THENS - A glance down the aisle of the two-tiered tour bus reveals 14 long legs arched between seats, a seemingly endless row of bridges. Their owners each sit with head cocked toward the closest window as the bus lumbers through Athenian traffic, past a majestic parliament building, soiled cement high-rises, and the giant marble columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which glisten in the setting sun.
The young men's eyes absentmindedly scan the landscape and store signs that bear lettering unintelligible to them, occasionally alighting with excitement on Uzi-wielding guards and strange car dealerships.
They each wear matching silver headphones, and several bop their heads along to the music coming from their portable CD players. The bus is silent, save for the occasional comment about Athenian female fashion - skin-tight pants, low-cut halter tops with clear plastic straps; high strappy sandals - or song lyrics they shout out with seeming urgency at random intervals.
If the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is experiencing any culture shock, it is not readily apparent. In fact, the players seem to have adjusted pretty well to their new environs.
It is 5 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 14. The team and its small entourage of coaching staff, advisers, administrators and a handful of fans arrived less than 24 hours ago, after nearly 12 hours of travel. They're here to experience native country of their new coach, Steve Lappas, and to play basketball.
The long journey and daunting seven-hour time difference seem to have little effect on the group. Instead of spending the day recuperating, they are attacking Athens full-force.
After arriving at their hotel - the Grande Bretagne, by far the most posh in Athens - at around 9:30 p.m. Monday, they headed straight for the old, touristy section of Plaka for a large traditional Greek dinner on the roof of a taverna with a view of the Acropolis.
There they were treated to live music and dined until 12:30 a.m. Eight hours later, they were having breakfast in the hotel lobby. By 9 a.m. they were at the Acropolis, already swarming with tourists, some of whom stopped the players, wondering if they were from the New York Knicks, and asking for autographs.
Afterwards, they visited the 70,000-person-capacity stadium erected for the first modern Olympics in 1896. A few brave souls ran a lap around the track, but most saved their strength, because after a full day of sightseeing in the hot Grecian sun, the team had a game at 7 p.m. at the seaside resort of Glyfada. Their opponent would be Team Hellas, a group of professional players who compete throughout Europe and internationally.
Sizing up the opponent
When the bus arrived at the stadium - actually, more of a neighborhood gymnasium - at 5:30 p.m., the Minutemen immediately grabbed basketballs and started shooting, before Lappas and assistant coach Andrew Theokas led the team in short drills.
When the Greek team arrived, the sizing up began. The Greek coaches watched openly, while their players, stretching in a corner, stole glances. Later, as the Greeks lined up for basic drills, the Minutemen eyed them curiously.
The game began with an exchange of gifts - Greek pins for UMass T-shirts - and each quarter started with a sort of fist-punching handshake. It was clear the game was to be friendly. Even when the Greek referees made some mysterious foul calls, partly based on international rules unfamiliar to his team, Lappas bit his lip and smiled. A small but vocal contingent of UMass fans filled the bleachers, many of them relatives of Lappas, armed with maroon and white pompoms.
Lappas' 10-year-old son, Peter, used his limited Greek language skills to shout "Ekso!" (Out!) while Greek players took foul shots. Friends and fans of the Greek team were also scattered around the gymnasium, but unlike most Greek sport spectators, who tend to yell constant streams of obscenities, they remained silent throughout the game.
The teams were well-matched in height, but the Greek team proved faster and more cohesive against a team that was just learning to play together. UMass lost, 73-61.
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The purpose of the trip, Lappas has said, is to make the new team more cohesive, both on the court and off it.
The game, with its international rules and resulting confusion, seemed to serve that purpose. On the trip back to the hotel, the players gathered at the front of the bus, excitedly analyzing the game and making plans for the evening.
"We're still getting used to each other," said sophomore Anthony Anderson.
Wednesday they headed out at 7 a.m. on a sweeping, three-island tour. After that, they were to visit the ancient sites of Delphi and Corinth, then the island of Mykonos, famed for its picturesque windmills and throbbing nightlife.
There on the bus, they decided to make their mark on the island - as a team.
Stacey Shackford is a former Gazette reporter who is now living and working in Greece