Minutemen get a taste of Greece
By Stacey Shackford, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, 8/21/2001

ATHENS - Souvlaki. Tiropita. Taramosalata. Loukamades. Eric Williams would rather have a big plate of pasta. Or at least something he can identify.

Food is only one of the cultural differences the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team has experienced on its 10-day trip to Greece. Williams, who is a forward for the team, finds many things curious about the new environment.

So does Jackie Rogers.

"You see a lot of stuff different from us," Rogers said. "There are a lot of mopeds. Not like there aren't mopeds in the States, but there are more here. And there are a lot of dogs chasing the mopeds. They're nice dogs, they won't bite you. Unless you get on a moped," Rogers said.

"The food is very different," he continued. "They don't season it. They drink goat's milk. And there are no pancakes. They don't believe in it or something."

Bracing against the wind that tears up the steep seaside cliff to the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, senior forward Ronell Blizzard said he can't help but reflect on history, and the future. For him, this trip means many things.

"I feel this ... is a chance to enjoy college and a way to make the absolute most of it," Blizzard said. "I'm learning about not only this country, but about my teammates, the coaches, and a lot about myself."

The team has certainly seen a lot of each other over the past week, and it seems to have done some good. On the day of the Sounion trip, last Thursday, the team played its second game against Team Hellas. UMass lost, but the players seemed to be playing together a little better. The next day, they beat the same team, their first win.

The difference in play was not only visible, but audible. The players talked to each other on the court, and huddled often to discuss strategy. What made the difference? Coach Steve Lappas attributes it to practice and rest.

Sophomore guard Jameel Pugh said he thought the players felt more like a team. "We've been here for a week together, with no distractions," he said. "It just seems like we're jelling. We're helping each other out and cheering each other on."

The night before the win, the team was treated to a grand dinner at the posh restaurant of the Astir Palace Hotel, located in the exclusive seaside resort of Vouliagmeni, 20 minutes from Athens.

On the menu: salad with lobster, scampi and heart of artichoke; fillet of sole; fillet mignon of veal with wild mushrooms; chocolate parfait with strawberries; plenty of wine, and for the team, fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The dinner was sponsored by university President William Bulger, who left a conference in London and flew in that morning with trustee Edward Dubilo to spend a few days with the team.

Spirits were high. At one table, Williams, who earlier in the day admitted that the sole focus of the trip for him was basketball and that he didn't even bring a camera, tried to say thank you to a waiter in Greek. A singer in a sequined dress who had belted out tacky American lounge music all night suddenly started singing from the Zorba the Greek soundtrack.

A few staff and administrators sitting at another table began to sway and clap their hands. Williams jumped up and asked one of them to dance. Soon there was a line of dancers - basketball players, administrators and coaches alike - winding around the lawn, Coach Lappas at its head. Lappas later said it was one of his favorite moments of the trip - "seeing the guys get involved in Greek culture, getting up and dancing."

The team got a weekend off from sight-seeing and early-morning wake-up calls. Sunday, the Greek National Team beat them, 84-62, in the last game of the trip. They are headed to the island of Mykonos for a few days before returning to the States Thursday.

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