When the familiar becomes unfamiliar

Updated: March 10, 2006, 10:59 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

After a month in Italy, my body clock finally adjusted to the time change. But that wasn't the case until nearly the end of the Winter Olympics. During most of that, I wasn't on my usual Central time nor on Italian time but rather "Disoriented time," which is to say whatever time it felt like to me was absolutely not the time it actually was.

More than once, I'd log on to the Internet around 9:30 p.m. to check basketball scores … and realize once again that it was still in the afternoon back in the United States. To watch or listen to games via the Internet meant -- if they were night games -- that they would be finished around 4 a.m. in ol' Torino.

Whether it was to keep track of hoops games or to finish writing about the Olympics, I don't recall a night (or should I say morning) when I wasn't wide awake at 4 a.m. Which wasn't such a good thing for trips to the mountains later in the day. But it all worked out. The Olympics, particularly when they are in a foreign country, tend to warp time -- and life in general.

For a couple of weeks, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and vice versa. You are suddenly paying close attention to things that are not especially important to you any other time, such as snowboardcross.

You find yourself on buses at all hours in places with odd (to you) names you can't correctly pronounce. Once, I happened to be all alone -- except for the driver, of course -- on a bus coming back from the mountains to Torino at 3 a.m. He didn't speak any English, as best I could tell, and I can assure you my Italian is wretched. But we were both singing along to Bill Haley and His Comets' "See You Later, Alligator" on the radio.

In a foreign country, you realize just how much you take for granted being at home, where you're always able to read signs and know what to do and can explain exactly what you want or need.

And because I relate pretty much everything to basketball, I kept thinking about foreign players who come to the United States to compete in college hoops. I don't think I was ever insensitive to what they went through, but I suppose nothing makes it resonate more than feeling it a little yourself.

I arrived back in time for the Big 12 Tournament in Dallas. There are several players from overseas in the league, from places such as Italy, Denmark, Serbia-Montenegro, the Ivory Coast, Colombia, Brazil, Poland, Slovakia, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Oh, and Canada, too. I guess we should count that as well.

For many of these kids, English is a second language. They're far from their families and familiar food and people who grew up with the same experiences they did. It's amazing to me how well and how quickly these youngsters usually adapt, especially considering how many responsibilities they're juggling.

Missouri senior center Christelle N'Garsanet is from the Ivory Coast and grew up speaking French. The first time I chatted with her, when she came to Missouri as a sophomore in 2003-04 after a year of junior college, she said she was still working hard on her English. I thought it was already terrific. She's an excellent student who'll get her degree in accounting, and this season has helped the Tigers to their best finish in the Big 12 (fourth).

Ivana Catic, a freshman at Kansas, is from Serbia-Montenegro, as is fellow Jayhawk rookie Marija Zinic. Catic was 13 when NATO forces began bombing her country in an attempt to stop Serb military-led massacres in Kosovo. She didn't attend school for three months because it was too dangerous to go. Throughout that time and ever since, she relied on her favorite pastime: playing basketball.

Catic got the chance to enroll in her last year of high school in West Virginia, and then signed on at Kansas because she wanted to be part of coach Bonnie Henrickson's attempt to rebuild that program.

Baylor's Abiola Wabara is from Italy, where she discovered basketball -- or it discovered her, to be more accurate -- when she accompanied a friend who was interested in fencing to a recreation center. Someone connected to the basketball office there saw Wabara and asked her if she'd like to try hoops.

Of course, everyone got more familiar with the story of Wabara's teammate, Sophia Young, whose years of work culminated in the Women's Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award. Young came to Shreveport, La., as a teenager from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. When it came to basketball, she was simply a natural.

So … I'm back now where I belong. Dallas' Reunion Arena is home to pretzels that are so soggy I'm sure it's the same batch that was on sale when Sheryl Swoopes scored 53 points here in the 1993 Southwest Conference Tournament. I still voluntarily pay $3.50 for them, though.

There are kids in the stands getting autographs from … Oklahoma's horse mascot. And when he wanders (gallops?) away, they get them from a camera operator.

For me, this is "home" … but it has also become that for players who didn't grow up hearing the Mizzou fight song. In fact, who didn't even know what Mizzou or Texas Tech or Baylor were.

They do now, and I'm so glad they have the chance.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.