- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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MAZATLAN, Mexico -- Highway 15 is pitch-dark. The nearly three-hour drive back from Culiacan to Mazatlan, from the inland Sinaloa city to the state's coastal tourist spot, is ahead of us when suddenly the bus driver decides he needs a coffee break.
So, without any advance notice, the driver pulls over to a rest stop and gets out, leaving the door open. USC coach Tim Floyd, like everyone else on the team and nearly all of the traveling party, is asleep when he realizes the sudden stop.
Floyd wakes up and wants an explanation as to why we have stopped, where the driver is going and why he didn't close the door? There was an uneasiness of being parked -- with the door open and many people asleep -- in a foreign land where targeting tourists is not uncommon.
The driver hops back on board and simply says in Spanish "café." The hint that the driver needs caffeine for a drive that would put the team back at Mazatlan's El Cid hotel at nearly 2 a.m. is a little disturbing. Still, for the Trojans, who had all good intentions in planning a four-game, three-day Labor Day trip to Mexico, dealing with adversity is nothing new.
Vamos a México!
Countless teams go on Labor Day excursions to destinations in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Bahamas. The NCAA's rules for the trip are pretty simple: Teams can take a foreign trip if it's outside 30 days of the first official day of practice. If school is in session, the team cannot miss any class time. Teams are allowed to practice for 10 days prior to the trip. The practices don't have to be in succession, and teams can practice multiple times a day. Unlike a summer or spring trip, newcomers can go on the trip.
USC practiced 16 times in 10 days, the first five without the newcomers and the latter five once the fall semester started. The newcomers, a top-three recruiting class, are led by the heralded guard O.J. Mayo.
The original plan was to go to Puerto Vallerta for four games. Early in August, the site was moved to Mazatlan. The trip's organizers claimed the trip was moved because advance purchase of the tickets wasn't done early enough and the Mexican teams would have a hard time getting into Puerto Vallerta, said USC assistant coach Gib Arnold.
So, a few weeks before departure, the trip was moved to Mazatlan with the intent to play four games in two days -- doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.
Arnold's original idea was to leave Friday for Mazatlan, but the NCAA rules stated that the Trojans couldn't depart until all Friday classes were over. But, because flights to Mazatlan were limited out of Los Angeles, they couldn't leave until Saturday morning. However, on Tuesday, Arnold had received a phone call that the gymnasium in Mazatlan had been flooded by heavy rains associated with Hurricane Dean.
So, three days before departure, the Trojans weren't sure where or whom they were going to play.
On the day before they left, the Trojans whittled their traveling party by three. Starting guard Daniel Hackett was too exhausted to travel after three stints this summer training with Italy's national teams (he was born and raised in Italy). Freshman point guard Angelo Johnson was unable to get through the NCAA Clearinghouse in time to be eligible. Part-time starting guard Dwight Lewis got sick, making a trip to Mexico out of the question for someone whose stomach was a bit queasy.
USC left campus Saturday morning at 7 a.m., getting to LAX three hours early for the Alaska Airlines flight to Mazatlan. The Trojans arrived so early and whizzed through security so fast that the team ended up sleeping in the gate area to pass the time.
When they arrived in Mazatlan, Mayo was cornered coming off the plane by his fellow passengers, who realized who he was and suddenly became autograph seekers. Arnold was thrilled when he came through customs with Mali-native Mamadou Diarra, who had visa issues prior to the trip. There was a legitimate concern that the Mexicans wouldn't let him through customs. Arnold and Diarra had to arrive at LAX five hours prior to the flight to fill out the appropriate paperwork.
Jimmy Bova, a middle-school teacher from Los Angeles and the tour representative on site for the weekend, met the team outside of security. Bova, in his mid-30s, is a regular in Mazatlan. He has been coming down to Mazatlan for 14 summers and goes by the name "Antonio" here.
