USF Dons men’s basketball explores City’s roots, crosses the pond for trip to Ireland

As soon as the flight crew informed passengers it was safe to move about the cabin, University of San Francisco assistant men’s basketball coach Kevin Hovde sprang up and sat next to the other assistants, with each in the group popping open laptops to watch game film.

For the rest of the 11-hour, one-third-full, direct flight from SFO to Dublin, Ireland — as some of the Dons players stretched out in middle rows to sleep — the staff prepared for Stephen F. Austin, who they will face on Friday at 5 a.m. Pacific at SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Since the contract was signed 10 months ago for San Francisco to play in the Belfast Classic — now in its second year — the Dons have been preparing for one of the more unique non-conference trips in college basketball, one that carries particular resonance for a school representing a city with deep Irish roots.

“I think there’s a common bond there,” third-year head coach Kyle Smith said from the team bus on Monday, as the Dons readied to depart for SFO. “If you’ve ever been in a pub in San Francisco or down to Ireland’s 32 or Finnegan’s Wake, you know there’s some Irish influence in the city. A lot of our alums, like a John Duggan, who’s Irish-Italian, and manages Original Joe’s, those are true San Franciscans.”

After landing in Dublin on Tuesday at 11:45 a.m., the team immediately headed to NBA Arena for a 2 p.m. practice to run off jet lag. Then came a tour of the Kilmainham Gaol — a prison that once housed many Irish revolutionaries, including leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising — followed by a two-hour bus ride to Belfast and a 9:30 p.m. lights-out call.

The tour of the Gaol came about because of San Francisco and the university’s deep Irish ties, which go beyond bestowing an honorary degree upon Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, in 2008.

“I was working with Father Paul [Fitzgerald], our president, who has some sort of connection or ties to Ireland/Northern Ireland, and he put me in touch with Robert O’Driscoll, who is the head of the Irish Consulate and relations with San Francisco and Ireland,” said the team’s first-year director of basketball operations, Jonathan Safir. “It was his idea to tour Kilmainham Gaol, and he worked with them to make sure we got a slot and a time that worked.”

The trip will include community service, as well as a trip to the Titanic Museum, opened in 2012 on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where the famous ocean liner was built.

“Our provost, Don Heller, he helped in recommending us do the Titanic tour and a couple other things,” Smith said. “Father Fitzgerald gave us an expert in Belfast, another priest, who gave us some tips on what to do.”

Heller also helped organize a crash course in the history of the Emerald Isle. Despite the City’s deep Irish — and Irish Catholic — roots, most of the players knew next to nothing about The Troubles, or the deeper Catholic-Protestant conflict. Hours before the team departed for the airport on Monday, they sat down for a presentation in the McLaren Conference Center from a group of students learning about the conflict from Professor Keally McBride’s class dealing with European politics.

“I know they had no idea about the Catholic and Protestant conflict — very few of them do, even our Europeans,” said Smith, who also sat in on the class. “I know Taavi [Jurkatamm] and Remu [Raitanen], from Estonia and Finland, weren’t that aware, or were hardly aware, of the long issues there.”

The class also gave Smith some insight into history of a particular local watering hole on Geary.

“I also learned why the bar Ireland’s 32 is called Ireland’s 32 now,” he said. “The 32 is all the counties, united. That would be all Ireland, being Ireland.”

Speaking of watering holes, there have been multiple Belfast pubs that have requested Dons jerseys to hang from the rafters, including Rockies Bar, which has over 500 on display. Attendance at the games is expected to approach 5,000 per contest.

“I think the local area is really excited, and we’re excited to see the city for a week,” Safir said.

Smith didn’t even see an itinerary for the five-day trip until Sunday. He knew the team had a mid-flight stretching routine, and that the team’s nutritionist had put together a hydration plan, and that the players got special compression leggings to help with circulation.

Everything else was Safir’s province. Safir played his collegiate ball at Vassar, then became a graduate assistant under Smith at Columbia. The only time the Buffalo, N.Y. native has been out of the country — save from occasional jaunts across the border to Canada — was a 10-day trip to Israel on Birthright in the summer of 2014.

“Planning a trip for 30-plus people internationally is not for the faint of heart,” Safir said.

Since he was hired in May, Safir dealt with hotels, airlines, event organizers and university staff, coordinated getting three passports rushed or renewed, and Ubering back and forth with Belarusian freshman Dzmitry Ryuny to both the United Kingdom and Irish consulates in order to secure a visa.

Safire and program administrator Joan McDermott also took a two-hour course in disaster contingency, during which they had to come up with solutions for test-case scenarios, including anything from leaving practice without a player who didn’t have an international cell phone plan, to a player losing his passport.

“If somebody gets sick and has to go to the hospital, we had to go through a lot of different things that could happen so that we have as smooth a trip as possible,” Safir said.

Smith had previously taken the Dons to France, Belgium and Germany during his first summer as the head coach, back in July of 2016. Before that, as head coach at Columbia during the summer of 2012, he took the Lions to Spain and Italy as part of the one international summer trip every four years allowed by the NCAA.

Towards the tail end of that trip, Smith and his staff took a train from Barcelona down to Sitges, Spain.

“We got on a train, went down to the beach, and we sat and looked at the Mediterranean and had some paella,” Smith said. “That was a good day. We enjoyed the weather.”

The weather in Belfast — a high of 49 with between a 30 and 80 percent chance of rain this weekend — won’t be as conducive to a beach trip, this time around. The other major difference from his last two trips abroad: For a team off to its second-best start in a decade, these games count.

“I’m more in coach mode to get prepared for the basketball stuff,” Smith said on Monday. “I’ll try to enjoy the sights and do that stuff, but I’m locked in on competing.”

San Francisco sits at 6-0 as one of the nation’s 20 remaining undefeateds. On Monday, the Dons were ranked 25th in the first edition of the new NCAA Evaluation Tool — which replaces the flawed RPI this season — and could sneak into the conversation for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998.

One of the other remaining unbeaten teams is Buffalo, ranked No. 21 in the AP poll and sitting on the other side of the bracket in Belfast, set to face Milwaukee. Should the Dons beat the Lumberjacks on Friday, they will likely face the Bulls at 8 a.m. Pacific on Saturday.

When the Dons return, they have finals. Then, they have their first Pac-12 game of the season against a 2-3 Cal team at Haas Pavilion.

“I think it’s in a good place,” Smith said. “Obviously, we’re playing really well. I always kind of liked the idea of getting off campus sometimes. This is going to be a good break. Obviously, the smoke [from the Camp fire] screwed up our schedule a little bit, but this was a good break for us to kind of get away from campus, and become closer as a team. You’ve got two 11-hour flights, we’re going to be around each other a lot and in our own world for a little bit.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the head of the Irish consulate was Robert O’Connell. His name is Robert O’Driscoll.

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