Aspen’s European vacation |

Aspen’s European vacation

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent/Aspen Times

ASPEN – While much of the lengthy return trip from Europe is a blur, Aspen High hoops coach Steve Ketchum vividly recalls a conversation he had with player Trent Lichtenwalter’s parents while sitting in an airport.

“I asked them if this experience kind of turned out like they imagined it would be,” Ketchum said Wednesday. “Trent’s dad looked at me and said, ‘Oh my god. This went better than my wildest expectations. It was unbelievable. I loved every minute of it.’

“That’s how we all felt, too.”

Ketchum has organized this European vacation, a two-plus week cultural and competitive excursion to Germany, France and Austria, three times since 2006. A group of just 12 players made the inaugural trip. The number blossomed to 27 in 2009, and this year’s June voyage included 24 players – hailing from Aspen, Philadelphia, Texas and Hawaii, among other places – as well as scores of family members and friends.

While the trips have had obvious similarities, the experience never ceases to both surprise and create indelible memories, Ketchum said.

“I’ve learned so much from these trips – I like to think I’ve gotten wiser and more knowledgeable,” the coach said. “I know these kids soak everything up like a sponge, from the language to the food and the basketball. … I think all of us adults wish we could have gotten an experience like this when we were kids – to travel internationally and use basketball as a vehicle to learn other lifestyles and other ways of doing things.”

This year’s trip included a tour of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Disneyland’s Cinderella’s Castle, and a cable-car ride to the 9,718-foot summit of the Zugspitze, outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where the group soaked in views of six countries.

The group swam in glacier-fed Lake Eibsee and visited a high-alpine cabin in the Alps, where they took turns racing down hillsides on alpine slides. They also tested their mettle on a challenging ropes course – “It was like 20, 30, 40 feet off the ground. There were carabiners and stuff, so you can’t die, but you sure feel like you will,” Ketchum joked.

There were visits to famous cathedrals, cities and sites of historical import. The general consensus, Ketchum said, was that the few days spent in Paris – a new addition to the itinerary this year – was the major highlight.

Sophomore Trent Lichtenwalter, who made this trip in 2009, agrees.

“We went to go see the Eiffel Tower at night and saw the Mona Lisa [at the Louvre],” he said Thursday. “That was definitely very memorable.”

So, too, was the sobering trip to the Dachau concentration camp.

“That really stuck out to me on both trips,” Lichtenwalter said. “It was just very sad, but I’m so glad we did it. It makes things very real once you go there.”

Added Ketchum: “That was a very sobering, humbling experience. I think the kids felt so lucky with what’s happening in our lives.”

The group’s cultural immersion extended to the basketball court, where two U.S. teams – A U19 and U16 squad – squared off in eight games against some of Europe’s most accomplished club programs. Both compiled 5-3 records.

There were gut-wrenching defeats – the U19s squandered a late lead and dropped a one-point game in Paris and were outscored, 35-4, in the first half of a lopsided loss to a highly skilled German team that featured two players from the Junior National squad. There were also high points, none bigger than a 123-47 rout against Garmisch squad; Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, who was vacationing in the area, stepped in to serve as an assistant coach during.

There also was a victory in the trip’s last contest, which took place in an historic Munich gym so small that teams played four-on-four.

“Part of the wall came out and cut off a 5- to 6-foot section of the court where the 3-point line was. It reminded me of the tiniest gym I ever coached in,” Ketchum joked. “The place was 150 years old. There were wooden backboards and memorial plaques from World War I and World War II. The ambiance was unbelievable.”

He continued: “Adjusting to the international game is a challenge, but I thought the learning curve was high for the kids. They really picked things up – I would explain things to them, and they got it immediately. … The differences in basketball and in training were things that could help us get better. We could pick up something from every team we played that would benefit us.”

Ketchum fully expects the benefits of this experience to extend far beyond the court, however.

“I feel honored and blessed to be in a position where I can provide an opportunity I never got to experience, that very few do,” the coach said. “This kind of thing can change your life.”

Added Lichtenwalter: “I think the second time around, I appreciated things more. … This time, I really savored all the moments. It really was a fantastic trip.”

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