Below is the Rose-Hulman men's basketball blog from France. This page will be updated as photos and additional entries are available. Enjoy!
Day 1 - "MAN, THIS COULD NOT HAVE GONE ANY SMOOTHER!!"
Those are the astute words of Coach Shaw after boarding our plane from Chicago directly to Paris. We left T.H. on time at 12:30p, arrived to O'Hare in plenty of time and successfully met the rest of our group that went directly to Chicago and were ushered to the front of the line for ticketing. Everybody checked their bags and proceeded through security in practically no time. The only minor issue was Steve Ricks' carry-on bag, which was actually RH Basketball stuff, including gifts for our opponents and friends in France. It included several RH ink pens which apparently looked like bullets when scanned. It is reported Steve began to panic when the security man put on a pair of gloves and called out, "We are going to need the extra long gloves for this search!!" We boarded the plane as scheduled and when the doors closed there were enough empty seats for everyone to spread and stretch out. We taxied out and then- EVERYTHING BEGAN TO SPIRAL DOWNHILL!!
We were told there was a problem with the plane that needed checked out. However, we sat on the runway for an hour before there was a gate for us to return to. After sitting on the plane for another hour we were told that this flight had been canceled due to mechanical problems and there was a re-booking agent outside the gate. However, since we were at the back of the plane and the last to get off, there were about 120 people in front of us getting another flight. After dozens of phone calls to American (and our trip organizer and anybody else we thought could help) we were able to get re-booked the next day and would arrive to Paris 24 hours late. By this time it was 11:30p. (the original flight was to leave at 5:55p), we received dinner, breakfast and hotel vouchers and shuttled to a nearby hotel and settled in at about 1a (without bags and a subsequent change of chothes). Ok- THINGS COULD HAVE WENT SMOOTHER!!
Day 2 - "WE HAVE DECIDED TO TAKE OUR TALENTS TO SOUTH BEACH!!"
We left the hotel around 9a, got re-ticketed, went through security again and eventually boarded a plane to Miami (we were re-booked through Miami). That flight went off without much problem. We landed, went to our gate and again boarded a plane headed to Paris (now out of Miami). After boarding and getting ready for take-off the pilot came on the intercom and bluntly said this plane has problems and isn't going anywhere. He said that we have another plane ready for us so we got off the plane, walked to another gate and waited for 4 hours while they changed the tires on the "new" plane. Are you kidding- they had to change the tires right there outside the gate. That plane eventually took off we plan on arriving in Paris, 28 hours and two damaged planes later. One highlight of the airport experience was to watch Assistant Coach Rusty Loyd's wife Kristen in action. She was taking no chances that we would be last in line if that flight was canceled. She STOOD first in line at the gate counter (even though there was no real line!!) for over 2 hours just in case we needed that spot in line. It got us meal vouchers quickly when they offered them to the passengers on our delayed flight, but if that plane had been canceled, Mrs. Loyd was going to get us re-booked first!!
Day 3 - "BONJOUR CARLO- LET'S PLAY SOME BALL!!
We arrived at DeGaulle in Paris at about 1p and went through customs in no time. They are very relaxed about checking passports (they even forgot to stamp one person's) and didn't seem to care much about our bags. They do extensive profiling in French security and we look as harmless as we actually are. Our tour guide and the man we will trust with everything (Carlo Braun) greets us and quickly takes us to the bus. After introductions and instructions, we bus to Chateau Versailles the massive and ornate former home of Louis XiV and Marie Antoinette among many other members of French royalty. After a little over an hour there we proceed to our hotel, check in and get a very quick bite (no real time to clean up) and back on the bus for the ride to our first game. More about downtown European hotels in future entries.
The game was really fun. Despite our obvious and understandable fatigue, we played pretty well. The opposing team was not one of elite level and had guys slightly older than ours. They were very organized and played hard. The manager of the team and the higher level pro team of the club (Vasily) was a great guy and very gracious and kind. We won the game in the last minute despite missing a ton of free throws and turning the ball over in abundance against their press (which we hadn't worked on since our season). James Pillischafske started us out by hitting three 3's in the first few minutes and hit 5 all together for his 15 points. Brenton Balsbaugh played very well, scoring 14 including two aggressive and powerful half court dunks. Jon Gerken added 13 and Austin Weatherford made the go ahead basket with less than a minute, and we held on behind 2 free throws by Gerken and a strong defensive effort to stop any reasonable attempt at tying 3 pt. shot (RH won 71-68). After the game we shared pictures and some drinks with our friendly opponents and returned to the hotel for night time activities and rest.
