By Pat Baldwin
Men’s Head Basketball Coach, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
When we talk to our young men, be they current or future University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, we want to assure them that their time here will be a world-class experience. I picked up that mindset during my playing career, which included two years of pro ball in Europe, and from my coaching stops before I became Milwaukee’s head coach in 2017.
Our UWM players have the opportunity to attend an excellent university. They engage with other students in and out of the classroom, and they learn from a great group of faculty members and administrators, all right here in Milwaukee. But I always keep an eye out for experiences that will expand their worldview while helping our team form tighter bonds and produce better results.
So I was excited when we were approached about playing in the Belfast Hall of Fame Classic, part of which is held in Northern Ireland’s capital city. The tournament was scheduled for the early part of our 2018-2019 season. It included home games at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena on Nov. 20 and 23, then we’d head “across the pond” to Belfast a few days later.
A week of sightseeing would be followed by two more games in Belfast, played Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1. It seemed like a great way to combine learning, team-building and competition. To Ireland we’d go.
Traveling and playing in Belfast is just as much an educational opportunity as it is a basketball road trip. For many of our student-athletes, it marks their first time in Europe. I wanted to help them make the most of their chance to immerse themselves in the Irish culture.
Before the trip, we brought in a guest speaker to talk about Ireland, including the culture, politics, traditions and other facets that make it unique. We learned that Belfast struggled under decades of violence in the last half of the 20th century. But the city has since redefined itself and is now a popular tourist destination.
As the trip approached, we looked forward to our time together there as a great opportunity to build camaraderie and provide natural lessons in team building. It would be especially valuable, because this season’s team has so many new members who come to us from different places, backgrounds and walks of life.
I knew the trip would allow us to learn more about each other. We’d be spending more time together outside of the basketball gym, communicating with each other face to face rather than looking at our smartphone screens. It’s the type of experience that can go beyond the hardwood and impact our lives moving forward.
But we weren’t forgetting about our business on the hardwood, which wouldn’t be easy. Our first opponent in Belfast – the University at Buffalo – was a 2018 NCAA Tournament team. Yes, I love the opportunity to visit the countryside and experience the culture, but I want to win games as well.
I looked forward to seeing how we’d fare away from home, in an international locale and against opponents enjoying the same experiences as us. It would be fun to compete and see how we stacked up.
It all made me nostalgic for the days when I was a student-athlete. What I wouldn’t give to be a college player again and embark on the experience of a lifetime, just like the world-class one that awaited in Belfast.
Instead, I’m fortunate enough to do the next-best thing – watch the players I’m proud to coach experience it for themselves.