In the fall of 1983, current Gustavus men’s basketball coach Mark Hanson decided to spend the fall of his senior year hiking the Appalachian Trail in support of his distributive major in environmental science. Hanson returned just in time to start his final season with the Gustie basketball team where he was on pace to become the program’s all-time leading scorer. Twenty-seven years later, Hanson is returning from yet another educational journey just in time to begin another basketball season, however this time the veteran coach spent three months with his family on a service learning trip to South Africa in hopes of widening his horizons as a teacher and a coach.
Last spring, Hanson applied for and was granted an administrative leave through the College with a couple of motivations in mind for taking this trip. “It was a combination of the opportunity to do service, an educational opportunity for my family, and timing with where my kids are in their academics and where I am professionally,” Hanson said.
Gustavus Athletics Director Al Molde, who was very supportive of Hanson’s request for the leave, was excited for the opportunity for Mark and his family. He stated, “This type of a trip certainly broadens one’s education. In Mark’s case, spending time in another part of the world and immersing his family in that cultural experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“Mark is someone who is always looking for a chance to broaden his horizons personally, while also looking to make the world around him a better place,” Molde added. “This trip allowed him and his family to learn from another culture, while sharing the gifts of our culture at the same time. I look forward to hearing about his experience and I am excited to see how Mark can use what he has learned to make Gustavus a better place.
Hanson and his family traveled for the first three weeks of their trip before settling down in Nelspruit, a city of over 200,000 people in the northeastern part of South Africa. Through the service his wife, Deb, is doing with Lego Robotics, the Hanson’s connected with someone that allowed them to stay in their home in Nelspruit.
After the initial three-week travel period, Hanson and his family began their service work. “I worked with an organization called Desmond Tutu Center for Leadership (C4L), which is a non-governmental organization. A good part of what they do is work with orphaned and disadvantaged youth,” Hanson said. “Many of them are in the position they are because of HIV/AIDS, which is a serious issue for most Africans and South Africans. They work with kids clubs in the rural areas or townships to keep them involved in things, have activities, and also to put forth messages on HIV/AIDS and child trafficking, the two most significant issues facing young people in South Africa.”
With basketball playing such a major role in Hanson’s professional life, it was only natural that he ended up doing some basketball coaching during his time in South Africa. Through the C4L, Hanson was notified of a basketball team in a rural town that was interested in receiving some instructions. Once on site, however, Hanson realized that the “team” was nothing more than a group of guys in small village that were interested in playing basketball. “I went out there to meet with them, and they didn’t have a ball or a basket. The ball was flat, and the baskets that they used when they did play were for a game they play there called netball,” Hanson said.
“The first day, we sat inside and talked about rules. I showed them skills actually using a soup can. I looked at them and I said, ‘Well, if we can find a ball would you like to practice?’ They were all in their school uniforms and did not seem prepared, however, they were wearing their practice clothes underneath their school clothes. “They weren’t going to show their cards, but I got the sense that they really wanted to learn how to play. It turned out to be a wonderful experience,” Hanson stated.
If there is one thing that Hanson learned from his trip to South Africa that he will try to incorporate into his role both as the basketball coach and teaching health and exercise science classes, it is to appreciate what we have.
Hanson had the opportunity to walk through some of the poverty stricken homes in South Africa and experience first-hand some of the living situations. He reflected, “You go to these townships or rural settings and you see home after home that might be made out of cardboard and sticks and it might be half finished. Five people are living in this makeshift house and conditions are difficult and yet, you walk through and there are kids playing and teenagers chatting. They are doing the same kinds of things that we do,” Hanson said. “It’s still a very vibrant life. They aren’t sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. They were just living, and in some sense you had to appreciate that because they were living on a lot less and not sitting around whining about it. They wished they had some things better but there was still a vibrance that was exciting to see.”
Another feature that Hanson hopes to add to the basketball program as result of his trip is to add a service component to the team’s international trips in the future. He stated, “I think that when we take significant basketball trips, we will add a service project to the trip. It will strengthen our resolve to do certain things,” Hanson said. “We are fortunate to get great administrative, community, student, and alumni support at Gustavus and that allows us to have a strong program. I think we owe it to all involved to give back to someone else who is in need.”
For the next several months Hanson will be focused on helping his 2010-11 squad reach its substantial goals of competing for a MIAC Championship and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament, however he will do so with a broader perspective of the world in which we live. And a greater appreciation for the simple things in life like a healthy family, a home with a roof and running water, and hoops with backboards on them.