After a slow start to the Fairfield men’s basketball team’s past two seasons, the team is looking strong this year entering the heart of conference play. It all comes down to the individual players on the team.

Team chemistry is important and the reason why recruiting at Fairfield reaches beyond the borders of the United States. In fact, the Fairfield Stags have five international players on the roster this year, the second most in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Having international and American players on the roster helps to bring together many different outlooks on basketball, which helps create a better and more diverse understanding of the game for the team as a whole.

Credit for this goes to head coach Sydney Johnson and his staff.

“Myself and two of our other assistants played overseas, so there are guys that we played with who are now youth coaches overseas, or they know youth coaches,” said Johnson. “If they come across a student-athlete over there who wants to come to the states, it’s natural for these coaches to want to connect these players with someone in the U.S. that they know already.”

Johnson played basketball for five years in Italy and two years in Spain before starting his coaching career.

One of Johnson’s international recruits is Jonathan Kasibabu ‘19, who is from the Congo. In his youth, Kasibabu’s basketball skills led him to Spain where he attended a British school and played in the EuroLeague for Real Madrid. When it was time for high school, Kasibabu and his family decided he should come to the United States, where he would attend Westtown School in Pennsylvania.

Kasibabu is now averaging 20 minutes per game, four rebounds per game and is one of the key contributors to the team. For Kasibabu to get to where he is today, the journey wasn’t easy.

“You have to deal with the fact that you have to travel very far and you have to deal with the new culture,” Kasibabu explained. “You have to deal with the way people play here.”

Kasibabu was recruited by several colleges while in high school, but he says the pitch from Fairfield was different from the others.

“Here they cared about the person, not just the player,” Kasibabu said. “A lot of coaches are there for just helping you win games, but I needed someone that loved the person also. I want to go to a school where they are trying to win the game, but also build up a player that can one day be professional.”

Kasibabu said his international status did not feel like a factor in his recruitment.  

“I think it’s not about having internationals, it’s just about finding the right player,” Kasibabu said.

Johnson agreed. He said that the international players that he has recruited so far are great, but they are equally as valuable as someone who grew up nearby.

“Our two signed players coming in for next year, one is from Sweden and one is from Bergen Catholic in New Jersey which is an hour away, and they are both really good,” Johnson explained.

Besides Kasibabu reigning from the Congo, the four other international players currently on the Fairfield team are Matija Milin ‘19 of Belgrade, Serbia, Olivier Cadieux ‘20 of Montreal, Canada, Deniz Celen ‘20 of Ankara, Turkey, and Nemanja Zubec ‘20 of Novi Sad, Serbia.

With so many players with different backgrounds, the mission is to form a cohesive basketball team that can compete at the highest level. Aside that, Johnson says his goal for these international players is much more than basketball.

“We assure parents, relatives and family members from overseas that we are going to look out for your young man for the time that he’s here,” Johnson said. “We’re going to send him back four years from now with a great degree and I think a greater world view and hopefully, a better basketball player as well.”

Johnson explained that the process of recruiting an international player is different than recruiting a player from the United States.

The first step that coach Johnson uses when recruiting an international player is “relying on video and evaluations from trusted coaches that we have.” The next step is arguably the hardest step in the process of recruiting international athletes: keeping a player interested in your program and making sure interest isn’t lost takes skill. A good coach will find a way to keep their recruit interested.

“First of all, it’s always a lot of emails because of the time difference and not always but in some cases even the language difference,” Johnson stated.

The next step is skype calls with the player and his family. This will happen for a long period of time until the visit can finally take place. The third step is either the player coming to Fairfield on a recruiting visit or the coaching staff visiting the player and their family abroad.

“It’s a whole mix of all of those and that’s just basically the formula for all of our international recruiting,” Johnson stated.

Johnson talked about how he has learned many things about these international players’ home countries.

“In particular I’ve learned a lot about Africa, you know through Jonathan’s experience here and you know how there is still a lot of struggle going on over there and that we are fortunate here,” Johnson stated, “but we certainly have a bet to the world to be world community members not just in our own space. Those are the types of things that I appreciate learning.”

Johnson enjoys expanding his worldview by learning about these international players’ backgrounds and cultures. He believes that if he can learn as much as he can about these players, then he can become a more knowledgeable person and a better coach to his players.

Fairfield’s next home game is on Feb. 21 against the Monmouth Hawks at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.

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