An experience of a lifetime probably seemed as long as an eyeblink for Villanova teammates Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, two members of Team USA basketball at the Pan American Games.
They joined current and past players from the Big East on July 20 in Providence, R.I. They practiced the next six days, including an exhibition game, and left July 27 for Lima, Peru. There they got in more practice before beginning competition on July 31 and playing on five consecutive days.
And although they had been together for barely two weeks, playing under international basketball rules against veteran teams made up of mostly professional players, they came away with the bronze medal following Sunday’s closing 92-83 win over the Dominican Republic.
“To be honest, we were all very optimistic and happy about it because we all knew that we weren’t even projected to be there,” Samuels said Tuesday. “No one thought we would be there. So the fact that we could go down there, battle and have experiences that bond us together forever, and come back with a medal, that’s just big-time to all of us. We were just really appreciative to even get that far.”
“It was something special, something I’ll never forget, something we’ll never forget as a team,” said Gillespie, who like Samuels is heading into his junior season with the Wildcats.
“There’s nothing you could really say about it, you can’t say too much about it, because it’s just something you really have to be there, you have to experience to know what it really feels like. Doing that with this group of guys was really special.”
Gillespie and Samuels each started all five games in the Pan Am Games tournament. Gillespie scored 24 points to lead Team USA against the Dominican Republic. Samuels had 17 points against Puerto Rico and 16 against the U.S. Virgin Islands, both wins.
One of the most impressive parts of the whole experience was that the Wildcats’ pair needed to jell with players they had competed against for the past two seasons, including All-Big East performers Myles Powell of Seton Hall, Providence’s Alpha Diallo, and Creighton’s Ty-Shon Alexander.
“There was kind of a weird thing … the experience of playing against guys you’ve played against in the league,” Gillespie said. “Having to become really close with them over a two-week period was different. But I think over those two weeks, we kind of became a family, and now we have something that’s going to keep us together for the rest of our lives.”
Samuels said the chemistry grew on and off the court “more naturally than most people would think,” led by head coach Ed Cooley, the coach at Providence.
“It all starts with competition – who could outshoot who? Who could do this or that?” Samuels said. “Then over time, everybody started hanging out more and more together at lunch and experienced the different things – going to the coach’s house, spending time with each other in the pool and having fun. Eventually, we became like a family.”
Both players had interesting experiences in Peru. Gillespie said the people were nice, but “I think they’d like to see us lose more than win.” Samuels said he was amazed at the way people drove.
“Police officers everywhere, no one follows the lines, people run red lights, lots of horns honking. It’s like chaos,” he said.
In the end, wearing a jersey that said “USA” on the front meant something significant to them.
“That was one of the coolest opportunities of my life,” Gillespie said. “Honestly, I’d never done that even in high school. Guys in high school get to participate on a USA team, but that was my first time so it was really special for me. And just being able to walk away with something was really special.”