"My motto is, Eat the country," says Lee Frederick. And he has
eaten many of them.
"When I took the Augustana College team to the island of
Dominica," he says, "we ate barbecued frogs called mountain
chickens. They're about a yard long and taste kind of like
swordfish. Not at all like the iguana soup I had with the Wright
State team in Curacao."
The 52-year-old Frederick, through his Milwaukee-based Sport
Tours International, has been organizing foreign travel for
college basketball teams--and devouring the planet--for 16
years. And these days business is booming. Just as more and more
foreign players are suiting up for American college teams, so
are more American college teams packing up for off-season
barnstorming tours abroad. When athletic directors or coaches
need a travel agent who can also arrange basketball games, they
often turn to an outfit like Sport Tours. So Lee Frederick gets
Every winter Frederick orchestrates the San Juan Shootout, the
Bahamas Sun Splash Shootout, the Bahamas Junkanoo Shootout and
the Great Bahamas Goombay Shootout. Every summer he ships out a
dozen or so college teams to some of the most remote outposts in
hoopdom. There was the time in 1986 he accompanied the Mavericks
of National College of South Dakota to Surinam and wound up in
the bush with a bunch of tipsy shamans who danced on shards of
glass and hot coals. And there was the trip he took to Fiji with
the Marquette team in 1992, on which he and several players
ended up in a basement men's club, singing bawdy songs and
drinking kava--a semilethal concoction made from crushed pepper
root. Then there was the night he let the Montana Grizzlies
loose smack in the middle of Amsterdam's red-light district.
"There are tourists and travelers," says Frederick. "Tourists
want everything to be the same as it is back home. Travelers are
looking for adventure."
November 15, 1996
By that definition, Frederick is without doubt a traveler; he
also happens to be well traveled as a hoopster. He was a backup
guard at Bradley in the early '60s, a head coach at Oakland
University in Rochester, Mich., from 1979 to '84 and, briefly, a
scout for the Detroit Pistons before starting Sport Tours in
1986. The venture was not an instant success. "We didn't just
struggle at first," Frederick says. "We nearly went bankrupt."
He had actually made his first hoops odyssey back in '79, when,
like a 20th-century Dr. Livingstone, he led his Oakland Pioneers
into the wilds of Antigua. The basketball court was paved with
dung-dotted asphalt. The scoreboard was a chalkboard. The
Pioneers had to share their wheezy, wobbly bus with a bunch of
libertines from the Dominican Republic. "One day the Dominicans
got on the bus and lit up these enormous Bob Marley reefers,"
says Frederick. "All my players sat around wondering if I was
going to go berserk. But I just smiled and did nothing."
He has since led some 75 excursions, and the market for foreign
hoops tours has never been better. It's not so much that teams
are looking to become missionaries preaching the gospel of the
game to the natives; it's more self-serving than that. NCAA
rules allow Division I and II teams to play up to two weeks of
foreign exhibition games every four years (every three years for
Division III). If the players were to stay home over the summer,
the NCAA would not permit them even to get together for an
organized practice, much less a game against seasoned competition.
And because of the potential for team bonding on these junkets,
coaches love them. Many of these freshly melded teams have
improved their records significantly once they returned home.
After going 7-20 in 1993-94, the Miami Hurricanes toured Israel;
the next year they made the postseason for the first time in 31
years, with a 15-13 record. Florida and Arizona each spent a
fortnight in Australia in '93, and both made the Final Four in
'94. Syracuse, Massachusetts, Mississippi State and Kentucky all
played in Europe in '94 or '95--they all made the Final Four in
'96. "Having players experience different cultures together
tends to fast-forward their progress as a team," says Frederick.
"It increases their awareness of living. It's money in the bank
for their souls."
International travel can also be a juicy plum to dangle before
less-than-worldly recruits. "It enhances our appeal," says
Niagara coach Jack Armstrong. "Incoming players know they'll
have the opportunity to go overseas."
And how many times would they get the chance to be hailed as
heroes? Frederick's staff now includes Glenn Wilkes, who was the
coach at Stetson from 1957 to '93. Wilkes's first Sport Tours
trip was in May 1994. "I was in a French town called
Chalons-sur-Marne with the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks,"
Wilkes says, savoring the memory like a Proustian madeleine.
