Gwangju, South Korea — Before Saturday, Kansas University men’s basketball coach Bill Self and most of his players had never represented the United States in an international basketball tournament.
That changed when the Jayhawks, representing the U.S., played Turkey in their first game of the World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea.
The U.S. won the contest 66-57.
It became even more special because the game was on the Fourth of July. Korea is 14 hours ahead of Lawrence time. The Jayhawks planned to celebrate Independence Day with other American teams later in the evening.
“That’s actually kind of a special thing,” KU sophomore guard Devonté Graham said before the game. “I don’t think that many people thought about it. But playing on July 4th, it won’t be July 4th back in the States, but it’s a special thing.”
Even if the Jayhawks haven’t spent much time thinking about the significance of playing on July 4, they have thought about what it means to represent their nation abroad.
“This is one of the coolest experiences I’ll ever get to take in,” senior guard Evan Manning said. “Being able to wear something where you get to represent your country, playing against other nations. The camaraderie between athletes has been pretty good so far.”
The Jayhawks ventured around the city of Gwangju this week, visiting the Gwangju Democracy Bell on Wednesday. The Democracy Bell commemorates the site of a democratic uprising in Gwangju in 1980. The team members rang the bell together during their time at the park.
“This is an amazing honor,” said Florida Gulf Coast senior guard Julian DeBose, who is one of two non-KU players on the team, filling in after injuries. “I woke up at 12 a.m. to get this call that I was going to be here. I’m excited. I want to honor and represent my country in the best possible way that I can.”
Everywhere the Jayhawks have played, local residents and students have given them warm greetings with plenty of clapping and smiles. When the Jayhawks practiced at Hwangdeok Middle School on Friday at the school’s outdoor courts, kids chanted “U-S-A” when KU players were walking up to the school.
“It’s USA basketball, but it’s just the USA in general with the relationships our countries have,” Self said. “We’re very well thought of here. Then of course, the way the kids — everybody likes basketball. It’s a totally different way of liking basketball. Everybody likes basketball because they’ve got a pair of LeBron James shoes. It’s totally different than what it would be in the States. It’s pretty nice.”
Graham added: “It’s just different. We probably won’t even realize how special and how amazing this place is until like years later when we get older. Not a lot of people get this experience traveling the world. We just get to come here and play basketball and just do stuff that we’re loving, and they love it too, so it’s just fun for them.”
Only a few hours from Gwangju is a stark contrast from the freedoms the Jayhawks enjoy. North Korea, an impoverished country ruled by a notorious dictator, serves as a quick reminder of the freedoms that make Independence Day special in the States.
“It definitely does,” Manning said. “What, five hours north of here, there’s people not allowed to leave their country. You’re not allowed to go in there. Sometimes we do take it for granted, but this is definitely an eye-opening experience. Everyone here is so grateful for the opportunity.
“You can tell, just to be able to meet new people and we’re all taking it in. We’re all loving all of the people and getting to know everyone, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in Korean. We’ll remember this for our lifetime.”