With players from nine countries speaking a myriad of languages, Fairfield basketball lives and breathes global citizenship

With players from nine countries speaking a myriad of languages, Fairfield basketball lives and breathes global citizenship

Nowhere is that value more apparent than on the current men’s basketball team – which boasts players from nine countries and one U.S. territory, who together speak a myriad of languages from Arabic to Wolof (a language spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania). Other languages you might hear a phrase or two from on the practice court are French, Spanish, Swahili, Ligala, Serbian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Russian, and Greek.

“Each one of our players — whether he’s from the States or overseas — has heard about the values that we share within our basketball program,” Head Coach Sydney Johnson said. “We’re going to work very hard on the court and we’re going to love and respect each other along the way. Despite where we’ve come from, our common bond is that we share the same values and have chosen to be a part of representing Fairfield University.”

Last season, the roster listed Olivier Cadieux (Canada), Aidas Kavaliauskas (Lithuania), Jonathan Kasibabu (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Matija Milin (Serbia). This year, Head Coach Sydney Johnson and his coaching staff added Aziz Sultan Essa (Kuwait), Omar El-Sheikh (Egypt), Wassef Methnani (Tunisia), Kevin Senghore-Peterson (Sweden), and Jesus Cruz (Puerto Rico) to the ledger.

“We have attracted a number of international players over the past few seasons primarily because the game has grown so much at home and internationally,” Johnson said. “Further, it helps that two of our assistant coaches and I have vast experience with international basketball, which allows us to identify where the smartest and most talented international players can be found.”

Johnson, who played professionally in Italy and Spain, along with assistant coaches Tyson Wheeler, who wore uniforms in eight different countries, and Tom Parrotta, who earned a contract in Portugal and recruited in more than 20 countries, are at the heart of Fairfield’s international look.

“Syd played overseas so he has a lot of contacts,” Parrotta said. “Tyson had a long career in a lot of countries so he has many contacts. And I have always gone this route (international). As soon as I joined the staff, Syd and I were on a plane to Austria for the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) championships. We saw a lot of players with a lot of potential.”

In addition to showcasing talent, the championships allow players to hone their skills against teams from around the globe. Despite the global scope of this tournament, there are times when even basketball proves the adage that it is indeed a small world. Case in point, at this year’s FIBA championship in Egypt, El-Sheikh and Cruz met up with each other on the court as participants in an opening round game between Egypt and Puerto Rico.

“Our opening game against Puerto Rico was very memorable because we won the game,” El-Sheikh said. “The president of Egypt attended the game so that was a big thing for us. It was weird because we (Cruz and El-Sheikh) were guarding each other. I didn’t think about us playing on the same college team at the time. We were in the same hotel though so we were hanging out with each other during free time. We talked about coming here and how we were excited to be going to Fairfield.”

Cruz and El-Sheikh were not the only ones to run into one another before coming to Fairfield. Kavaliauskas and Milin were randomly placed as roommates at an international showcase, hoping to find a roster spot at a school somewhere in the United States.

“I wanted to get an education because I would not be playing basketball forever,” Kavaliauskas said. “So I decided to try and go overseas to get an education and play basketball. I attended a college showcase in Istanbul and ended up rooming with Matija. Coach Parrotta was there and had spoken to Matija before he came to the showcase. So when he was there, he ended up seeing me too. Neither one of us knew that we would be going to Fairfield. But I’m glad we are here now.”

Johnson and Parrotta cannot always just hop on a flight and head to Serbia, Turkey, Austria, or any other country that might have potential student-athletes. At times, they may need to use more conventional methods to meet a recruit and his family.

“Syd and I recruited Matija via Skype with Matija in the middle of the screen, his mother on the left, and his father on the right,” Parrotta recalled. “Somehow, some way, his mother had to jump through that screen and start to trust Syd and myself. Building trust is important with families especially when they are sending their son to another country.”

Most European players have a strong desire to come to the United States to play college basketball, especially at the Division I level. Some even turn down professional contracts to pursue their dream of playing in America, because in Europe playing basketball at the highest levels isn’t compatible with university life.

“I’ve met in Lithuania, several professional players who are now out of basketball,” Kavaliauskas said. “They work jobs that don’t pay very much now. Even though they were top basketball players, it doesn’t help them after they leave the game. I figured I needed an education first and pursue basketball after I earn a degree.”

For international players, the American style of basketball can be challenging at first, but in the end, all players like the style of Johnson’s Running Stags.

“The transition from Europe and Africa to the U.S. meant getting used to the physicality and quickness of the game,” El-Sheikh said. “You have to make faster decisions and change tactics quicker here. I think my game is different now than it was when I was in Egypt.”

Several of the newcomers did gain a slight edge by playing at prep schools in the United States before enrolling at Fairfield. Cruz came to Fairfield through Loomis Chaffee, while Aziz attended Brewster Academy. El-Sheikh and Methnani were teammates at the Knox School, both part of the program’s first-ever team.

While basketball is at the forefront for many of these international student-athletes, they also have interests and talents that extend beyond the hardwood.

I play the flute,” Kasibabu said. “I learned it when I was little. I like to play classical. You can try to play other music but it does not sound as harmonious as classical music. It sounds so peaceful and relaxing.”

For Milin, he nearly represented Serbia in the winter Olympics, but not as a basketball player. He was recruited to play with the curling team.
Regardless of the numerous cultures and lifestyles that surround the Fairfield University basketball program in 2017-18, the group shares the goal of a MAAC championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Apparently winning needs no translation.