The final decision has been made to play the games in Culiacan, a nearly three-hour bus ride inland and to the north of Mazatlan. The plan is to play two teams in a doubleheader. Sunday's games already have been scratched by the time the team arrives in Mazatlan. Bova is on top of his game, and knows the Trojans are on a tight schedule. He has called ahead to the El Cid hotel, has a team meal ready, room keys all set to be passed out and made the bus driver aware that he can't let the coach idle for long.
After a 30-minute drive from the airport, the plan is to be at the hotel for less than an hour so the team can be back on the bus by 4 p.m. to make a 7:30 p.m. tip against the Caballeros, a professional team in the Mexican basketball league known as the LNBP.
Within minutes of sitting down for the team meal, with the Sea of Cortez waves splashing down so hard that the white caps barely have a chance to dissolve, the team is eating an array of fried fish, hamburgers, French fries and vegetables. A number of people in the traveling party don't need to ask about the ice. They are quickly informed that the ice cubes come from distilled water. So, without hesitation, everyone takes their drink, whether it's juice or soda, with ice cubes. They will take their chances and hope that the hotel is honest about the quality of the frozen water.
The humidity is palpable as the team hustles to get on the bus. Assistant coach Phil Johnson is the last one to finish. Right on cue, the team is off on the bus -- with indigestion a distinct possibility -- for a journey to Culiacan that will go through some farmland but mostly overgrown green fields of grass with mountains in the distance.
Police officers randomly stop a few vehicles for inspection. Plenty of pickup trucks speed past the bus. The chatter on the bus stopped about an hour outside of Mazatlan. Nearly everyone on the bus has dozed off.
But the drive isn't without at least one odd sighting: In Culiacan, as the bus is about to make the turn toward the Caballeros' arena, a man wearing shorts and no shoes is doing flips in front of cars stopped at a red light.
The team is greeted outside the arena by a friendly Caballeros staff and walks into the arena, where the opposing team already is warming up. The first thing that catches everyone's eye is the color of the seats. They are painted yellow and blue, the exact color pallet of archrival UCLA.
When the team gets to the locker room, strength and conditioning coach Rudy Hackett heads to the sink to wash his hands when he's welcomed by a cockroach the size of a bar of soap. As it crawls up through the drain, Mayo attempts to move the bug with some tape but to no avail. The players don't squeal but there is definitely a bug phobia permeating the group. (That sink isn't used the rest of the night and some on the staff opt for Purell instead of washing their hands.)
Floyd gathers the team together in the locker room and gives the players a final pep talk.
"We haven't even talked about demeanor and arguing with officials and all that," he says. "This is a place where we want to get into a fight down here. OK? Let's just handle ourselves, play hard and then we'll get the hell out of town."
"1-2-3 Trojans!" the team says in unison.
USC is coming off a Sweet 16 season, a school-record 25 wins and a third-place finish in the Pac-10. But the Trojans lost three critical perimeter players off the team. Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt entered the NBA draft a year early. The other, Lodrick Stewart, exhausted his eligibility. Floyd wants to get a good look at his newcomers on this trip. He starts freshmen Mayo and Marcus Simmons along with returnees Taj Gibson, Kyle Austin and RouSean Cromwell.
Mayo passes the ball for an assist within the first few possessions. He takes the ball to the bucket on an ensuing possession.
Floyd chooses to watch the action from the stands and let his assistants coach the team. But the head coach calls out instructions and constructive criticism to various players from time to time.
The Caballeros are a scrappy bunch with two former American college players in LSU's Lamont Roland and Georgia State's Cedric Patton. They trail by only seven at the half.
When the players return to the locker room at halftime, they are greeted by yet another surprise. In the corner was a nasty, hairy tarantula. The tarantula had taken up residence in one doorway opening to the locker room, forcing the players to enter from another door. But they can't help themselves, and each player and coach takes a quick look at the spider and then scurries away.
"Being from New York, I never really saw a tarantula that big," Gibson said later. "It kind of had me a little scared just now, knowing how big they are out here. The natives told me that was one of the little ones, so I didn't want to see one bigger."
"You don't see tarantulas back home, well I haven't," Mayo said the next day. "You most certainly don't have them in West Virginia that I know of. So you see a tarantula and it just makes you think what else is out there. Cobras, pythons, you just don't."
Later, when the team has settled onto the benches in the locker room, assistant coach Johnson leads the locker room talk. He pushes the team to watch the ball fakes and talks about getting beat off the dribble. He wants the team to focus on Roland to keep the former Tiger from continuing to get good shots. Floyd pops in to remind them to keep sharing the ball on offense.
USC pulls away in the second half to win 102-82 behind a flurry of dynamic plays from Mayo. Mayo gives a taste of his passing, floor leadership, quickness and perimeter shooting.
USC normally focuses the first two weeks of practice on defense. But because of the trip, the Trojans spent most of the time just playing basketball and tossing in a zone offense and some pressing situations. The most important thing was to get everyone in the game. Walk-on Terence Green even hits a 3-pointer to jump-start the team. But the important thing is that Mayo, unheralded-but-likely-impact-player Davon Jefferson, Gibson, Simmons, Cromwell, Diarra, redshirt Kasey Cunningham, Keith Wilkinson and Ryan Wetherell all get in and contribute.
During the second half, Floyd is informed by Bova that the local college team -- the team that was the second game opponent -- isn't coming. By then, the plan is to play the Caballeros again. But when the game ends, the few hundred fans begin to exit.
Floyd asks Caballeros coach Jose Dilone if his team is ready for another game. Dilone tells him, according to Floyd, that they are too tired for more.
The USC players are, quite frankly, relieved when they hear that they don't have to play another game. They are beat. So, the business-end of the trip is essentially over after just one game.
But the journey is far from over.
The chaos continues
Before the game, Arnold said he gave Bova $400 for the team's postgame pizzas. Bova ordered 30 pizzas from a local Domino's. But the pizzas were supposed to be delivered at the end of the second game. There is now no second game. So Arnold wants to cancel the order or at least some of the order if not everything has been made, but Bova, who is frantically on the phone with Domino's, is told there will be no refund.
So, the team waits, and waits, and waits, for nearly an hour. When Bova, in a deep sweat, triumphantly brings the 30 pizzas to the bus, the team has a good chortle as assistant Bob Cantu notices that it says on the box, "treinta minutos o gratis [30 minutes or free]."
As the bus heads back to Mazatlan, Bova passes around a box of cheese pizza. Two slices slide out and hit the floor face down.
"What's the five-second rule here?" he says with a smile.
Laughter follows because the last vision was of a yet another, and bigger, tarantula greeting the Trojans as they exited the arena.
The pizza remains untouched.
The team rolls off the bus at nearly 2 a.m. Bleary-eyed, Floyd and the rest of the team head for their rooms. They have Sunday off, a day to hit the beach, jet ski (if they pay for it), body surf and hang by the pool. Or in the case of Mayo, sleep as much as possible.
Instead of four games, the Trojans played one. So exactly what did they get out of the trip?
"The tarantula, the cockroach that evacuated our locker room," Floyd said Sunday and laughed. "Our guys went in at [the] half and came running out because of the tarantula. It was great."
"If you were going to play one game, it couldn't have been better," he said. "We got everybody in. We were down at halftime. I think they set a Mexican-league record with 95 percent from the field, the team we were playing against. Our guys came back by guarding, stopping. That's the only way to catch up. One stop. Came down and continued to run efficiently offensively [and] make shots. Gave up 59 [points] in the first half and 23 in the second and we hadn't done a defensive drill. Hadn't done anything. It was all offense for 10 days."
Floyd went fishing early Monday morning and the team got out of Mexico, surprisingly without incident or delay given the precedent set on this trip. The players returned to campus early Labor Day evening.
"It was great bonding and guys got together for the first time and shared the ball for the first time," Floyd said. "We had a day to relax and sometimes things work out for the best. It was fine."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.