NCAA rules doesn’t allow teams to take international trips during the school year. So how did the Southwest Assembly of God University (SAGU) men’s basketball team find themselves in Luanda, Angola from October 14-19 playing in a tournament called the Sixth Clube Desportivo 1st de Agosto Torneio Internacional Victorino Cunha?
First of all, SAGU is a Division 1 NAIA team, and its governing body does not have the during-class travel restriction. Secondly, the Angolans, winners of 11 of the last 12 African Championships, wanted to play an American college team and offered to pay all expenses. To find a bright eyed and bushy tailed coach willing to take his team to Africa just before the season was our challenge here at Sport Tours International.
Enter SAGU Head Coach Donnie Bostwick, eager and willing to put himself and his team in challenging, sometimes uncomfortable situations for a great experience. After addressing health concerns from the university and the larger Waxahachie community, Coach Bostwick and his team decided they were all in. "I felt like the trip was both an opportunity of a lifetime and a great way to prepare our team for the upcoming season,” Bostwick said. The team met Sport Tours staff in Newark’s Liberty Airport and set off to Angola.
Angola is the sixth largest economy in Africa, and Luanda is the most expensive city in the world. A one-bedroom apartment with working plumbing can cost $20,000 USD a month. Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and from then until 2002 fought a brutal civil war. It is now in the slow process of rebuilding its infrastructure. Although technically a democracy, Angola has been led by José Eduardo dos Santos since 1979.
The capital city of Luanda juxtaposes shantytown style corrugated metal housing with lavish downtown high-rises. It is a city where senses are on high alert. Nobody wanted to miss the bright sights and bustling energy. Women casually balance pots, eggs, and fruit trays the size of semi-truck hubcaps on their heads. Young people congregate in parks roller-skating, break-dancing, rapping, and exercising.
“The most shocking thing to me was the the traffic,” said Assistant Coach Garrett Jones. “The lack of how it flowed was bizarre to me but how they made it work at the same time.” On the first day the bus took 2 hours to travel 5 miles. For the remainder of the trip the basketball club hired a police escort to part the traffic seas like Moses. With a motorcycle cop in front of the bus we’d sometimes reach a patch of traffic that seemed impossible to pass. With a few kicks and some proper siren honking the impossible became possible.
One of the first activities was a clinic at a school for blind, deaf, and cognitively challenged children. A lovely teacher in a Ms. Frizzle dress greeted the team and took them to a small, simple classroom to introduce them to the mission of the school. She then led the players to a basketball court with a few students where they started to play a scrimmage. Within moments a couple hundred students lined the court cheering whenever anyone scored. After a short back and forth the kids rushed the court for autographs and pictures.
The US Embassy was very helpful and gracious during our stay. They invited us for two lunches, both of which were informative and fun. The first was at the embassy and included a presentation about Angola and US relations. The team asked great questions about the history of Angola and the logistics of being a Foreign Service officer. Heather Merritt, the US Deputy Chief of Mission to Angola, hosted the second lunch at her home. Deputy Chief Merritt had also invited 24 Angolan honor students who were in Luanda for a week of intensive English. The team played word games and basketball with the Angolan students. SAGU player Caleb Feemster put on a marvelous magic show.
After several itinerary changes, SAGU’s Lions were poised to play the four Angolan national club teams. The superior size of the Angolan players quickly labeled SAGU as the underdogs. After losing the first game it seemed as though the predictions might be right. However, the Lions played tremendously hard and ended up winning the next three games. The final game against the #1 ranked team went into overtime and SAGU won by two points in the final second of the game.
The team’s final experience in Angola was at a beautiful crowded beach. The players, who had been on TV the night before, were approached as if they were celebrities. On the beach, embedded in the sand, were eight basketball hoops. Someone found a ball. Encircled by children and adults alike, the crowd took turns shooting the ball as the sun set into the ocean.