The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

Macalester College has long been known as a beacon of diversity in academics as well as in athletics. So it makes perfect sense that the college would host a basketball showcase intended to find players from a country that is currently ranked No. 163 of the 164 teams listed in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Cup rankings. 

That country is Eritrea, located in northeastern Africa along the Red Sea. It’s a relatively new country, having achieved its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. 

In his five years as the Macalester men’s basketball coach, Abe Woldeslassie has turned a 7-18 team into one that finished a game shy of making it to the NCAA Division III tournament last March. While venturing hither and yon looking for promising players, Woldeslassie has also kept in mind his heritage. Woldeslassie’s father left Ethiopia in the 1970s to move here. The area where his father grew up is now Eritrea. 

Alex Loul Syum, whose parents lived in the same region as Woldeslassie’s father, is an old friend of the Mac coach. Loul Syum is an assistant community college basketball coach in Oregon and also works with that state’s amateur athletes. The pair have teamed up to find potential players that could help Eritrea move up in the FIBA rankings. The result is the Eritrea Basketball Showcase that will take place from August 5-7 in the Macalester gym. 

“We were looking for a place to showcase talent,” Loul Syum said. “We wanted to find a spot that’s relatively easy to get to. Macalester isn’t far from the airport, and Abe said he’d be happy to help. It fit nicely.”

“We were looking for a place to showcase talent,” Alex Loul Syum said, regarding the Eritrea Basketball Showcase that will be held on August 5-7 at Macalester.

 

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One of the things about international athletic competition is you don’t have to be a citizen of the country you’re representing. You just need a familial connection. But that connection goes further than just being a native who has moved to another country. If even one of your parents has that national heritage, you can represent the country in international competition. 

While basketball is becoming more popular in Eritrea, Loul Syum readily acknowledges that the country is a long way from being able to move up in the international rankings on its own. Thus, several high school and college basketball players with Eritrean connections will be at Macalester to participate in drills and scrimmages. Woldeslassie will be one of the evaluators of the potential talent pool. (As an aside, his 2022-23 roster at Macalester  currently lists players from Senegal, Nigeria and Pakistan to go with those from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Maryland.)

The showcase is expected to draw 20-30 participants from all over the United States. “The idea is to find players who’ll be able to compete in the Olympics down the line,” Loul Syum said.

Getting to that level, however, is a few years down the road. Eritrea is currently ranked 35th among the 36 African nations playing men’s basketball. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And what better place to start than a basketball camp at one of the most international colleges in the United States?

New hockey arena just one issue for UST

As noted elsewhere in this issue, it’s back to the drawing board for the University of Saint Thomas in its search for a place to build a hockey arena. In theory, this should be easy enough to accomplish. After all, Minnesota is supposed to be a hockey hotbed—the State of Hockey, no? Finding a way to accommodate the sixth Division I college hockey program in Minnesota should be a no-brainer, right?

Well, it turns out it’s not as easy a problem to solve as first thought. The reality is there isn’t a lot of room in town to build a new hockey arena. First, Town & Country Club said “no thanks” to UST’s offer to buy its golf course for $61.4 million in order to build an athletic complex there. Then the university’s plan to include a hockey arena as part of a new sports complex at the Highland Bridge development fizzled out for a variety of reasons.

With 6,000 seats, the State Fair Coliseum would have been the right size for UST hockey, but the ice went out there years ago and there’s zero interest in putting it back in. Saint Thomas Academy has been a nice temporary home for the Tommies to play hockey, but if the university wants to become a serious Division I player in the game down the line, a 1,000-seat rink like STA’s isn’t going to cut it.

Hockey hasn’t been played on campus at the University of Saint Thomas since there was outdoor ice in the 1960s. While UST may not be as landlocked as Macalester, Concordia or Hamline, it would take some work—perhaps at the sacrifice of another sport’s field—to find a spot on campus to build an arena. However, if UST can make a deal to move its baseball, softball and/or soccer programs to an equitable place nearby, such as Highland Bridge, there might be room for an arena on campus. 

Alas, an arena of even 4,000 seats requires parking and that’s where the equation gets dicey. Would such a facility require building another parking ramp? 

In one sense, the University of Saint Thomas’ transition to Division I athletics would seem to be complete. However, the hard work is just beginning.

UST athletic director Phil Esten understood the move to DI would be complicated and adjustments would be needed to what’s been done for years on campus. In the one year since Saint Thomas left the MIAC, the world of DI athletics has undergone significant changes. College athletes are now able to negotiate Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) financial deals similar to what a free agent in professional sports does. UST simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to compete at the same level as the University of Minnesota when it comes to NIL deals. 

A year ago, the U of M axed three sports. It used a lot of rationalizations to justify the move, but the bottom line was money. The Gophers simply didn’t want to fund men’s gymnastics, tennis and track and field teams anymore. There was much grumbling when the axe fell but, in time, the complainers faded away and life went on. 

UST may face this reality down the line. Fortunately, its football program is currently a nonscholarship sport with a workable stadium. Financially, the only downside to football is the travel expenses for hopping on a plane to play in places like San Diego. Basketball is set in stone and it’s clear the school is committed to hockey. Volleyball would seem to be safe as well. 

After that, however, all bets are off. One of the things that some of the backers of UST’s move to DI athletics seem to underestimate is there’s little room for sentiment at that level. Coaches with long-term deals get fired when things don’t go well, but they still get paid for the duration of their contract. Players aren’t sentimental, either. A player who thinks he or she can get more playing time or attention—and perhaps endorsement money—elsewhere can move freely from school to school. 

Sports that fail to generate revenue may add to a school’s athletic diversity, but it doesn’t help the bottom line. In one sense, UST’s transition to DI athletics would seem to be complete. However, the hard work is just beginning.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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