Day 4 - "ART
APPRECIATION AND BASKETBALL DOMINATION"
After nearly a 48-hour journey from the Rose-Hulman campus to the cafe lined streets of Paris, most in our travel party spent this morning trying to catch up on a little rest and adjusting to the 6-hour time change. French hotels do their best to make relaxation and rest difficult. The rooms are quite small (maybe 10 x 12'), there is not a suitable elevator for travel (mostly used for luggage travel) which means lots of stair climbing, the bathrooms are tiny and finding a TV station with someone speaking English is impossible. I guess that is why so many people are walking around in Paris - there is nowhere to hang out so they just walk the streets.
Our first group activity today is visiting the Orsay Museum, which was once a huge railway station. Although we only spent about an hour or so in the Museum, the players were extremely impressed with the variety of artwork in the museum (Manet, Van Gough, etc...) and the coaching staff was impressed with how many pieces of art the players recognized (I guess these Engineers have some art and culture in their lives to go along with the trigonometry and physics!!!). The highlights of the Museum had to be the most recognized piece of art by our players, Whistler's famous painting of his mother which is creatively named "Whistler's Mother".
After eating and freshening up at the hotel after the museum trip, we bused to play our second game of the tour against an elite Junior Team (similar ages to RH players) named Paris Levallois. Their director of player development (for all the club's team including their top level pro team) was a gentleman named Ron Stewart, an American who played at St John's University in New York, moved to France to play professionally and stayed with the club. He told us that several of the players we would play against would soon be moving up from the junior division of the Paris-Levallois team and joining the professional team. Although we got off to an extremely tough start (down 9-2 in the first two minutes), we made some defensive adjustments and took a 17-10 lead after the first quarter (that's right - they scored 1 point the last 8 minutes of the quarter). After leading for most of the game, the French team took the lead in the fourth quarter and we were down by 1 with 28 seconds to play. Instead of fouling to get the ball back (we were playing with a 24 second shot clock), we played some good defense and got a steal with 10 seconds to play. Austin Weatherford was fouled with 6.2 seconds to play and made both free throws to take a lead. The Levallois team's last attempt at a win came up short when a drive to the basket was whistled dead and the referee called the first travel of the game on someone not named Jon Gerken (this was EXTREMELY humorous to everyone on our team since we felt like they had traveled about 100 times). We were led in scoring by Austin Weatherford with 17, Nate Gissentanner with 15 and Julian Strickland with 11. After taking some pictures and exchanging some gifts, we headed back to our hotel for the evening. Because the game started pretty early (6:30p local), our guys were able to adventure out into the Paris night and enjoy the French culture.
After checking out of our hotel in Paris and having a typical French breakfast (croissants, bread, juice, coffee, and chocolate), we loaded the bus and headed for the Normandy area of France. After about 4 hours and a wonderful road-side lunch stop, we arrived at the American Cemetery and museum at Colleville-sur-Mer, which overlooks Omaha Beach and the other D-Day Landing beaches. We watched a brief and emotional film before going through the museum and out into the cemetery where over 9,000 American soldiers are buried. Their graves are marked by white crosses lined up in a perfect line as far as the eye can see and overlooks the beaches and English Channel which approximately 67 years ago hosted such a devastating yet vitally important event in American and World history. Thousands of Allied forces along with even more German soldiers and an astonishing number of French civilians (over 20,000 during the weeks of the coastal invasion) lost their lives in one of mankind's bloodiest battles. The American Cemetery and museum is funded and financed by a United States organization and the French people loaned the land to the U.S. rent and tax free into perpetuity.
We then went down to Omaha Beach as a group (many of the players scaled steep steps and had already been down to the beach) and had lunch at some small local cafes. Most of the team went down to the beach and looked up onto the cliffs and higher ground obviously trying to imagine what it could have been like. It was very sobering and put everyone in an extremely retrospective and appreciative mood. After stopping at a gift shop (it should be noted that there is NO gift shop or commercial presence at the cemetery or museum) we proceeded to Caen (less than an hour away), where we checked into our hotel, ate dinner and/or walked into town looking for activity (which the players manage to find ANYWHERE!!).
Day 6- "MONT SAINT MICHEL- WOW!!"
After breakfast at the hotel, the group rode the bus about an hour and a half to Mont Saint Michel, an island off the coast (connected at low enough tide by a causeway). This picture-postcard island is one of France's most visited attractions. The fairy-tale like castle (Mont Saint Michel Abbey) is an iconic symbol of this beautiful region of France. Both the view and the uphill walk were breathtaking!! After spending time at the Abbey and in the quant "village' the group returned to Caen for dinner and visits to the shops in this small French town. The bus returned to the hotel at about 8:30p (the hotel is about a 20 minute walk from town) and some of the group settled into their room for rest. However, a large and loud group decided the night had only began and after the walk back into town- watch out Caen!!
After breakfast and just before checking out of the hotel, the group had the pleasure, privilege and honor of meeting and speaking with a group of Normandy invasion and D-Day veterans from Birmingham, England. Our entire group was impacted by these men, not only in the deeds of their youth and the results of their bravery and efforts, but in their willingness to share their thoughts and experiences with a bunch of Yanks. These men of honor were just as excited and overjoyed about our interest and appreciation of their past as we were appreciative of their actions and the time they were willing to spend with us. They come back to Normandy regularly to honor their lost friends and it is obvious that each time is an emotional and cathartic event. One gentleman started off by saying, "We were just ordinary men doing a job we were trained for." They said they were too busy to be really scared, although one of them laughed at the idea of not being scared to death. They spoke of their appreciation for the Americans (one of them told Coach Shaw, "the Americans saved my ass. They were and still are our best friends.") and lamented about the loss of life and the difficulty in the landing conditions for the Americans on Omaha Beach. They would speak bravely until they had to choke their words and tears back as the events of the day came back to these gentlemen in their mid-80's and older. They spoke of the terrible conditions even before landing, of the French opposition who had befriended the Germans, and of course of the human sacrifice and carnage that is still vivid in their memory 67 years later. One gentleman said he can still smell the stench in the air and can vividly remember the noise of the gunfire and thousands of American planes flying and bombing overhead. Another teared up and had to stop when telling Steve Ricks what it was like to have to push dead soldiers out of the way while swimming through gunfire to the shore. What was supposed to be an impromptu 5-minute introduction turned into a 30-minute discussion ending with pictures, hugs, handshakes and tears from both the English heroes and their extremely young and appreciative new friends. Nothing could have brought the previous day's visit to the beach into better focus and impacted our group more. We are so lucky in so many ways.
After having the honor of spending time with these men we rode the bus back to Paris. Upon our return to Paris we went to the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, one of France's most beautiful churches. It sits high atop a hill and offers the most breathtaking view of Paris. The area is a beehive of activity, with street artists, street performers and, of course, street scammers in abundance. Jason Haslag was too nice of a guy to resist when some peddler tied Jason's finger with a string claiming it was a lucky string and asking for money so Jason could keep the string and the luck. Of course he was reluctant to let go without money but Jason was eventually able to get out without paying, probably because the group was waiting for him and getting antsy. Just like central Missouri, eh Jason!! And of course the guys were enthralled with the street games of 3 card monty, which most thought they could win but avoided playing (for now at least!!). While driving to and from the Cathedral we passed the area of Paris full of small shops and nightclubs which reminded some of Greenwich Village in NYC and of course the seedy area of Paris, which is also the home of one of Paris' landmark attractions, the Moulin Rouge. Upon checking back into the same hotel as before our trip to Normandy, people went to dinner and enjoyed another night in Paris.
We woke up this morning and went by metro and taxi to one of Paris' most famous sights - the Louvre, the largest museum in the world. Although our group can not be considered a gathering of art experts, two exhibits are known to everyone no matter of their interest in fine art. First of all, admission was free (the first Sunday of every month) and the lines were like nothing we have ever seen. There must have been 3,000 people in ONE LINE. Carlo showed his skill and took us into the attached Louvre mall (shops, etc...) where the line was much shorter. It took about 45 minutes to get in because the line moved very quickly. The size of the museum is staggering. It is very similar in that regard to the Vatican (only possibly bigger) and displays around 35,000 pieces of art. Of course the highlight of the museum is the Mona Lisa (with a 2nd being the Venus De Milo). The first thing people notice is that it is relatively small (especially compared to many of the massive paintings in the museum). Legend has it that her eyes follow you around the room. There was a large crowd around her so it was hard to tell, although Julian Strickland claimed that ALL girls' eyes follow him so it was nothing unusual.
Everyone had the afternoon on their own and shopped, rested, ate, drank and watched the finals of the French Open, which of course was played here in Paris. We reconvened in the evening for a trip down to the river Siene where we boarded a double decker boat and took an hour long cruise of the river which runs through the middle of Paris. There was even a group of students from Vincennes, Ind., on a French cycling tour of France on board!! We saw most of the sights, many of which we had already seen up close. It was great fun and the view of the Eiffel Tower was breathtaking, especially as it got dark and the Tower was all lit. One of the world's most recognizable sights was absolutely breathtaking. At 10p, 11p and Midnight the Tower starts sparkling with the lights flashing and twinkling. It was beautiful. It began pouring rain at the very end of the ride but spoiled nothing. After waiting under cover everyone got a bite to eat and got back to the hotel for some much needed rest.
Our next two days promise to be a whirlwind of sightseeing, basketball and travel so this will be the last blog entry until we get home. Our last full day in France (hopefully- if our travel goes well!!) will include a guided tour of the city, including the Champ Elysees, the Arce de Triomphe, the ritsy department stores, and the Opera House before going to Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower (up close and going up in it). We then play our farewell game at Coulommiers before returning to the hotel and preparing for a long day of travel on Tuesday. Au revoir!!!