PLATTSBURGH — Even though Plattsburgh State men's basketball player Anthony Baker wrapped up his collegiate career in March of 2014, the Bronx, N.Y., product was offered one more chance to compete with other college basketball players — albeit in a far more exotic location than upstate New York and with USA on his chest rather than Cardinals.
In the summer of 2014, Baker and a handful of other student-athletes from around the United States took a 10-day trip to Italy to compete in the Goodwill Series put on by the United States of American Athletes International.
Baker found himself on the receiving end of his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity courtesy of the USAAI — an organization that has been targeting student-athletes at colleges and universities around the country to participate in international competition since 1992.
The former Plattsburgh State player didn't get the chance to meet or practice with his fellow team members until the group arrived at JFK International Airport to exit the United States, but he was in constant communication with both USAAI representatives as well as the coach of the team — Andrew Green. Green is an assistant men's basketball coach at William Woods University — an NAIA institution in Fulton, Missouri.
"Even though we had to play our first game almost directly after we landed, we didn't have any problems with team chemistry," Baker said.
As a matter of fact, everyone involved with the team was surprised at how quickly its members were able to play together at a high level.
"It was like we played together before we even got to Italy," Baker said. "Coach Green said he never expected us to have that kind of chemistry right off the bat, but we were just a bunch of guys with similar personalities who played unselfish basketball."
Baker and the rest of his squad rolled to a 5-0 record during their slate of games with each triumph coming by nearly 20 points. Although the Italian teams Baker's squad faced off against had their own strengths, there was one area in particular where they were exploitable.
"Every team we played was very talented, very skilled and more than anything they played great fundamental basketball," Baker said. "Their players are great shooters, but the main difference between playing in Italy and in the United States is the physicality.
"The Italian game is more skill-based rather than relying on strength and power, so that was one of the advantages I had. From playing in the SUNYAC, I was used to playing strong, physical basketball and that really allowed me to dominate in the post."
Outside of its basketball-related activities, the team received more than an ample amount of time to explore numerous cities and historical landmarks around the nation.
"Out of the cities we went to, Venice was definitely my favorite. It's the most beautiful place I've ever been to," Baker said. "My favorite tourist attraction had to be the Coliseum. Ever since I was young, I've always loved everything that has to do with it and I used to dream about going there.
"When I walked in for the first time, I had chills because it's so extravagant and larger-than-life. The fact that it has been preserved so well is amazing. It seems like nothing has happened to it through the years. It's beautiful, majestic and one of the most amazing things I've seen in my life."
In addition to playing the role of tourists, Baker and the rest of his team served as ambassadors of a sort from the United States. Representing ones country, said Baker, was one of the most rewarding parts of the international excursion.
"I felt very larger than life to be in another country representing the United States," Baker said. "The fact that I was able to play those games with USA on my chest was incredible. Every time we played in a city, the kids who came to the game would rally around us because we were from America.
"I remember this one moment very vividly. After one of the games we played, we went outside and 20 to 30 kids just rushed us. They were asking us so many questions and taking a bunch of pictures. I felt like a celebrity. Once they were finished with they, we all got together in a group and all of the kids started chanting, 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' I'll never forget that moment as long as I live."
Upon returning to the United State and being able to reflect on his international experience, Baker found he had gained a far greater appreciation about what it means to be an American.
"When you're in the United States, you take for granted the types of freedoms and luxuries we have here," Baker said. "I'm more proud to be an American because I saw how prideful the Italian people are. The pride they have in their country is ridiculous. They truly love to be Italian and they support their cities and country in everything."
The experience, according to Baker, has left him changed for the better.
"I'm very grateful I was able to receive this opportunity," Baker said. "I told my mother when I got back that it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I came back with a whole new confidence in myself, my abilities and about the direction my life could go in. It's something I'm never going to forget."