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In every country, at every level, the object is the same — score more points than the other guys — but Larry Gordon and Walter Thompson are finding there’s more to basketball when it’s played thousands of miles from home.
Gordon and Thompson, key members of last year’s Bronco basketball team that fell just short of a national championship, were recruited after the season to play professionally. Gordon wound up in Zwolle, about 50 miles outside of Amsterdam. Thompson, a frequent visitor to Mexico, chose to play in the port city of Veracruz.
Soccer is the national pastime in both countries, but they’ve learned that basketball attracts passionate fans.
“They cheer hard whether we’re winning or losing,” Gordon says of the 600 people who crowd the Landstede team’s gym. American players are expected to perform better than the Dutch players “because we come from a country where for most of us basketball is our first sport.”
The expectations are even higher in Mexico, where some arenas that seat several thousand are similarly packed.
“The life of an American basketball player can be very good — we’re treated very well and are considered superstars — but you can feel the pressure to perform,” Thompson says.
“Playing college basketball in front of thousands of wild and crazy fans did not prepare me for what Mexico had to offer,” he says. “Basketball has become very popular there, and fans will let you know exactly how they’re feeling. When you play well, they cheer like there’s no tomorrow, but when you play badly, they make you feel like the world is going to end. Either way, though, you can’t let the fans dictate how you play.”
The allure of a foreign culture has not distracted Gordon from his mission: to someday play in the NBA.“It’s been all business,” says the 6-foot-5 forward, who leads his team in rebounding and is second in scoring. “Working on my game is my top priority. There will always be time to do other things later.”
Thompson considers his rookie season a success, but the highlight came afterward when he was selected to play for Mexico in the FIBA Americas tournament against national teams from Panama, Argentina and Brazil. “It was a lot of fun to compete at a high level in a tournament that was televised internationally,” he says. “We could hardly understand one another, but nonetheless, it gave me a chance to realize that basketball is a great tool for connecting people from different cultures and backgrounds.”
Both reflect fondly on their time as students at Cal Poly Pomona.
Playing for the Broncos “really means a lot to me,” says Gordon, who was an All-American in his senior season. “I wish it could have ended with the title, but I’m proud of myself and my teammates. When I make it to the NBA and they do a story on my life, my senior year at Cal Poly is going to be one of the highlights.”
Thompson says he feels the same way.
“My experiences at Cal Poly Pomona, my teammates and the friends I made are memories that will remain with me for as long as I live.”