A journey of basketball and brotherhood through the Southwest with the Aces

Back to News List | Posted on Aug 3rd, 2015
The Aces on the campus of Northern Arizona University.

Marc Tannebaum ‘95

Last month, a group of Lower Merion Aces players and coaches set off to the Southwest on a trip that would take us through Arizona, Utah and Nevada over the course of ten days. When we landed in Phoenix, Arizona, we were welcomed with desert heat – something we’d get used to throughout our journey. Though the temperature read nearly 110 degrees, we were excited to be in a different part of the country and determined not to let the weather get in the way of our goals – gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves as individuals and as a team, exploring a beautiful part of the country and having some fun.

Our first stop was a quick tour of the Phoenix Suns’ arena, led by Suns marketing director Hunter Lochmann, a friend of one of our coaches. Hunter discussed the business side of an NBA franchise, his career path and answered questions about the Suns’ offseason plans. We then loaded into the vans and headed three hours north to the Navajo Nation town of Tuba City, AZ. The Aces were greeted by the Tuba City High School basketball team in their impressive home gym, the Warrior Pavilion, which seats about 5,000. Basketball is huge in Navajo Nation. People come from all over to support their teams in massive gyms dotted across the region. This is true for the Tuba City Warriors, who regularly draw standing room-only crowds for their contests against Navajo schools like Chinle and Window Rock.

We had connected with Tuba City coach Ryan Brown in advance of our trip with the hope of starting a partnership between our two programs. Though our communities are very different, basketball is a shared source of passion and pride. We had read about the long tradition of basketball on the Navajo reservation and wanted to experience it firsthand and maybe gain some inspiration for our own program. Upon arrival, the two teams exchanged introductions, and then it was time to play some pick-up basketball with our hosts. After a good workout, both teams went for some late night dinner at a local pizzeria. It was fun to see the kids from both teams socializing together. They shared stories about themselves and their hometowns, exchanged numbers and even started following each other on social media.

It always amazes me how much basketball can bring people together, even two groups with vastly different backgrounds. Some of our kids drive to school in SUVs, while some of their kids drive ATVs. Our outdoor courts are in playgrounds surrounded by trees and grass, while theirs are islands in the desert, surrounded by red rocks, open roads and enormous skies. Differences disappeared on the court and over pizza, as our kids had fun talking about basketball, girls, music and anything else kids talk about these days. Seeing the teams together and hanging out was one of the coolest things I witnessed.

The next day, the Aces and Warriors joined forces to host a basketball camp for about 100 kids from the Navajo reservation. Players and coaches from both teams came together to teach various skills including dribbling, shooting, passing and defensive principles. During the final hour of camp, we divided the campers into teams for game play. Aces players now became coaches; the passion they displayed towards their individual teams, and the guidance and care they provided to the young children was awesome. There was a moment when the four Aces coaches looked at each other and without having to say a word, collectively acknowledged that this was a very special moment. The enthusiasm of the kids from both communities, the blending of Philly and Navajo hoops was a privilege to watch. Thanks to the help of Coach Brown and the Tuba City community, we enjoyed a great basketball experience and a very a unique opportunity for cultural exchange.

The camp was just the beginning of four memorable days of basketball for both squads. As camp ended, both teams headed two hours south to Flagstaff for team camp at Northern Arizona University. More than forty teams from Arizona, California, New Mexico and Nevada came together on the beautiful campus of NAU to compete in pool play over the next several days. The Aces made an impressive run to the semifinals of the camp tournament before falling in a tight contest to Hillcrest Academy, a national basketball prep school. The Aces fought extremely hard and played with an edge throughout the tournament, taking every challenge they faced head on. With only nine available players, having multiple games each day at an elevation of 7000 feet (NAU’s homecourt is one of the highest of any D1 programs) was a challenge of its own. I was extremely proud of how our kids competed. They never backed down, even when they were outmanned by the opposing team. Northern Arizona got a taste of the pride, determination and togetherness that are the hallmarks of Aces Nation. We greatly appreciated the warmth and hospitality of the NAU coaching staff and program; the camp was incredibly well-run and it’s easy to see why the Lumberjacks are a team on the rise. Though the Aces and Tuba City never played against each other during the weekend, it was cool to watch both teams show up to the others’ games and cheer on their new friends.

After several days of non-stop basketball, we drove back up to Tuba City and met up with the Warriors for one last dinner together before leaving town, a dinner that included local specialties like Navajo Tacos and mutton stew. Before we left, we extended an invitation to our new friends to come join us back East whenever they wanted. [Just a week ago, three Tuba City players attended Lower Merion basketball camp and stayed with host families on our team.] Even though our two communities are different in so many ways, there is one thing we have in common and that’s our love for the game. That passion brought these two groups together and I’m proud to consider the Tuba City players and coaches part of our extended Aces family.

With the basketball portion of our journey now over, it was time to take the kids (and coaches) out of their comfort zone to experience new adventures that would test and reward us in different ways. Our first destination was the Grand Canyon and an early morning hike below the South Rim. As we approached the canyon, we got our first glimpses of one of the world’s great natural wonders. We immediately pulled our cars over and got out to take in the incredible scenery – the impossibly huge and endless cliffs, the green Colorado River winding a mile below us, the blue sky stretching across the horizon. Temperatures in the canyon that day were well over 100 degrees. Our hike down the narrow, steep South Kaibab trail ended after 3.5 miles when we ran into a ranger who told us it was too dangerous in this heat to go any further. We walked out to a rocky overlook for some pictures, had a bite to eat and filled up on water. We then trekked back up along the trail, navigating our way past slow moving mule trains and pushing ourselves back to the trailhead. Feeling a great sense of accomplishment, we jumped into our cars and headed to our next stop, Lake Powell, Arizona for an overnight kayaking trip.

