MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With over 30% of WVU’s 2023-24 men’s basketball roster being born internationally, there are a variety of different backgrounds on the team.
Some players started dribbling as soon as they could walk. Others, like Syracuse transfer Jesse Edwards, didn’t start playing until much later in life.
“It’s fun, though,” Edwards said. “Everybody’s got different cultures, different backgrounds. Kerr [Kriisa] is a crazy ol’ dude. So everybody has kind of a different background. You come together. It’s jelling well.”
Often times, players with different cultures often come to the United States carrying experience with their own respective national teams, be it at the junior or senior level. Edwards – a native of Amsterdam – has played under the Dutch flag as recently as this past summer. He averaged 18 points and eight rebounds per game during the FIBA Olympic Pre Qualifying tournament in Turkey in August.
Kriisa also has experience playing for his home country of Estonia. In 2020, he was a crucial part of the Estonian national team’s first win over Lithuania.
“National teams are always special because you kind of grow up in a country and everybody grows up in the same culture,” Kriisa said. “You’re representing the same stuff, you know? That’s all you’ve [been] taught. That’s all you know, and when you have 12 guys who eat the same food for all their lives, who believe in the same stuff, it’s very special. And then you have the fans. I don’t know, it’s very hard to explain, but national teams are not something that I take for granted, and nobody should take for granted, but yeah, national teams are like my favorite things…I don’t know how to put into words but it’s different than college for sure.”
In addition to the national teams, Kriisa also has some experience playing club ball in Lithuania. It was there were he received a closer look as to what professional basketball looked like in Europe. He knew the basics of the pro life from watching his dad, Valmo, play professionally in Estonia when Kerr was a child, but he longed for a situation that would continue his development while still growing his love for the game.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “You’re a 16-year-old kid. You have a teammate who’s 35. Practice ends. He showers, and then he needs to go right away back to his house because he has two kids and a wife to take care of. And then you’re there, 16-years-old, you’re away from home and you’re thinking, “Alright, what should I do now?’ And then you’re just sitting and everybody leaves, and you kind of feel lonely, I would say. So, yeah. College is for sure more fun.”
Now a senior in college, Kriisa sees some similarities in college hoops and national games. The fans have a major effect on the game, and the players are competing for something bigger than a paycheck.
Junior center Ali Ragab (Egypt) and freshman forward Ofri Naveh (Israel) are the other two internationally-born players on the WVU roster. Like Kerr and Edwards, English wasn’t Naveh’s first language, but interim head coach Josh Eilert is impressed with how the freshman is integrating into the WVU scheme.
After all, Eilert believes the language of basketball is universal.
“It doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking,” Eilert said. “If you have that [instinct], it certainly helps.”