European Tour Notebook: Trip mixes culture, sports for Lancers

Published 3:55 pm Friday, August 11, 2023

 London. It was a morning arrival after an overnight flight to start the Longwood men’s basketball team’s summer 2023 European tour to England and France.

The upcoming schedule includes a tour of the city, including Borough Market, museums and history. But on the Lancers’ first night together abroad, Assistant Coach Ronnie Thomas wants to introduce the players to England through sports — and the country’s unique bond between club and community. He’s taking the Lancers to Emirates Stadium, to watch Thomas’s favorite English Premier League football (soccer) club, Arsenal, on their world-famous home pitch.

European tour

Longwood players celebrate visiting their first European soccer stadium, with a trip to watch English Premier League club Arsenal.

The journey is as much the experience as the destination. English football stadiums aren’t built for parking, or really much of any kind of fan convenience; they’re crammed into densely packed neighborhoods of the communities they represent. Thomas navigates the players to the Emirates via London’s Tube (subway), where the trains are packed — 70,000-plus fans en route, jammed together, many in Arsenal kit and already chanting the club’s cheers and songs. Szymon Zapala, Longwood’s 7-foot center from Poland new to the team this year, provides a usefully prominent guide mark for the team to follow through the crowds filling the subway and streets of North London.

Email newsletter signup

Whit Thomas, a Longwood assistant coach since 2020 and huge soccer fan from his own days living in Ireland, wants the players to experience less the match than the connection between sports and community that defines English soccer. Stadiums here are built for communal experience, not amenities and elbow room. “In America, professional sports feel like time off. In England they’re time together,” Thomas says. For young players, many of whom have never traveled abroad, the educational benefits begin with the simple recognition that things can be and are different elsewhere.

The players find their way to their 10th row seats. 

“I think initially, they thought it would be boring,” Thomas says. But not for long. The energy in the stands is pulsating — and positive. Nearby supporters recognize the team as first-timers, and take them under their wing, leading them in chants and cheering them on. The pace and skill of top-tier soccer are eye-opening. The match against AC Monaco ends in a 1-1 draw, but Arsenal wins the penalty shootout, sending the crowd happily back out into the neighborhood.


What are the Lancers doing traveling in Europe this summer? With the generous support of a group of donors, the program is taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows teams to take summer tours that combine basketball and cultural immersion/education once every four years. They’ll play three games in France, but first are two days to experience London – the city head coach Griff Aldrich and his wife Julie called home for five years and are eager to show the team.

One benefit is simply bonding a new team, including both veterans and newcomers who have been together for just a few weeks of summer practice, in the inimitable manner travels strengthens friendships. There’s also an important educational component. Many of the players took a preparatory course back on campus before departure, and there will be professionally guided tours of historic sites regularly along the way.

European tour

Longwood scores early during their game against Parisian Select.

Four Longwood players have lived most of their lives overseas (two from Finland, one from Poland, and one from Cameroon). So, like many college basketball programs, Longwood is becoming more international. But many of the Americans haven’t had a chance to see other cultures. Foreign trips also demonstrate a level of wherewithal and philanthropic support that shows the world Longwood is an up-and-coming program.

“Just pulling this off is also a statement about where we are with the program, along with the Joan Perry Brock Center coming online,” Aldrich said as the team was preparing to depart. “Doing these kinds of trips is what higher-level programs do.”

Last but not least, there’s a chance to play a series of exhibition games against quality European opponents who bring a different style of play, testing Longwood as it prepares for the upcoming inaugural season in the Joan Perry Brock Center. But first, a day of sightseeing and exploring London. Basketball awaits in Paris.


An early morning bus to Saint Pancras Station to board the Eurostar Train to Paris begins the day.

Helping organize the Longwood trip is Brian Ratzliff, a one-time tech executive who now runs summer travel programs for a range of college programs, helping them line up both educational programming and games. Over more than a decade, Ratzliff says he’s seen a broad impact these programs have on student-athletes – sometimes immediately, sometimes long-term. Generally, due to their sports commitments, student-athletes don’t have the same opportunities as other students to experience study abroad while in college.

“It opens up the world for them,” Ratzliff says. “They’re exposed to another culture. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as just learning to navigate the subway, getting the confidence that they could live and thrive in a different place.”

For some players, it opens the possibility of playing overseas after graduation. Less obviously, on a team with international players, it helps the Americans develop empathy and understanding for the very different worlds some of their teammates may come from.

After arriving, Longwood heads to a Paris gym to practice. Aldrich isn’t sure what to expect on the heels of so much travel, but the guys are sharp and focused tuning up for their first game — Saturday against Parisian Select, a mixed all-star team of players from France’s club and semi-pro system.


Johan Nziemi is one of eight newcomers to Lancer basketball this season but already a popular guy on this trip. He’s the only player — or member of the full Longwood delegation of coaches, staff and supporters — who speaks truly fluent French. Nziemi grew up in Cameroon, speaking French at home and spending summers and holidays visiting France, where his dad was a professional volleyball player. His sport as a kid was soccer; Nziemi didn’t start playing hoops until he was 16, after he had moved to New York City.

For the players gingerly setting out to explore a new city, Nziemi is indispensable. With a laugh and a broad smile, he recounts the barrage of questions from teammates about food, how to get around and much else.

“I think they like Paris a little more than London,” he says. “It seems more vibrant to them, there’s a bit more energy.”

He has fond memories of visiting France — particularly the food and Afro-beat music at parties. Diverse and cosmopolitan, Paris is like a culinary homecoming. He loves both North African and sub-Saharan cuisine, and reported taking teammates Walyn Napper, DA Houston and Michael Christmas to a kebab place tucked away in a neighborhood a few blocks away. “They said it was the best food they’d ever had,” he said.

Longwood is staying in a hotel at Plaza de la Republique, home to a renowned “Liberte” statue dating to the French Revolution that has made it a popular location for political gatherings and protests. Today, hundreds of Senegalese ex-patriots have gathered for a vocal demonstration and then march through the streets in support of a jailed opposition leader in their home country. A keen observer of African politics, Nziemi starts explaining the further nuances that have brought the group out to march. The recent coup in Niger has rekindled fears of French intervention in Africa, he explains, which despite their protests of the Senegalese government this group opposes.

Late in the afternoon, the Lancers board a bus to the Paris suburbs and a community center for their game against Parisian Select.

Editor’s note: Longwood Chief of Staff Justin Pope is traveling with the men’s basketball team as they compete overseas in Europe. And while he’s over there, the former Associated Press reporter has graciously agreed to document what’s happening, to share with everyone back home. This covers the first week of their journey.