For Jourdanton junior Payton Gonzales, going to Kosovo through The Basketball Embassy and the Youth Leadership through Sport Program [YLSP] was life-changing.
After getting over the nerves of his first plane ride — a 16-hour trip — Gonzales was able to soak in the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It was an amazing experience,” Gonzales said. “I was nervous at first because of the plane ride. Once I got to know everybody in the group, I got more comfortable and we just had a really good time together.”
The junior point guard for the Indian basketball team spent 10 days with YLSP in the once war-torn country helping athletes develop their basketball skills, providing outreach and helping mend the bridge between Albanian and Serbian children, whose parents fought each other during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999.
Almost 20 years after 13,548 were killed during the conflict, Gonzales said being able to help mend the gap between the two groups was special.
“It was great being able to bring the Albanians and Serbians together through basketball,” Gonzales said. “Because, just 20 years ago, their parents were fighting each other in a war. We just forgot that and we did the same thing we had in common, which was play basketball.”
The 5-foot-10 guard went on the trip with a cast on his hand due to an injury before eventually being cleared to remove it. During that time before getting his cast off, Gonzales was only able to instruct rather than participate.
He used that time to be more analytical and find things he wanted to implement in his game here stateside.
“I had a lot more time to focus on how other people play and little things I can take from their game,” Gonzales said. “I can put that in my game to become a better player.”
The biggest difference between the European and American styles is the stressing of fundamentals. Gonzales said Americans play a flashier game than the Europeans.
“I think they’re a lot more technical than us Americans,” Gonzales said. “We play a lot flashier than them. They like to play with a lot of fundamentals and focus on the little stuff. Whereas, we rely more on athletic ability. I want to be able to take that and critique myself more and be as technical as I can.”
The group had plenty of time to take in the views of their surroundings. Gonzales said they would either explore the town or take hikes “almost everyday after breakfast.”
Yet, the most memorable moment of the trip was the group visiting Handikos, a school for disabled and handicapped children. His mother, Candi Rhea Myers, mentioned how Payton wants to start a fundraiser to get equipment for them to play wheelchair basketball.
“I think the best experience for me was getting to go to [Handikos] and getting to interact with them, getting to see how they work together,” Gonzales said.
Because of those experiences, Gonzales felt he came back as a better athlete, but also a better person. It was the longest time he had been away from his mom, which helped him become more independent.
“It helped me become more independent by myself, being away from my mom for so long and learning to work with other people and become a better leader,” he said. “From a basketball standpoint, it was great to see how they play on the other side of the world and showing them how I play so they can take it and put it in their game as well.”