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A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Laurier's Men's Basketball Team group shot outside Juno Beach museum in Normandy, France

The Laurier men’s basketball team get a taste of French life, history, sport and culture

When Justin Serresse was named head coach of Laurier’s men’s basketball team back in 2016, one of the first things he set his sights on was providing his student-athletes with an experience they would never forget. Born and raised in France, where he fell in love with the sport of basketball watching Kobe Bryant, Laurier’s newest head coach wanted to take his team home to give them a glimpse of life in a different country. He knew such a trip would provide his student-athletes with an experiential learning opportunity that would encourage personal reflection and growth, develop basketball knowledge and skill set, and build international relationships in the Athletics department at Laurier.

“The trip to France was one of the first things I talked about when I got hired in 2016,” says Serresse. “It was very important for us to have a big project to look forward to and create excitement around. I think a lot of people within the department might have thought that it was a bit too ambitious at first but I always believed with hard work and by sharing our vision we would inspire donors to support the experience.”

His vision began to come together in 2018 when Serresse met Richard Braiden (BA '75) prior to a game in London against the Western Mustangs. Braiden had travelled to France shortly after graduating from Laurier to cycle around the country and his memories of that trip made him to want to provide a similar experience to the men’s basketball team.

“I thought it would be such a transformative experience for these young men to have an opportunity to go, especially as Justin had family in Normandy,” says Braiden. “It wasn’t just an opportunity to play some top-flight basketball teams, but the opportunity to be exposed to the history, culture, architecture, art and food of France. I wanted to get involved and make this a reality by donating.”

The next two donors to come on board were Sandy Nixon (BA '69), who was a member of the men’s basketball team back in 1968 that captured Laurier's only national championship, and Ian Mahinmi, a childhood friend of Serresse’s who currently plays in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Washington Wizards.

“The fundraising efforts to get our men’s basketball team to France was a Golden Hawk team effort of student-athletes pursuing Adopt-a-Hawk supporters, Athletics and Recreation event fundraising, and the generosity of major gift donors,” says Laurier’s Director of Athletics and Recreation, Peter Baxter. “Richard Braiden and Sandy Nixon were the driving force behind the initiative, and along with Ian Mahinmi, their donations created a memorable lifetime experience for our men’s basketball players and coaches.”

Just over three years from his hiring, Serresse’s vision became a reality as the Hawks boarded a flight in Toronto bound for Paris. Over the next nine days, the team visited their coach’s hometown, took a tour of the D-Day beaches at Normandy, reflecting on Canada’s role in the invasion, and saw one of France’s most iconic attractions, the Eiffel Tower. The Golden Hawks also competed in three games against semi-professional teams in France’s tier two and tier three leagues, posting a 2-1 record. Laurier’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Deborah MacLatchy, who was on holidays during the Hawks’ tour, made it a point to stop by Laurier’s final game against Gravenchon to support the purple and gold during their trip.

Upon their return from France, a grateful group of Golden Hawks took the time to say thank you. The team handed out gifts to everyone who supported the trip, from department staff who supported them in the planning and execution of their visit, to the donors who made it all possible.

“As a Laurier alum, I am very proud of Coach Serresse for this initiative combining sport and education for our student-athletes,” said Braiden. “I treasure the team picture taken with the Eiffel Tower in the background and the book about the Canadians at Juno Beach and a bottle of sand from the beach.”

“The team was able to learn so much about French culture, Canada’s involvement in World War II, the level of professional basketball, my family and background and, more importantly, they shared a lifetime experience together,” added Serresse. “I think this created a very strong bond and a memory that they can share between them for the rest of their lives.”

Next story: Remembering Barry Kay
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