Rock Chalk Weekly: Basketball, An International Language

Written by Krysti Cole, Kansas Communications Student Assistant

It was a cold and rainy February night, nothing out of the ordinary for the Pacific Northwest native. While cold air prevailed on the campus of the University of Kansas, 16,300 rowdy fans eagerly awaited KU’s 21st-consecutive home victory in the sauna of Allen Fieldhouse.
The Jayhawks were seeking revenge from the Iowa State Cyclones, the team that stole a rare conference game victory from Kansas in Ames, Iowa, home of the “Hilton Magic.” There was one player in particular dressed in a Crimson and Blue uniform who was going make sure the Cyclones didn’t cast another spell on the Jayhawks.
In the opening minutes of the second half, a 6-foot-10 Jayhawk forward found himself entangled with ISU’s infamous big man, Georges Niang. Determined to be the one to come up with the ball, Landen Lucas did what he knew best—he got physical. As a result, Lucas not only kept possession of the ball for the Jayhawks, but his play was a catalyst in KU’s 89-76 victory over Iowa State.
“I enjoy the physicality of basketball,” Lucas said. “It’s something I grew up with. It’s almost like someone who grew up on a farm wrestling all the time; having to learn how to play physical growing up is what has helped shaped me.”
Lucas, who has been to almost as many countries as he has U.S. states, has meshed his international experiences with his playing time in America. While the basic rules and fundamentals of the game are universal, there are some differences that have influenced Lucas’ brand of basketball.
The world traveler’s most recent stop was with an organization called Athletes in Action (AIA) in a Baltic Tour of Estonia and Latvia, where he experienced a twist on the game he grew up playing.
“This summer there were definitely some countries that were very physical,” Lucas said. “The players aren’t afraid. If they get in a fight, they just move on after the game. They don’t really have any consequences for getting into fights in Europe so they play with no fear. If you started a fight, you had to be ready to finish it, whereas here in the States you might get into a little scuffle and the refs will break it up immediately.”
Competing in such environments begins to explain the Portland, Oregon native’s game. However, this summer wasn’t Lucas’ first encounter with pushing and shoving. To find the roots of his style of play, it’s important to understand his childhood.
Having a father who played professional basketball in Japan introduced Lucas to a cultured lifestyle early on. It was on the playgrounds of Japan that sparked the tenacity that basketball fans see on the court today.
“The school I went to in sixth grade allowed fighting as a way to cope with anger,” Lucas said. “They would allow pretty much ‘hockey fighting,’ that’s what I call it— fighting until someone hits the ground and then the teacher will intervene.
For a respectful kid, who was also doing his best to make a good impression in a foreign country, it took a while before Lucas understood the new rules.
“I would come home with black eyes and really bad bruises because I didn’t want to fight back and get expelled,” Lucas said. “That was the last thing I wanted in a different country.”
Lucas and his mother, Shelley, then set out on a course to remedy the situation.
“We went in and talked to the principal who said ‘Yeah we allow that, you have the right to fight back.’ Eventually, after you fight back a couple times, people just stop,” Lucas said.
This is especially true when you are on your way to being 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds.
Condoning fighting wasn’t the only thing that made growing up in Japan unique. Middle school basketball was highly attended in Japan. In the States, a middle school game is watched mostly by parents and grandparents, sometimes a few more fans will trickle in but there is rarely a packed junior high gym. On the contrary, in Japan watching awkward sixth-graders play unorganized basketball is comparable to a major league soccer game, according to Lucas.
People would bring drums and just like you see in the World Cup they would have ongoing chants throughout the entire game,” Lucas said. “You would see random people around the town doing this for a middle school game. It was crazy.”
After spending a dozen years nearly 4,800 hundred miles away from Oregon, the teenager and his family decided that if he were going to pursue playing basketball at the next level, heading back to the U.S. was the natural transition.
Little did Lucas know that his international travels were far from over. Prior to his trip to Estonia and Latvia last summer, Lucas launched his Jayhawk career with a team trip to France and Switzerland in the summer of 2012.
It was in Paris that Lucas was reminded that basketball abroad welcomed a little more body contact than what is allowed in the United States. As his teammates were adjusting to the roughness of the games, Lucas found his childhood instincts kicking in quickly.
“I remember we played a team in France and there was a guy who just went nuts,” Lucas reminisced. “He got a technical foul and then started throwing things and tried to spit on the ref, which got him kicked out. But the next day we played the later game and saw the same kid back out there playing. In the States you would be suspended for at least one game (for that behavior on the court). It’s different, but it’s fun. I can definitely get into it.”
For the rest of the Jayhawks, the hostility on the court was unfamiliar territory for a team that hails from a region that is characteristically known as one of the friendliest places in America—the Midwest.
The basketball court wasn’t the only place the neighborly Jayhawks had to adjust to while traveling throughout Europe.
“We noticed when we went to Paris that people can be really rude over there,” Lucas said. “It was like a team bonding thing because we would ask for directions and they wouldn’t tell us, so we would have to figure it out on our own.”
While Lucas is thankful for the opportunities basketball has provided him over the years, he will be the first to admit that transitioning from country to country hasn’t always been easy. It takes a while for him to adjust to both the culture of the country and the sport each time he finds himself in new terrain.
“My physical nature shows up on the basketball,” Lucas said. “It is an adjustment coming back to the States each time. You can’t do quite as much here as you can in other countries.”
This summer, Lucas will have a chance to collect yet another passport stamp as the team will head overseas to Gwangju, Korea—a country close to the place he grew up calling home. Kansas announced earlier this year that its own men’s basketball team would be representing the United States in the World University Games.
A hardwood floor, a pair of 10-foot baskets and a leather ball…that’s all Lucas needs to feel at home.
“Everything is so different everywhere you go,” Lucas said. “Basketball really is the one thing that gets me through rough times and transitions. Basketball has also allowed me to experience things I wouldn’t have been able to do without it and for that, I am very grateful.”
Whether Lucas is playing the Jayhawks’ newfound rival, Iowa State, or playing on the hardwood halfway across the world, one thing is certain in any language: don’t mess with Landen Lucas. 

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