball portion."
One player said "I didn't realize how much my phone consumed all my time. I didn't know one of my teammates' family lived in a car for a week. I would've never learned one of my teammates grew up with out a father."
By trip's end, the final annual nightly recap became a very emotional retrospective of the previous six days. Even Warren was surprised by the things he learned -- in spite of the fact he already knew so much about his players, since background checks and personality evaluations are such a big part of recruiting these days.
What initially began as a money-saving incentive turned into a gateway for better communication. At the start of the trip Warren confiscated every cellphone from his players. The thought was to take the phones away to save mom and dad an expensive phone bill since calls/texts go on roam outside the country.
But Warren also wanted the players to communicate with each other in the most natural way possible.
"Too many times, and I'm sure we are all victim of it, we tweet, text," he said. "We don't talk to each other anymore, face-to-face. Team meeting with tears.
What Warren learned: As for the hoops, things went well. They finished 4-0 after playing four games in four days. Warren said he was wondering if everyone on this team would be able to contribute in the coming year. He feels it's a resounding yes as of now, and that's not just emotionally. He was talking basketball skill. Warren believes he has a weapon with each player, and he'll likely play 10 guys this season, if not more.
Who stood out: Warren had a hard time whittling it down, but I forced him to keep it at two. Freshman guard Jarvis Haywood proved he can score the basketball as well as anyone else on the team. The other big presence was JuCo transfer guard Dylan Trish.
"Everyone on the team by the end of the week was discussing how they could get him more touches," Warren said.
Biggest concern going forward: "The intensity level of our full-court pressure," Warren said. "I think our guys know where to be and where you're supposed to slide and who's supposed to cover for who, but right now they don't understand the level of intensity or detail in our press."
That will be a big part of Jacksonville's identity going forward. Or at least Warren expects it to be.
- The team had no practices in the DR. But per NCAA rules, JU did have 10 sessions of practice prior to the trip. Here's the thing: Warren was worried about burnout. The practices came on the heels of six weeks of summer school. A lot of guys were ready for a break, but they didn't get it. It's basically been eight and a half weeks straight of school and workouts, but Warren said his team "responded well circumstances."
- Warren also relinquished head-coaching duties, as is common on these trips. He wanted his coaches to be in that seat, in that decision-making role. Warren's been an assistant longer than he's been a head coach, so it's not an uncommon feeling. But he never wanted to lose what it was like to work for something. He also wants to know if his assistants can and want to ultimately be a head coach. (There are plenty of assistant "lifers" in college hoops.)
"I could observe my team and my staff from a different perspective," Warren said. "So now I can see the things I'm doing right and wrong, correcting myself."
He also switched up roles. He tracked defensive stops or charted offensive plays. Pretty cool.
- They key transfer, Javon Dawson, did not make the trip. Dawson is a 6-6, redshirt sophomore from Utah who is eligible this fall. He received a hardship waiver over the summer (for a mother's illness). But in order to go on a foreign trip a player must pass three hours of class time on the campus, and Dawson was in limbo until recently over whether he would be eligible, Warren said.
- In two of the four games, the team shot the lights out. Literally. While warming up for the first game, the lights just stopped working.
"The electricity is on its way," a workman told Warren's translator. The game was set to start at dusk and they were losing sunlight fast. Unclear of whether or not they'd get a game in, Warren set up a makeshift clinic while they waited for power; it was essentially a 20-minute practice. Then what happened? People starting cheering for four-on-four shell drills and two-on-one fastbreak displays. Eventually, the gym was essentially dark. People still cheering in the stands. And as the teams were about to change out of their uniforms, and call it a day, the lights came on. An even bigger cheer from the crowd, Warren said.
Someone eventually came with the portable generator.
That was in Santa Domingo. In the team's third game, in San Pedro, the lights abruptly went out in the second quarter. Thirty minutes of darkness. But Warren said the locals act like, OK, this happens every day. Just wait it out. It was these things, on top of the orphanage trips and stickball games with local kids, that reinforced the sense of privilege for JU's players. Warren says it was a "life-changing experience" of a trip. Said it was about so much more than basketball.