On the surface, it looked like the Samford men’s basketball team’s trip to the Dominican Republic was about the game of basketball.

Dig a little deeper, though, and it was about much more. And you really don’t have to dig far.

“Kind of a mission of ours is giving back,” said Samford head coach Bucky McMillan. “The sign of a great basketball player is not how many points he scored but how does he impact winning, how does he impact the team. The sign of a great person, at the end of their life, is how did they impact others. One of the missions of our university is to impact others. We’re, obviously, a Christian university where we try to impact as many people as we can throughout the world. This [fits] right in line with our program, our university, what we’re about. We could have gone to Europe, would have been a great time for our guys. But, I don’t think there’s a better place to go in line with what we are doing.”

The trip is a series of snapshots. Some came on the basketball court where Samford dropped an overtime decision in the first game and followed with a pair of decisive victories. Some of them were planned. Some just happened. All of them carried meaning that can’t be packed in a suitcase.

One of the highlights was a trip to an elementary school in an impoverished neighborhood. Soon after they arrived, about 300 kids went outside for recess. A fire truck pulled up, hooked up the hoses, and the kids played in the water for 30 minutes. Soon after it started, the Samford traveling party – players and coaches alike – joined in.

“It’s so impactful,” McMillan said. “You know, we’re up here in America with million-dollar houses and $50,000 cars. We have one of the highest depression rates in the U.S., highest anxiety rates on the globe. Here we are, in the U.S., with everything you could ever want, throwing food away, some people happy, some not. They turn that water hose on, and those kids play in that water and had more fun than anybody I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Our coaches, our players, jumped in there with them. We got them on our shoulders. It was the most fun I’ve had in decades. I’m serious. What did it take? Did it take material items? No, it took some water. It kind of takes you back to what really matters in life. Not only was it great for us, but those kids will remember the time these big old 6’7” guys were carrying them around on their shoulders. They will remember that for the rest of their [lives].”

McMillan said one of the best lessons his team learned on the basketball court came in the final game of the tour.

“We were beating them by 25, 30 points at half,” McMillan said. “I’m just going to tell you, in the United States, the typical response to that is guys not playing hard. It’s kind of what people do, because they don’t want to be associated with getting their butt kicked. Well, there, they’re down 25, 30 points. Those guys, if there was a way you can play even harder, they did it. There is such a pride in how they play. It’s such a privilege to be able to play basketball. Just the fact they have the opportunity to play meant so much to them.”

Originally, McMillan was looking for a tour that would help his team get better in preparation for the upcoming season. The Bulldogs are coming off a season in which they finished 21-11, marking the first time since 1998-99 that a Samford team won at least 20 games and had non-conference victories at Oregon State and Ole Miss. The bulk of the roster is returning, which has expectations high for the program. Sergio Rouco, Samford’s Director of Basketball Administration and former professional coach in the Dominican Republic, suggested the destination and took the lead in planning the trip.

“He thought this would be a great place to go,” McMillan said. “He said, ‘I’m telling you, you’ll see places down there where you see young kids walking around without clothes because they don’t have any clothes.’ He said, ‘The basketball is good. They love basketball.’ I know a lot of teams have gone to a lot of spots, teams have gone to Europe here recently. There is not a lot of giving back in Europe, just being real, you don’t have to as much. I don’t think it could have gone any better.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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