In Thailand, players learn more than hoops
American college basketball teams have frequently been criticized for taking lavish summer jaunts on schools' expense accounts.
Hoopsters from Arizona, Connecticut, and other Division I schools have surfed in eastern Australia, toured the Middle East, and woken up in villas on the French Riviera.
The women's basketball team from Carleton College, a Division III school in Minnesota, decided to buck the trend. Their wake-up call on their trip this summer came from the grunts of pigs passing by as villagers in a hamlet in northern Thailand led them into nearby rice paddies.
In June, the team embarked on a summer journey to rural Thailand, a trip designed to help dispel the idea of spoiled college sports teams and to foster cross-cultural exchange.
"There is this image of college basketball players as big-time performers, little different from pampered professionals ... We wanted to show we're far from that," says team coach Tammy Metcalf-Filzen. "We're traveling to learn about a different place and to give whatever we can."
Along with many of their parents, 12 of the 13 players on the Carleton team made the journey, which was paid for by the players and civic organizations and led by Michael Leming, an anthropology professor knowledgeable about Thailand.
After spending a few days in Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai, the team made its way to a Karen village in Thailand's far north.
The Karen, an ethnic minority living along the Thai-Burmese border, are one of the more colorful and isolated groups in Thailand.
Converts to Christianity, the Karen traditionally wear stunning multihued clothes and strands of beads, reside in remote, hilly areas, attend church diligently, and still cultivate rice by hand, using water buffalo as pack mules.
"I had given the players a reading list on the Karen, but they were still shocked by how basic the village was," Professor Leming says.
Most Karen in the village rise early, plant rice in submerged paddies, tend pigs, and haul water from moutain streams. The village has no running water or electricity.
"When we first got there, it seemed poor, but I realized the village had social stability and still a strong culture," says Claire Lasher, one of the players.
While at the village, the players threshed rice, taught English through songs such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider," learned about the villagers' traditional crafts, and led basketball clinics at courts donated by a Japanese organization.
"Some of the Karen were really naturally skilled ballplayers. They've honed their athleticism through seepak takraw," says player Kathleen Earl, referring to a Southeast Asian game similar to volleyball in which teams use their feet and heads to knock the ball over the net. The village's basic living conditions and dearth of personal space did sometimes rattle the Carleton group.
"The villagers don't have the same idea of privacy that exists in America. People there sleep on the floor together, and the lack of private 'down time,' was initially difficult for our group to handle," Lemming says.
The rustic squat toilets turned some people off. One person couldn't handle the difficult accommodations and left the village to return to a hotel in Chiang Mai.
But most of the group pushed themselves to learn. "It was always in the players minds, I think, that we not be overprivileged whiners. People who spend many hours playing a game might seem privileged, and the players didn't want villagers to think they were spoiled," Lemming says.
The Thailand trip may become a tradition.
The team hopes to return in four years, says Coach Metcalf-Filzen. "Why not use the opportunity that basketball gives us to make connections here and permanently establish a relationship that uses the sport for a positive purpose?"
NCAA rules prohibit teams from taking overseas trips more than once every four years.
"We'd like to bring something back from Thailand as well. I wouldn't mind bringing the incredible respect the Karen students have for their teachers - we could use a bit of that at Carleton," says Metcalf-Filzen.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society