First, I know Buffs basketball fans were jonesing for a full scouting report for the games played in Europe on their short tour from somebody who saw them live (besides the two funny French commentators from the radio). Although they stopped over in Gent, Belgium where I was in attendance ... unfortunately, I have to say those of you expecting as much from me will be disappointed. The reason, basically, is because this happened:
I have been living in Brussels, Belgium for about 2 years now since moving from Boulder and away from any time zone where watching Buffs play any sport became pretty impossible (lets just say the only Buffs game I have successfully found live on a TV in a sports bar was the last Nebraska football game, where I was very much alone and very VERY lonely). Since Coach Boyle took the CU job, I have had the urge to shake his hand and thank him for all his hard work in Boulder to help Colorado basketball program find success. While reflecting on my memories of watching Coach Patton's team play in the virtually empty Cave in 2005-2006 when the Buffs became Pac-12 champs, the fact Chris Copeland was the MVP in the Pro Belgian league this year with his team Aalstar was just the first coincidence related to CU basketball in Belgium of 2012. After I saw a European tour through France, Belgium and Netherlands was announced, I hounded websites and box offices as soon as the dates approached and made sure to clear my plans in August to make it out to anywhere in Belgium the Buffs may possibly turn up.
I arrived to the game against the semi-pro Gent Dragons in the company of my German girlfriend and our French friend, neither of whom had any particular interest in basketball. CU was down 5 in the 2nd quarter when we got there late, mostly because we couldn't find the arena probably because we only visited Gent once before and it was located almost halfway underground making the place an oven. When we arrived, the body language of the team seemed anxious and there didn't seem to be much chemistry between players on the bench, which was probably the result of being beat twice in a row by the same French All-Pro squad (which included NBA players like Washington Wizard's Kevin Seraphin) a couple days before, jetlag and the fact the arena could have doubled for a sauna - if it was 90F outside that day, it was probably 110F inside during the game. Yet about 5 min into the Q2 Tad Boyle read his team well, found his emotions at the right moment, called timeout and revved the engine for the team. By the half CU was up and that never changed the rest of the game.
We went outside to actually breathe and have a drink, where I saw the only people in attendance apart from myself wanting the Buffs to win, I approached them to see who they were. As it turns out, I ran into Spencer Dinwiddie's aunt and uncle as well as Coach Prioleau's wife and child, who all came along for CU's tour. They confirmed: 1) they had the same problem finding the arena, 2) the Buffs went down to a team in Paris which was indeed much more experienced and mature than any fans probably expected, and 3) the Buff community is truly just one big family - a true indication of what was to come later. They were approachable, friendly and genuinely interested in who I was and why I was there for the game.
The second half unfolded in pretty much the best way imaginable. Roberson dominated the glass and rim, Chen played consistent and tenacious defense, Booker calmly finished his possessions to perfection... the returning players from the PAC-12 Championship team were making their mark early and setting the stage for the first year players to take the reigns - a formula we may see duplicated later in the season. The people who showed up for the Gent Dragons were understandably frustrated by their team's inability to keep possession, get any rebounds whatsoever or take any easy shots at all. While one could say the opposition went cold, I rather think the Buffs stepped up the defense and showed off their deep talent.
After the game ended and the teams shook hands, the players and Coach Boyle filed off for the locker room. Yet, one of the assistant coaches veered off towards me with a big smile on his face, ear to ear. I knew there as something familiar to the smile, but I admittedly did not recognize Rodney Billups until after I went home. Coach Billups first complemented my 8 yr old black & grey CU bookstore handout t-shirt, then shook my hand and asked for my story. I could only thank him and the team for making the trip out to Belgium so I could see them play live, and he thanked me in return for showing up to support the team. That would have probably been enough for me right there, but then after he moved on into the locker room after the rest of the team Coach Proileau came up to do the same. Wearing a sincere smile as well, he repeated the same genuine kindness and appreciation Coach Billups showed and asked me my graduating class, giving an understanding nod as I told him how happy I was to watch the team truly succeed. Before he left he told me to hang around a bit longer because the team would want to come out and greet me.
