I’m going to Europe. The planning sparked a mental slideshow of another trip to Europe 25 years ago.
Charles Hathaway and CJ Black pose alongside a fashionable Parisian with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. Click on.
Vol basketball players, wearing drooping uniform shorts, attract a crowd of bikini-clad beauties to a beach on the French Riviera. Click on.
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Aaron Green looking for a McDonald’s. Click on.
The team bus leaving Florence, Italy, with Isiah Victor as the missing person. Click on.
Brandon Wharton, helmet over his ears, dressed in orange Flight gear, sits in the lobby of an elegant Italian hotel under a huge Renaissance painting. Click on.
It was the summer of 1997. Tennessee had a new basketball coach, Jerry Green. The new staff took a collection of players inherited from Kevin O’Neill and headed to Europe.
I must follow you. Everyone should take such a “work” trip. My dispatches were a mix of basketball and travelogue.
For two weeks I traveled on the team bus through France, Italy and Switzerland. John Wilkerson, the only other member of the media, was my roommate. Another busload of UT fans — including the indefatigable Russ McDonald of Memphis and the “3” signs he said he stole from Ole Miss — followed.
We have stayed in beautiful hotels. We saw the sites. We have eaten well. We broke the ice with Green and got to know his assistants – Chris Ferguson, Byron Samuels, Tad Boyle and Eric Pauley.
In each city, the competition was a pro team preparing for their season. Each team had a couple of Americans. We caught up with SEC alumni Jamie Watson from South Carolina and Ronnie Battle from Auburn. Tito Horford appeared somewhere.
O’Neill had already broken into significant recruiting ground in the state with Wharton, Black and Hathaway. Five days before departure, top prospect Vincent Yarbrough committed to UT.
Didn’t Yarbrough pull the trigger when he did? “I wouldn’t be here,” Ferguson told me in France. “I’ll be back home.”
The tour launched the transition from O’Neill’s heavy, defense-focused philosophy to Green’s uptempo style. The Vols finished 5-4.
In the heat of a European summer, box scores were not very high. Except for Aaron Sewell. Knoxville’s walk-on got off to a surprise start in Hyères, France, and was a catalyst in an 83-59 victory. His career match came away from home.
Another story of Hyères. UT brought in a young American referee. Doug Shows, now among the SEC’s best-known officials, worked on the games alongside a Euro umpire.
At Hyères, Shows had had enough of the heckling of a man on the home side’s bench and finally gave it a go. But the guy wouldn’t leave. It turned out that he owned the team and the gym. Athletic director Doug Dickey helped broker a truce.
The shows again featured in the final of a tournament in Chiasso, Switzerland, just across the border from Como, Italy. He ejected a Croatian player, then called the game with 1:03 remaining after a Croatian nose and arena chair were smashed by, respectively, a Hathaway elbow and the Croatian coach.
This all happened days after Victor went missing during a tourist window in Florence. Long story short, an irate green ordered the bus to leave, reconsidered after a few blocks, returned to the rendezvous, and picked up latecomer Victor.
I was more relieved than Victor. I didn’t want to have to write the story: ‘Coach leaves freshman behind in Italy.’
Once home, the team would finish 20-9, 9-7 SEC and break Tennessee’s eight-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, losing to Illinois State in overtime in Sacramento.
These guys, they will always have Paris. And Hyères and Chiasso.
Mike Strange is a former News Sentinel writer. He currently writes a weekly sports column for Shopper News.