Basketball team explores sights in Rome
By Brendan F. Quinn
ROME — The gypsies, peddling trinkets and knickknacks were eyed suspiciously.
The hectic streets, sliced this way and that by funny looking men on funnier looking mopeds were difficult to follow.
The fatigue, born from 16 hours of travel including a nine-hour jaunt across the Atlantic, was undeniable.
Tennessee men's basketball arrived in Italy at 7:23 a.m. local time Monday under Rome's nascent sun. The Vols' 10-day trip abroad began in haste. New experiences rushed upon them before they could adjust their psyche, let along their internal clocks.
Temperatures hovered in the mid-70s, before darting into the 90s by mid-morning.
The hotel would wait. A morning tour of Rome's zigzagging streets topped the docket.
Modern-day differences, like gas prices creeping toward 10 American dollars per gallon, raised eyes just as high as ancient wonders like the Pyramid of Cestius, a tomb for Gaius Cestius built circa 12 BC along the once towering, now crumbling, city walls.
"You just look around and there's history — I think people take it for granted," UT senior forward Dwight Miller later said. "Where our world is today and how we got here, I think people sometimes skip steps."
The Vols took every one of them Monday.
As the UT bus slowed to the curbside following an hour on the road, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum awaited. So did a scorching sun, throngs of camera-snapping tourists and, of course, those damn gypsies.
Warnings of rampant Italian pickpocketing shook the Vols. Haggard but happy, they kept their
heads on a swivel. Happy to report there were ultimately no victims.
Upon the grounds of the Roman Forum, some of the UT players could be seen stopping and traveling back in time. Not everyone went for the ride, but a few took the trip. It's the natural influence of the ruins. The Forum was a marketplace of public speeches, commerce and elections.
Look hard enough and it comes back to life.
"You see what's been put together over the course of time — it just opened my eyes to what really went on in history," said junior forward D'Montre Edwards, a first time traveler abroad.
While drifting through the old city center, the Vols were reminded that SEC rivalries know no bounds. A pocket of South Carolina passerby's hollered, "Go Gamecocks!" Moments later, a man donning an Alabama visor approached Edwards and a few teammates to belt, "Go Bama!" in their puzzled faces.
"We just looked at him and was like, 'Yeah, right,' and kept right on going," Edwards said.
Snaking through the leftovers of the empire, the Arch of Titus, a triumph of the 1st century, served as a gathering spot. iPhones, the tool of the modern traveler, were pointed for pictures. The littlest Vols — a band of coaches' kids including coach Cuonzo Martin's three children — grabbed a drink from a natural spring.
The sea of Tennessee orange, draped with an entourage of fans, alumni and athletic department personnel, made its way toward the mighty Colosseum. Their presence caught the eye of newlyweds Chaz and Ivie Hoffmann. The Nashville natives grabbed a picture alongside senior Kenny Hall and others for the honeymoon scrapbook. The diehard Tennessee fans were thrilled.
"Worked out pretty well," Chaz Hoffman said, "I wore this today because it was my last clean shirt."
The orange Vols football T-shirt surely turned out well in the picture.
Arriving at the Colosseum, heads arched upwards.
There's no use in describing the indescribable.
"Seeing the Colosseum is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," junior Jordan McRae said.
"Being here is such a surreal feeling — just being able to retrace those steps that some people sometimes forget about it," said Miller, looking up toward the arched ceilings near the Colosseum entrance.
An hour later, Miller and the Vols could barely lift their heads for lunch. A lot had happened since the team bus pulled out of Knoxville on Sunday morning. Today will bring a trip to St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The first of their four games on the Italian tour comes Wednesday.
After all, this trip has two layers. With the pleasure, comes the business.
"As of right now, it doesn't even feel like we're even playing, but come tomorrow night, when it's time to get rest for that game, we'll know it's time to play," McRae said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn