- Dana O'Neil, College Basketball Reporter
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The little girl didn't speak English, and Ron Hunter speaks barely any Spanish.
Small enough for Hunter to hoist onto his hip, the girl lived in a Peruvian home for sexually abused girls. Surprisingly warm and affectionate around men, she calmly let Hunter wash her feet and fit her for a new pair of sneakers. Then after he finished, the girl took the IUPUI coach's hand and led him into a nearby church.
She started speaking and though Hunter couldn't understand a word, he knew exactly what she wanted.
"She pointed to a statue of Mary and put her hands together," Hunter said. "She wanted me to pray with her. She clung to my neck in that church. It wasn't that she loved me. She just didn't want to let me go."
Now, it is Hunter who can't let go, not of the quiet moment in the church, not of the feeling of the girl's small hands around his neck, and not of the countless images that are seared into his memory after a 12-day trip to Peru in late July and early August.
Hunter, the IUPUI head coach, traveled to the South American country with three of his players, his entire coaching staff and Samaritan's Feet, a North Carolina-based charity whose goal is to outfit 10 million children worldwide with shoes. They visited remote villages two hours outside of Lima, towns where houses are stacked up like Legos stuck into the side of mountainous sand dunes, where children wore makeshift shoes of cardboard and old pieces of leather.
In all, they gave out 3,000 pairs of shoes.
They left wishing they had 10,000 more.
"The hardest part was leaving every day," sophomore Adrian Moss said after returning to Indianapolis. "We'd give out 300 pairs of shoes, and 500 more people would be in line. You'd leave thinking, we made them happy for one day but they're still there."
John Ashworth, an IUPUI sophomore, figures he has 15 pairs of sneakers. Some of his buddies have sneakers to wear with particular outfits. Assistant coach Matt Crenshaw knows he has pairs of shoes he's never worn. Don Carlisle, who worked as a volunteer assistant with the team last season, admits when a pair of his white kicks gets dirty, he doesn't want it anymore.
How can you experience something like this and not be affected?
--IUPUI assistant Matt Crenshaw
They never thought much about their collections of shoes, which never struck them as odd or exorbitant. Why would they? College basketball players and coaches get new sneakers in quantities Carrie Bradshaw would envy.
So when Ron Hunter sat down and told his staff and players, who received special permission from the NCAA to go on a non-basketball summer tour, that they were going on a trip to give shoes to children who had none, they were stunned.
"My mom's a surgeon, so we've always been pretty well-off," said Ashworth, a sophomore guard. "I never expected we'd see so many kids who didn't have shoes."
Originally scheduled to visit Nigeria, the team and its travel party of 25 (including members of the Samaritan's Feet staff) had to change their itinerary after safety concerns made travel to the African country impossible. Initially they were disappointed with the detour, unsure of what they'd find in Peru. Even Hunter, who had visited Africa before and knew the dire need there, was uncertain.
Now he's convinced he was sent to Peru for a reason. Nowhere, the coach said, has he encountered poverty like he witnessed there. There, the players met a man who worked in a grocery store and made $250 a month, considered a good wage to support a family. A 16-year-old boy asked players to pray that he'd find work. With his father long gone and his mother ill, it was up to him to care for his seven brothers and sisters. A girl asked for a good meal every day.
One 4-year-old boy looked at Carlisle, a former player, with one simple request.
"'Pray for someone to love me,' that's what he told me," Carlisle remembered the boy asking him. "At 4 years old to know that's missing, that just broke my heart."
In Pachacutec, a town of 4,000 carved into the sand dunes in southern Peru, Hunter traversed the winding roads -- barely wide enough for the makeshift rickshaws used for transportation -- up the mountainside to visit a home "which is nothing like what we'd call a home here," he said. The floors were sand and dirt, the walls and roof made of whatever spare material the family could scavenge, old fence material, scattered pieces of wood. There was no electricity. A water truck made a weekly delivery since there was no running water. The family threw waste over the ledge and onto the sandy mountain. In a corner on the floor sat a small girl who shyly smiled at Hunter.
"Four of us went into that house," he said. "Every single one of us came out of there crying."
"Eye-opening" and "life-changing," those were the words the coaches and players used repeatedly to describe their experience.
Each morning they'd board a rickety bus with holes in the floor so large they could see the ground beneath them -- the Fred Flintstone bus, Hunter called it -- and drive to another remote outpost, places like Lurin, San Juan de Miraflores and Bethania, to distribute shoes. They'd laugh and tell jokes as they made their way across the country.
Each afternoon, they'd board the same bus to head back to their Lima hotel. No one said a word.
"We'd give out 300 shoes but pack maybe 500, just so we had enough sizes for everyone," Ashworth explained. "So at the end we would be packing up shoes to save for the next distribution. They didn't understand why we weren't giving them out, and we couldn't communicate. Mothers would be begging us to give their kids shoes. It was awful."
They all cried at some point, some openly, others off by themselves, but none left South America dry-eyed. Overcome by the poverty, they were equally amazed at the graciousness of the children.
When the bus pulled up, children squealed in delight and jumped into the visitors' arms.
The littlest ones stared at the socks they were given, unsure what to do with them, and all the children beamed at their new shoes as if they were prized possessions.
"I played at Purdue in front of 14,000 people," assistant coach Austin Parkinson said. "We're all used to people cheering for us, but this didn't even compare. These people weren't cheering for us because we played basketball. They were excited to see us and knew that we were there to help them. It was more than shoes. It was love and attention."
