The United Nations has launched a women’s college basketball program, branding it as Duquesne University and placing the team in Pittsburgh.
At least, that’s what it feels like when you enter the Duquesne locker room. You can find players from seven different countries on the 2019-20 roster – United States, Canada, Hungary, Albania, Macedonia, Sweden and Spain – and the list grows if you go back further in head coach Dan Burt’s 13 years with the program.
It has been a key aspect of Duquesne since Burt entered the staff and especially since he became head coach in 2013.
“The way we recruit is within a three-hour radius of campus, basically Cincinnati to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and once you get beyond those boundaries, a lot of times people don’t even know how to say, ‘Duquesne,’” he explained. “So, we’ve established a European pipeline so to say, and that’s been because I’ve had some background in Europe.”
Burt’s wife, Kata Katanich-Burt, played collegiate ball in America, then went back home and pursued a professional career in Hungary. The couple have two bilingual children with dual citizenship, and the family owns a home and car in Budapest. They spend Augusts with Kata’s family in her native country, sometimes venturing outside the borders to neighboring Croatia, Serbia and others for pleasure.
The coach’s exposure to the continent over the years has built a level of comfort for him that other American coaches don’t have, which helps with connections and efficiency, especially when events like the European Championships roll around.
“Because I’m accustomed to the differences, the differences don’t affect me like many American coaches, so I can get down to work a lot quicker,” Burt said. “Also, my previous relationships have really, really helped, whether we’re in Bulgaria, Croatia or Northern Europe.”
With a place to stay and transportation in Hungary, recruiting costs are actually lower in Europe for Duquesne than in America.
In the summer, Burt flew from Budapest to Macedonia for the European Championships for $17. The ticket to get from America to Hungary is about $1,000, he said, which is roughly equivalent to what AAU events in the U.S. charge for their books. In Europe, the books are free, so minimal transportation and lodging costs are it.
Burt often drives from Budapest to events and meetings around the continent, though, and he loves it.
“I’ll often fly to Budapest, get my car and drive to Serbia or Macedonia or Greece,” he said. “That’s part of the fun for me is driving and seeing the different countries.”
Duquesne is one of the women’s programs with the deepest roots in Europe at this point, particularly Hungary, the home of one of its current stars, Nina Aho. It’s to the point where Burt sometimes gets players sent to him whom someone overseas recommended look into the Dukes. For example, the team’s second-leading scorer, Spanish redshirt junior center Laia Sole, came to Duquesne because of what she heard from her sister, Judith, who was previously on the team from 2015-18.
For Sole, the diversity was a major reason why she chose to transfer from Maine to Duquesne in 2017.
“I just wanted to go somewhere where it felt like home, and for me, a big thing was to make sure the team had a lot of diversity from where people were from. A mix of everything,” Sole said. “I feel that when you’re surrounded by people who understand your background, it makes it easier to live with them. There’s a couple of days, like Christmas time, the breaks especially, that if you’re the only European, it’s very hard to go through alone.”
In all, the team’s current breakdown is eight Americans, two Canadians, one Macedonian, one Albanian, one Swede, one Hungarian and one Spaniard, meaning 47 percent of the roster was born and raised outside of the United States. When your roster has that much foreign influence, it will change how you play.
“I think there are some half-truths to European basketball being more fundamental,” Burt said. “They strongly drill the fundamentals, and they do it more than we do in America, but they also play with a sense of greater freedom when they’re in games with one-handed passes, passing in the air and some of their shot selection. I let our kids play through things. I don’t necessarily get as concerned about turnovers if we’re being aggressive, and I think that empowers our players to know I’ve got their back, that they can take a chance and play through mistakes.”
The influences don’t stop on the court, though. For some American players, the Duquesne locker room was their first experience interacting with non-Americans. For senior guard Paige Cannon, who hails from Johnstown, Ohio, which has a population of nearly 5,000, she met her first European when she arrived on campus, she said. Now, she has friends dotted across the globe and has traveled to multiple countries she never considered before.
“I love Johnstown, but I’m so happy I got to come here and expand my knowledge and understanding of the world,” Cannon said. “I wouldn’t get these experiences there. It’s a special thing that I got meet all these girls and form such special relationships with them. If I wouldn’t have come here and met all these girls and learned the things I’ve learned, I probably wouldn’t be so curious and excited to travel and see everything that I want to see. I probably wouldn’t have ever had that desire if I didn’t come here.”
The cultural exchange goes both ways, with international players taking away valuable lessons from their American teammates and from uprooting and moving to the United States.
“My favorite thing is the diversity. In America, there is so much diversity,” Sole explained. “Also, I feel like you can walk around literally with the ugliest outfit. You can walk around with a Christmas hat, and no one is going to say anything. Here, that’s normal, but in Spain, they would judge you if you were walking around with a Santa hat. That’s something I like the most for sure. They don’t really care. You just do you, and that’s it.”
Of course, there have been plenty of confusing moments for both sides, and sometimes communication can be tricky. That extends to Burt’s time traveling around Europe, like during his first time in Romania when he accidentally made some dangerous friends.
“I met some really nice people who were very friendly to me, including one guy who gave me a shirt and tie for my birthday, which was like three weeks away,” he recounted. “There was an American there who was working as an aide worker, and she came to me after the dinner. She said, ‘These are the sons and daughters of the mafia. You need to be very careful about what you’re doing.’ Well, thank God I had been at that event for four days. I decided to go back home to Bucharest the next morning.”
It has become more difficult to recruit in Europe since Burt started doing it, he said, and it doesn’t have to do with the Romanian mafia. The secret is out, so to speak, and the competition to get the top talent outside of this country is hot. That’s why his long-time reputation outside this country’s borders are so important.
“Things were easier just three years ago. Now, we’re seeing every power team in the country go over. It has muddied the waters, so to say,” Burt said. “But like, Ontario, I don’t have to wear anything that says Duquesne. When I walk into a gym in Toronto, most people know who I am, and Toronto is a very, very fertile recruiting area for us. When we go to Europe, because of my Hungarian background, I understand some of the cultural differences, so I’m going to be more understanding of when a player has a name day as opposed to an American coach who has no idea what that even is. When you build relationships that aren’t just seeing someone in the summer for two or three days at the European Championships, but it’s a consistent messaging and two-way relationship with the coaches, the trainers, the federation people, that helps you a great deal.”
The value of bringing players from across the world together into one program can show on the court and in talent level, but there are larger aspects at work in Burt’s mind. He described himself as someone fascinated with cultural differences, and understanding the people and places of the world genuinely interests him.
By exposing Americans to foreigners and foreign lands and bringing outsiders to this country to live and thrive, Duquesne women’s basketball is making a difference in the world.
“We took our team on a foreign tour four years ago to Budapest and secondary cities in Hungary, and then down to Croatia and Serbia. That was a life-changing event,” Burt explained. “Our Serbian player at the time, because of the war and the breakup of Yugoslavia, had never been to Croatia and was very nervous. I thought we crossed a lot of cultural barriers there that she can be comfortable going into Croatia. I think our Americans found out that this little country called Hungary that’s 10 million people is pretty awesome, and then Croatia, along the coast, is the most beautiful place in the world, and our Americans still talk about it to this day about, ‘If I have one place in the world I’d like to go, it’s Croatia.’
“So, to impact kids’ lives and broaden horizons, is what I do.”