At this point the firm handshakes and thank yous refused to let me think I was dreaming - because what would happen was far better than I could have imagined. After waiting around in the sauna, thinking out loud to the Europeans with me the team couldn't seriously be coming out to talk to me, Andre Roberson appeared and showed me exactly what I expect from a veteran team leader. The consistency in the genuine appreciation, kindness and sincere smiles of Roberson and his assistant coaches thoroughly blew my mind (as well as those of the Europeans who were with me). Next came Coach Boyle, and I did exactly what I came there to do - an opportunity I couldn't have imagined to ever happen - by telling him what it was like to watch the CU Buffs of 2005 and 2006 with an empty Cave whenever I could actually stomach the experience and thank him for filling the Cave up to capacity and bringing happiness to a deserving and dedicated fan base desperate for success.
Boyle's attitude was reassuring and modest, just admitted the team had a lot of growing to do. In my opinion, with these coaches around him sending such great vibes through the team, its now hard for me to imagine the team do anything but succeed in at least making Buff fans proud of their team. He asked me if I knew they had built new practice courts next to the Cave, and I really had no idea, but he invited us all to pay a visit if we ever found ourselves visiting Boulder to check it out and say hi to the team... to which I thought... Seriously??? What coach says that??? Before I could respond, he just turned around to the rest of the team coming out and told them to come meet the guy who remembered when the Cave used to be completely empty (like it was an eternity ago!). Boyle has buried the thought of CU basketball as a secondary sport at the school in his mind and he wants it to be a source of pride - you can just tell.
The rest is truly a blur. Meeting the team was pretty astonishing, especially since they swallowed their hunger, fatigue and jetlag to come out and say hi and thank the (only!?) Buffs fan in Belgium! Of course, its just being in the right place at the right time, identifying a group of people most Europeans know nothing about probably helps to earn a rare experience. Yet this was not even when we took the picture. After the team went back into the locker room and I was left in complete shock with the Europeans, who were equally blown away by how nice everyone was to a complete stranger, it donned on me we had a camera. I completely forgot about it and thought I didn't want to be 'that guy' who takes too many photos and wears down their welcome. I completely understand that - yet my girlfriend really convinced me I should have at least got one.
As we were on our way out, we saw a huge table set up by the venue with dinner out for the team - Josh Scott was already sitting over there on his own looking at the plate like he had been waiting for that moment faaaar longer than before the start of the game. I turned around and there was Tad Boyle and the rest of the team following him out towards dinner. If there was anyone who could assemble the photo above, I knew it would be Coach Boyle, who gladly asked his team to take a bunch of team photos with me. Again, despite their hunger and truly unbearable discomfort inside 100F+ heat of the arena, the team cooperated. Booker grabbed me and brought me to the middle right in front of Chen and Roberson and three photos later the night had the perfect ending.
I consider myself to be a pretty average Buffs alum, who watched teams fail in agony and succeed seemingly always as the underdogs over the years while I was in school. Sure, my situation and circumstances were unique and I can appreciate that difference from when an stranger approaches the team and knows who they are in Boulder. Yet, the confidence with which Coach Billups came up to me to say thank you and the sequence of events itself seemed like such a privilege to me, its still very hard for me to express my gratitude beyond the million thank yous I offered to them... because they truly never stopped thanking me!!! Chen hung around after the photo chatting to me, actually showing personal interest in why I was living in Europe and even Mr. Abatemarco came up to me as I was leaving to thank me just one more time for coming out. It is less than a week after I went to Gent to see the Buffs and I still feel the buzz of that night, which I do not think will go away until this basketball season ends in 2013.
The whole experience leaves me wondering just how many teams there are like the Buffs out there, how many players and coaches around the US would do the same for their fans under similar circumstances. They all should do the same, for all their fans, but I know this is not reality. However, for some reason I can't help but to think this CU team is extremely special, from the freshmen to the assistant coaches. The chemistry needs building over time, but the character is already there surrounding the players within the staff. For the first time ever, I'm more excited for the start of the CU basketball season than the football season. Perhaps this is coming out of deep personal gratitude or a complete bias from the experience, but it was always the other way around - and I have a feeling other CU alum could feel the same way. If whatever these coaches are doing with the players continues to build their character and bring out such humility even back in Boulder, it is paving the way for a bright future for the university and the players themselves. In such isolation, living in a country where I am so out of touch with the Buffs community, I've never been so proud to be a CU Buff!!!