"The stands of the gym were packed--probably because the school
had been billed as 'NCAA Champions North Carolina.' At the end
of the game, the players were mobbed."
When Niagara's bus pulled into the French village of Douchy this
summer, scores of schoolchildren raced to meet it. "We felt like
we had come to liberate the town," says Armstrong. "It was like
we were Patton's troops." But, as every general knows,
basketball is hell: Armstrong's men went 3-7 on their European
campaign. "He had asked me to round up some soft opponents so
his team could build confidence," says Frederick. "I knew the
Purple Eagles were bad, but I didn't know how bad."
Most of the teams Frederick packed off to Europe this summer
took a plunge. Cal was 2-4; Wyoming was 2-8; Virginia Tech was
1-6. "Winning wasn't our objective," says Virginia Tech coach
Bill Foster, whose Hokies were 23-6 on U.S. terrain last season.
"We had lost four of our starters. I wanted to get a look at all
my guys, and let them play hard and play relaxed."
Foster had requested a tough schedule, so Frederick lined up
clubs that were stocked with faded NBA stars and former NBA
draftees. The Hokies were shish-kebabbed by a Greek team that
featured onetime first-round pick Scott Skiles. They were
annihilated by a team from Antibes led by former NBA All-Star
Micheal Ray Richardson, still formidable at age 41. "My guys
were awed by Micheal Ray," says Foster. "They weren't sure
whether to guard him or ask him for his autograph."
Putting together a schedule and arranging hotels, flights and
meals does not come cheap. The typical 12-day trip to Europe
costs about $2,000 per person. Niagara financed its two-week,
10-game tour of France, Italy and Switzerland in August with
money it received from playing games on the road against
powerhouses like Kansas--i.e., certain losses. Virginia Tech
raised cash through banquets, auctions and the sale of team
pictures. Small schools frequently ask their players to pay
their own way. "Players who pay do seem to enjoy the trips
more," says Frederick. "Division I players are more apt to take
it all for granted. They can be arrogant and boorish. It's
embarrassing for us at times."
Recently, one team dribbled down to a Sport Tours-sponsored
tournament in Mexico City. With a team of local all-stars
leading at the half, Frederick says he heard the American coach
scream at his players: "Goddam you guys! They're just a bunch of
Mexicans!" Perhaps he was still unnerved by an incident in the
northern highlands a few days before. During warmups, a Mexican
mutt had shown its distaste for the visitors by leaving a
memento in their layup lane.
To Frederick, no Americans were ever uglier than the Cal crew
that Sport Tours shepherded around Europe in August. Late in a
game in the Italian Alps, the Bears' since-deposed coach, Todd
Bozeman, became so incensed by the officiating that he took his
team off the court. In Nice, an innkeeper received complaints
that some bad-news Bears had leaned out the windows of their
rooms and dumped ice and soda on the patrons of an outdoor cafe.
In Paris the players confined themselves to their hotel. "They
just sat around their rooms watching CNN and cartoons," says
Frederick. "In Paris! Imagine that!" When a Sport Tours guide
tried to scare up interest for a trip to the Louvre, a wife of
one coach asked, "What's that?"
"An art museum," said the guide.
"Why should we go there?" she said.
The guide eventually enlisted a few coaches and four art-loving
players, who dashed into the Louvre, saw the Mona Lisa and the
Venus de Milo, and dashed out. "It must have taken all of a half
hour," says Frederick. "They were more interested in getting to
McDonald's." The Golden Arches, it turns out, are more popular
with college hoopsters than the Arc de Triomphe. "I tell them
the French practically invented cooking," says Frederick. "But
they'd rather eat out of a cardboard box."
Frederick has found that women's teams are generally more
curious, more considerate and more adventurous. "If they lose,
they won't run out of the postgame dinner," he says. "They have
a sense of honor and obligation." Frederick sometimes wonders
why Division I men's coaches even bother taking their teams
abroad. "Fewer and fewer coaches are willing to show their kids
anything but a backdoor cut," he laments. "They're afraid that
if a kid is uncomfortable, he'll be unhappy and want to transfer."
A faint smile flickers across his face. "The truth is, these
kids ought to be uncomfortable," says Frederick. "Without
problems, there are no solutions."