They say one way to lift the spirit of a kid is to give them a piece of candy. Imagine then what it's like to hand a pack of Skittles over to a sick 5-year old orphan who spends his entire life fighting off flies, malnourishment and 115-degree heat in the slums of Senegal?
University of Miami redshirt freshman Julian Gamble encountered that very situation earlier this month when he participated in a 13-day trip to Africa with Athletes in Action. Gamble, a 6-9, 240-pound center from Raleigh, N.C., experienced many things on his adventure to West Africa. He played in international games. He stood toe-to-toe against a 7-foot, 4-inch giant from Mali and got his shots swatted by Jared Carter, a 7-2 center from Kentucky. But nothing on his trip had quite as big of an impact as a visit to a local orphanage in Senegal.
"There were a lot of kids there and most of them were sick," Gamble told me when I spoke to him last week. "We were just trying to play with them and make them happy. Well, during one break, there was this one little boy who saw me eating this pack of Skittles. He had no idea what it was. So, I gave him one and he got so happy. We just started playing and running around, playing catch, making him happy. It warmed my heart a lot to give him that because it's not like he has a home, where he's going to get ready for school or something. All he does is stay in that orphanage. For us to be there for that small moment was really special."
Gamble, who made the trip with nearly a dozen other college basketball players from around the country, had many special moments on his trip. It was the first time in his life he ever left the United States -- and the first time since he made the jump from high school to college he's been able to get into a game. Last season, he sat, learned, and watched UM go from preseason last pick in the ACC to the second round of the NCAA tournament. This season, with Anthony King and Ray Hicks gone, he will almost assuredly be a part of the new four-person, big-man rotation for coach Frank Haith. I caught up with Julian last week to discuss all that. But first, in this two-part Q&A series, I'll let him share his experiences from his adventure, which included an eight-point, 12-rebound effort in a 73-62 win against Mali.
Q: So, last year, I know Brian Asbury (China) and Jimmy Graham (Australia) got to do the same kind of trip? How did this trip come about for you?
A: Our team Chaplin, Pastor Steve, he works with Athletes in Action. Being around Jimmy and stuff like that, he’s big with Athletes in Action. It was a combination of talking to both of them. I told them I definitely wanted to take advantage of an opportunity if it came about and it did. I didn’t know I was going until about a week before I went. So, it was kind of tough securing my passport. Plus, I had to raise money for finances and things I would need over there. I wrote a letter asking for some donations. Luckily, there are a lot of donators to Athletes in Action in the Miami area. From there, I just went up to Ohio where they are based. We worked out for a couple days and then went to Africa and spent about two weeks over there.
Q: How was the flight?
A:The flight was long. We flew from Ohio to New York and from New York to Paris. That was about a seven and a half hour flight. We had a 6 hour layover. We didn’t go anywhere. We just chilled. Then we had another five hour flight to Senegal. And after we stayed in Senegal we had another two hour flight to Mali. Even though they’re connecting countries, you can’t drive from Senegal to Mali because of the different terrains and they’re aren’t even roads. On the way back it was a little shorter. It was about 5 ½ hours. The flights are long. But when your talking to your teammates and going to sleep it goes by fast.
Q: Who went on the trip with you?
A: It was an assortment of players throughout. Our coach was the assistant coach from Valparaiso. He had a couple players from his Valpo team out there. There were a couple players from the Kentucky team we are playing this year -- Jared Carter and Ramon Harris. They had a kid from Belmont, Shane Dansey, who played really well against Duke in the tournament. We had a guy from Murray State. We had St. Mary’s Ian O’Leary, who we played against in the tournament last year. So, really it was a wide assortment of players -- everybody from rising seniors to rising freshmen. We had a good team. I think I played well for the most part. I think out there its definitely a different game. The lanes are wider. The traveling is different. Our first game we probably had like 40 turnovers, just traveling. Once we starting playing I got used to it. Basically, it’s more of a physical game. I think maybe 75 percent of the things over there would be fouls over here. I played pretty well. We played five games and I think I had three double-doubles.
Q: Did you start any of the games?
A: Yes, I started. But we had a rotation. There were no set starters. One team would start one game and another the next. I started a couple. Everybody played equal time. It wasn’t a situation where it was a clear cut starting five. We were all kind of equal as players.
Q: What do you think you learned out there and who did you match up with?
A: I matched up with Jared Carter, who plays for Kentucky. He’s 7-2. And he plays center. It was good for me to play with somebody like that, to play against someone bigger than me. At first, he was blocking my shots because I wasn’t used to it. I had to use my body different ways, use different moves and things like that. There was another guy out there from Valpo. It was Urule Igbavboa [senior]. Playing against season vets, I learned a lot.
Q: Do you get a chance to see Africa?
A: We did a lot of different things. It wasn’t just a situation where we were going on safaris or anything. As a team, we went and visited orphanages and we went and saw different communities. We saw the market and saw the city and did a lot of community service while we were out there. We did basketball clinics for up-and-coming basketball players. I mean I feel like we’ve seen the better parts of Africa and saw everything that was going on over there. We weren’t just going to the zoo. We got a chance to see everyday life out there in Africa.
Q: What made the biggest impression on you from the trip?
A: The one thing I kind of told everyone about, I told Jimmy Graham about it, I told Coach Haith about is just how the demeanor of the people. They don’t have nearly as many privileges as they do over here and they are still always happy. You don’t see them complaining how most people do over here. It just kind of gives you a sense of sitting back and thinking why would I take things for granted? Why would I complain about the little things I do have when there are people over here who have nothing and they’re happy and they’re just living life. They have everyday struggles, but theirs are a hundred times worse than ours. Seeing how friendly they were and seeing the resources they have, they have very little, and they’re still friendly. They’re not walking around being mean spirited or mean-hearted like most people over here in America would do.
Q: What’s a typical home like in the neighborhoods you visited?
A: Typically what we saw over there in the ghettos in Mali were like cement houses with no doors. It was very small, enclosed places. It was very hot. People washed their clothes outside. They cook their food with the little grease they could get and they just reused everything. You don’t see a lot of things around. I didn’t see many trash cans while I was over there. The landscape isn’t that of over here. There’s a lot of trash everywhere. The typical house didn’t have much. They didn’t have much, but they always offered their best when guests came through.
Q: Was it a life changing experience for you?
A: Definitely. It opened my eyes to many things. And now that I’m back I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with my teammates so they can see how it is over there and how we took take things for granted over here when we have no reason to.
Coming Thursday: Part II, Gamble talks about the weight he's lost since arriving at UM last year at 6-8, 265, his progress on and off the court and what he hopes to provide the Canes this coming season.