To a man, all the participants said they got as much as they gave. They learned about themselves, that they had a tendency to be selfish, that like a lot of people their caring stretched only as far as the handful of people in front of them. Carlisle remembered seeing the late-night infomercials asking viewers to help poor children around the world and zoning out. "They weren't people I knew, so I just didn't pay any attention," he said.
They also realized they could change, that almost overnight they could be as empathetic to people they had just met as they could to their own families, and that they could stretch their comfort zone if it meant forging a relationship with a child who needed a friend.
Hunter intentionally didn't tell his players or staff that part of the shoe distribution would include washing the children's feet. He knew they would wrinkle their noses at the gesture that was borne partially out of necessity (the children's feet, often being washed for the first time, were covered in cuts and calluses) and also was meant to symbolize Jesus' washing of the feet of his disciples.
Sure enough, when Hunter told them the first night in Peru, all of them but Parkinson said they would prefer to hand out the shoes, not wash any feet.
"I do not like feet," assistant coach Crenshaw laughed. "I don't like your feet touching me. I don't like to touch your feet."
On the first day Crenshaw, Carlisle, Moss and Ashworth all sat off to the side while other people washed the children's feet.
"Then I realized when you washed the feet, that's when you got to interact with the kids," Crenshaw said. "You got to talk with them. By the end of the first day, every single one of us washed feet. By the end of the trip, we didn't even think about it."
Don Carlisle left for Peru scared and unsure. For seven years the former standout forward had parlayed his years at IUPUI into a successful career overseas. But as he boarded the plane, he toted an injured knee and the crippling news from a doctor that it likely was a torn ACL.
Carlisle worried that his playing days might be over, fretted about what he would do next.
And then he met children with little education and less opportunity who still said they planned to be doctors or policemen when they grew up; kids who went barefoot in street soccer games; girls who had been sexually abused before they even reached toddlerhood yet giddily hugged complete strangers.
"Those kids gave me hope," Carlisle said, shaking his head in wonder. "They were so happy and excited. I thought if they can survive that, I'll be fine. I have no idea what's going to happen but it will work out."
Hunter and his players know there are critics, people who wonder why they traveled all the way to South America to help children when there are plenty of kids in the United States who need help. They don't discount the argument, but they also believe that there is a difference.
There is need here and need there, but in Peru, the need is crippled by a black hole of opportunity.
"Here, if you keep your nose clean, if you work hard, maybe you get a scholarship," Crenshaw said. "If you pay your bill, you have electricity. There's no electricity available to those people, and there's no chance most of them can get out. It's not a choice."
The strangest things stop them now.
Parkinson relaxed in a sauna at the Lima hotel, unwinding after a grueling day, when suddenly he looked more closely at the bench he was sitting on.
"That bench would be a bed, no, a luxury bed, for someone," he said.
A quick drive down an Indianapolis street, lined with restaurants and fast-food options, gives them pause.
The players returned home, kicked off their shoes and looked a little harder at those sneaker-stuffed closets.
Their friends whined about whatever it is college kids whine about these days, and suddenly they had little tolerance for it.
"Man, if someone tells me about something they don't have here, it's a joke," Moss said.
Still marveling at his players' behavior and kindness in Peru, Hunter wondered how he'd ever yell at them once practice resumed.
And then he paused.
Human nature is human nature. Invariably the players will buy another pair of shoes, join in the gripe sessions about exams or girls or crummy dorm food. And come October, Hunter will ride his players just as he always has.
But the coaches and players also believe that in the back of their minds, this trip will always be with them.
"How can you experience something like this and not be affected?" Crenshaw asked.
No one has any idea if the trip will bring dividends on the basketball court. Will the closeness add up to more victories and smoother play?
Frankly they don't care.
Basketball was merely a vehicle here. The players conducted clinics, but in the soccer-crazed nation most of the kids placed the ball on the ground and instinctively began to kick it. And truth be told, Hunter said if he could do it over again, he'd hold fewer clinics and give out more shoes instead of spending an hour teaching kids how to dribble.
Although they were deep in the heart of recruiting season, Crenshaw never once asked Hunter about players back in the U.S. the team needed to woo. Besides messing around with the kids, the players didn't practice or play at all.
"I took my players completely out of their comfort zone, to places they didn't know, to do things they didn't understand and they were incredible," Hunter said. "I wish every coach in America could experience this with his players. I know there are coaches who win national championships, who go to Final Fours. If you told me I had to exchange this experience with my players for a Final Four, I'd say keep your Final Four. This will stay with me far longer."
The box sat just inside Ron Hunter's office door. It had a Tallahassee, Fla., return address.
Still bleary-eyed after returning home from South America at midnight the night before, Hunter walked into his office at 11 a.m. He spied the box, ripped open the top and laughed.
Inside there was no note, just a pile of sneakers -- big ones, little ones, blue ones, red ones.
"I can't think of a day that I haven't had at least one box like that arrive," he said. "But now I'm sitting here trying to figure out how fast I can get these shoes to Peru."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IUPUI's Ron Hunter, his players and staff trekked to Peru on a 12-day mission to hand out 3,000 shoes. But they returned to the U.S. with a newfound appreciation and perspective from the "life-changing" experience, writes Dana O'Neil.