Upon arrival at the Antelope Point Marina on Lake Powell, we met up with our kayaking guides at Hidden Canyon Kayak and hopped on a pontoon boat loaded with all the essentials we would need for a night camping out on the lake. After about an hour boat ride, we docked at our campsite and quickly jumped into kayaks so we could spend a few hours of exploring and swimming. It didn’t take long for the kids to find a nice sized rock where they could leave their kayaks and do some high-flying jumps into the water. It was a pretty spectacular scene, with the sinking sun setting fire to the lake’s huge pink cliffs and a massive full moon rising above the water, providing the backdrop to our jumps. Feeling refreshed and re-energized, we headed back to camp for dinner and some much-needed relaxation. Sitting in our own private lakeside oasis, we spent the night completely unplugged from the rest of the world with only the sound of the water against the shore and the wind coming across the rocks and dunes.

The next morning, the guides let it slip that at a rock in the middle of the lake it might be possible to get a cell phone signal. Immediately, some of our kids sped off in their kayaks to the rock, hoping to plug back in for even just the briefest of moments. The coaches sat back, drank our morning cup of coffee and laughed as we watched the kids scramble up on the rock with phones held high. How different a world these kids live in than their coaches. We were happy to enjoy that beautiful morning without electronic interruptions.

After breakfast we hit the water for a four-mile kayak trip to some of the hidden canyons of Lake Powell. We stopped only to refresh ourselves in the water and jump off some more rocks. By mid-afternoon we were eating lunch and getting in a last swim before heading back to shore. Leaving the solitude and beauty of Lake Powell, we ventured north towards Zion National Park in Utah, our home for the next three days.

The next day provided all of us with a very unique challenge and experience -- canyoneering. First, we met up with our guides from Zion Mountain School on the side of a dirt road. Then each of us grabbed the equipment we needed and followed the guides on a three-mile hike to the edge of a steep and narrow slot canyon. Standing 70 feet above the canyon wall for our first drop, we hooked ourselves to ropes that would lower us down ten drops of varying height and difficulty. One-by-one we faced our fears, lowering ourselves down the wall and into the canyon. At this point there was no turning back. There is only one way out of the canyons -- down.

It was an amazing experience to watch our kids conquer the canyon walls. Gaining more and more confidence with each descent, we emerged at the bottom victorious. The sense of accomplishment was well worth all the blistered and bruised hands absorbed in the process. That night we ventured into Zion village for a celebratory team dinner and a relaxing night at the movies. We then made a brief stop on the way back to our cabins for a short, moonlit hike to some ancient petroglyphs. Standing there under the bright night sky, flashlights in hand, we looked at the intricate cave art made thousands of years ago. The images seemed mysterious, but somewhat familiar and we talked in hushed tones about how they came to be and what they might mean. It was a memorable ending to a day we won’t soon forget.

Our final day presented us with our biggest challenge of the trip, hiking up the Angel’s Landing Trail in the heart of Zion National Park. The trail is 2500 feet straight up, accompanied by numerous signs warning of the strenuous and hazardous terrain we were about to encounter. The last half mile of the trail ascends up steep, narrow paths with little to hold onto as hiker traffic moves in both directions. The conditions caused a few of us to conclude the hike and wait just below the final ascent. But for the ones who reached the summit, the view was all the reward needed. I have hiked many mountains and reached numerous summits through my years, but this was among the most demanding I have hiked. The climb was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I will never forget. Descending the mountain in triumph and filled with adrenaline, our weary bodies seemed to magically heal, filling with child-like energy.

After departing Zion, we hit the road for our last stop of the trip, Las Vegas! The absurd reality of Vegas was such a drastic change from the tranquility of the national park. Vegas is, however, a place you have to see at least once in your lifetime. After checking into The New York, New York Hotel, we cleaned ourselves up from ten adventurous (and pretty dirty) days on the road. We emerged dressed and ready for a night on the town. First, we enjoyed a final team dinner together. Then, we headed down The Strip, checking out the scenery at various casinos. We stopped at the water show at the Bellagio and roamed through Caesars Palace. Our senses were overwhelmed by the bright lights and massive crowds everywhere we turned. Worn out from a long day and night, we crashed for a few hours before hopping an early flight back to Philly.

The purpose for the trip was to become a better basketball team and to become closer as a unit. I believe we accomplished those objectives. Time spent together and adventures shared will serve as memories for a lifetime and will be experiences the kids will be able to draw on as they move forward in life. A brotherhood formed over pizza and pick-up games on the reservation and battles fought together at 7000 feet in Northern Arizona. Friendships deepened under the moonlit skies of Lake Powell. Our adventures challenged us in ways we had never experienced and gave us a deeper understanding of what Aces basketball is all about…The Journey. Life (and hoops) is all about the journey!

(Lower Merion Aces players on the trip included Kyle Helton, Jeremy Horn, Eli Needle, Terrell Jones, Dion Harris, Noah Fennell, Zach Magill, Amir Horton, Ellis Kelsey and Quinn Vagnoni. Coaches were Adam Miller, Matt Schwartz, Marc Tannebaum and Doug Young.)