TAMPA — It was clear from the start that this was no ordinary high school boys basketball game. The teams met at midcourt Monday night for handshakes — and a gift exchange. On the visitor’s side, a flag with the Blue Ensign and five stars of the Southern Cross was placed by the bench.
Tampa Catholic hosted St. Kevin’s College of Australia, a prominent Catholic school in Melbourne that has more than 2,000 students from pre-K to 12th grade. The game was part of a trip St. Kevin’s basketball program schedules every two years during its summer break. Other stops were planned for California and Texas.
“These boys are very passionate about basketball,” said Mark Langan, the team’s coach — or teacher in charge, as the title is referred to in Australia. “This is a great opportunity for them to do it in sort of the home of basketball. And there obviously was an interest from the boys. And Florida was the perfect setting. It was warm weather and lots of attractions. I’ve been on all three trips, and we’re going to make Florida our annual stop from now on.”
During its 19-day stay, St. Kevin’s players and coaches toured the state. They went to Walt Disney World and the Kennedy Space Station and a gator park the Everglades. They took in an NBA and college basketball game. And, of course, they played plenty of games against mostly smaller private school teams.
“Just the scale of basketball in America is what opened my eyes in Australia,” said Lloyd Quinn, one of the St. Kevin’s players.
Basketball is the second-most popular sport in Australia with more than 1 million participants, according to the Sport Australia AusPlay survey released last year. There are plenty of natives who have made it to the NBA, including Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills. Those players, among others, were on Australia’s national team that beat the United States in a FIBA World Cup exhibition game this past summer. That ended the United States’ run of 78 straight wins in tournament or exhibition play dating to 2006.
Nearly all of St. Kevin’s players watch the NBA on a regular basis. When they saw a poster of former Tampa Catholic standout and current New York Knick Kevin Knox hanging the gymnasium, they already knew who he was.
On Monday, the St. Kevin’s players met the Crusader seniors to volunteer at Metropolitan Ministries. They were not the only ones giving back during this trip.
Donations have poured in from each Florida stop to help those affected by the wildfires raging back home. The campus of St. Kevin’s is well south of most of the wildfires.
When the team arrived in Florida on Jan. 2, the wildfires had just started to spread.
“We found out it was really big in the news here, and that actually opened our eyes to how big it actually is,” Quinn said. “It’s only gotten worse, and it’s record-breaking. It’s smoky down in Melbourne, but it has not affected us much. Still, there is an obvious need to help.”
St. Kevin’s players also wanted to see what school was like at Tampa Catholic. They went in groups of two to attend classes.
As for the game, it was a mismatch. The Crusaders were taller, more athletic, displayed more skill. By the second half, there was a running clock. Tampa Catholic emptied its bench by the fourth quarter.
Still, the Crusaders came away impressed.
“We talked a lot about basketball with them most of the day,” said Crusaders senior guard Kobe Knox, younger brother of Kevin Knox. “We didn’t really want to bring up the fires because we didn’t know if it affected them personally. So we mostly talked about their journey of getting here and their experience.
“And they definitely had some skills. They passed the ball well and their fakes were really strong. It’s a lot of what you would see in Europe.”
Afterward, the players packed up their gear and stayed with some of the Crusaders and their parents, who volunteered as host families. Among them was former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and current Carolina Panther Gerald McCoy, whose son, Marcellus Crutchfield, is a senior on Tampa Catholic’s team.
McCoy had eight players stay with him Monday night. He hired a chef to cook breakfast for them Tuesday morning.
“I’d have to say this is a pretty memorable experience for everyone involved,” Crusaders coach Don Dziagwa said.