DAY 2: Men's Basketball in Italy

VENEZIA – Bongiorno!

We woke up to another cloudless day in Venice on Friday. That makes two full days without seeing a cloud in the sky. I am reminded of the the movie “Field of Dreams.” (“Is this Heaven?” “No, this is Venice.”)

After a breakfast buffet at the Antony Hotel, we bused to practice at the home court of Venezia Reyer; it was a quaint gym that could seat a few thousand, but it had a definite European flavor. For instance, there was a large glass wall behind the benches, similar to what you might see on a soccer bench; in addition, the lower bowl seats looked like they might actually be the worst seats in the house.

(Coach Allen had a major connection at Venezia Reyer, which allowed for us to practice there: his head coach at Carpisa Napoli, Andrea Mazzon, is now the coach with Reyer. Coach Mazzon took in all of Penn's practice on Friday.)

Practice was a little more than two hours, and the guys got after each other. It was also a little sloppy, which is probably to be expected given the jetlag and the fact that it’s August. There are still a few months until it really starts to matter. That said, the frustration among the players was evident as the practice went on. I’ll take that as a good sign, that the guys have a high expectation among themselves.

Following practice, we came back to shower up. Guys had a choice after that -- take the bus to the train station and then into Venice, or stay at the hotel. Twelve of the 15 were on the bus at 1 p.m., along with all the coaches and some of the other travel party. The bus took us to Ve. Mestre -- it reminded me of 30th Street Station, with all the tracks -- and from there we took a 10-minute train into Santa Lucia.

When you walked through the terminal and came out on the other side, BOOM! Water. Water taxis. Gondolas. And people everywhere. It was mayhem.

From the train station you had two options. You could take a water taxi (private or public) to Piazza San Marco, or you could simply walk the streets of Venice (it’s a small island, only about eight miles if you walked the entire perimeter). Most of us chose the walk, and so the group split up to do their own thing.

I joined a few other staff members in getting some pizza for lunch, then we walked the “streets” (there are no cars, only people) with the goal of reaching Piazza San Marco. There were plenty of stops along the way -- the entire path is strewn with stores, and all you need to do is follow the people. There is not much deviating off the main alleyways. We did stop briefly at the Rialto Bridge, which connects the two sides of Venice at its midpoint with the canal that runs through the island.

Finally, we reached San Marco. Two of the first people we ran into there were Steve and Sue Bilsky; amazing, given the amount of people flowing through. Had a nice chat with them, then walked the Piazza. The biggest source of entertainment was the pigeons; kids were feeding them, and the pigeons have no fear. They fly at about head level, so you are constantly ducking and bobbing and weaving to avoid them. If you have food in your hand, they will land on you and eat it. At one point we watched a young girl getting her picture taken, and she must have had at least six of them on her hands, arms and head. She was trying to smile for her mom, but her screaming sent a different message.

We eventually caught up with Coach Allen and his family, and took a private water taxi with them back to Santa Lucia. What a ride. The waterway was pretty much our own during most of it -- a notable exception was when we hit the area by the Casino Di Venezia -- until we arrived at the mayhem of Santa Lucia. (On a personal level, the trip was sullied when I had a pigeon poop on my shirt during the ride -- something that Coach Allen’s youngest children found VERY amusing.) From there it was a train back to Ve. Mestre, then the bus back to the hotel.

People were on their own for dinner, but the only option outside of the hotel was a small pasta/pizza joint a few blocks away so most everyone went there. Then it was off to bed for most of us, as we continue to acclimate to the six-hour time change from Philadelphia.

Most of the players are making their first trip to Europe. A few things have been a source of conversation…

THE HOTEL ROOM: The European rooms are a lot different than American rooms, from the key system to the electricity use in the room (you need to put your key into a slot to keep it on). A few guys tried to power their phones and computers while we were at practice, but of course they instead ran down because the power in the room goes out when the keys aren’t in the slot. It was kind of amusing to hear their laments, although it would have been more amusing if I hadn’t done the same thing.

THE PEOPLE: Most of the tourists in Venice have been from the Continent; if you hear people speaking English to each other it tends to be British, Australian or even South African. In addition, the people here are much more fit than you tend to see in America. You hear that all the time from people who visit Philadelphia from abroad, but it’s interesting to see the other side of that equation.

A WORLD WITHOUT CELL PHONES: Not every player and very few staff members have cell phones that work over here, so keeping track of each other has been difficult at times. This was especially true on Day 1, during our tours, when our group was so large that we often had stragglers as we moved among the various buildings and had to send people back to find them. It’s not as simple as texting someone to say “Where are you? We are here.” It’s a world some of us remember, but not the players.

Tomorrow it’s on to Florence by bus, and another tour of another famous city. Oh, woe is us!