'Once in a lifetime event'
What's coming together because of the sport of basketball will likely end up being about much more.
Park High School and the city of Cottage Grove will host a group of 17 girls basketball players from Uppsala, Sweden, on Friday, July 16.
The Swedish basketball team comprised of 13- and 14-year-old girls from Granbyskolan Uppsala, a junior high school in Uppsala, Sweden, will scrimmage with a group of girls from Cottage Grove from 10 a.m. to noon at the Park High School Activity Center on Friday, July 16.
The Swedish team will also spend a full day in Cottage Grove on Friday, including enjoying a pool party, a barbecue and taking in a couple of movies at the Cottage View Drive-In.
The connection between the Swedish team and Cottage Grove was coordinated by a pair Park graduates -- Steve Hoffman and Jeff Schmitz.
Hoffman and Schmitz played basketball together at Park and each graduated in 1987. Hoffman is currently the Cottage Grove Athletic Association's girls traveling basketball director. Schmitz, who grew up in Cottage Grove, is the head coach of Granbyskolan Uppsala, after living in Sweden for the majority of the past 13 years.
While at the University of Minnesota, Schmitz studied in Sweden, where he met Torun, his wife-to-be. The couple was married in 1992, then moved to Sweden as a family in 1997. Schmitz has three daughters: Hanna, 16, Sofia, 14, and Josephine, 11.
Sofia plays for Granbyskolan and is among the girls on the trip.
"I've always kind of toyed with the idea of bringing a basketball team to the U.S. but financing has always been the big question," Schmitz said. "But, I decided it's kind of now-or-never. Once girls get to be 15 or 16, they generally get so busy it's hard to have them all for a whole week during the summer."
Hoffman said it's "a once in a lifetime event."
"Obviously the girls will be experiencing the chance to play with girls from another country and another culture," Hoffman said. "It'll be a real unique experience for them. I just think it's a cool opportunity, because how many 13- or14-year-old girls are able to say they played basketball against girls from Sweden?"
Hoffman met with Schmitz during the summer of 2009 in a little quasi class-reunion, where they learned they both happened to be coaching their daughters' basketball teams.
"We just started talking about basketball and that we were coaching our daughters' teams," Hoffman said. "That just kind of opened the door to this conversation. He said they were trying to line up a trip here next summer. That's how this all started."
Hoffman, 41, believes the connections made between the girls on Friday could last much, much longer.
"Times have changed drastically with facebook, email and texting," Hoffman said. "Who knows how it's going to impact them? But, I wouldn't be surprised if it opens some doors down the road, because of all the options they have to stay in touch these days."
Granbyskolan's trip is a busy nine days
In addition to the scrimmage and other festivities in Cottage Grove on Friday, the team from Granbyskolan, which actually arrived in Minnesota on July 9 and is leaving July 18, will take part in the well-known Janet Karvonen basketball camp in Champlin Park, scrimmage a team from Hopkins and see a variety of sights around the Twin Cities, including a Twins Game at Target Field, a Lynx game at Target Center, visiting Valleyfair and the Como Zoo and, of course, getting in some shopping at the Mall of America.
"This week is much more about experience," Schmitz said. "It's not the world's most cultural experience, maybe, but we're going to do fun stuff. There's no way you could get 20 girls this age to go to a museum and have them pay any attention.
"They're all really excited to go shopping at the Mall of America. If push came to shove, they'd cancel their basketball games and just go shopping I think."
Schmitz said about half the girls on the team have never been to the United States, but each of them speak English well.
Swedish students begin learning English in first grade and most can hold a conversation in English by the age of 13 or 14.
"They'll hesitate and they'll have a limited vocabulary, but they can follow most everything people say in English," Schmitz said. "But, they're not polished, so this will be good for them to be immersed in it. It's a big trip. It's a good chance for them to practice their English and see the U.S. It will be a big cultural experience for them. It's exciting."
The 17 Swedish girls actually come from two different teams, but are all classmates.
In Sweden, students can choose a few different "free subjects" in addition to mandatory curriculum.
For these girls, most of their physical education and "free subject" time is spent playing basketball, according to Schmitz.
"The girls play four to five hours a week during school and four to five hours a week outside of school," Schmitz said. "This isn't an elite-type of camp. In Sweden the teams you play on aren't really a part of your school. They don't have a school team. Their teams are a club. You don't stay after school and your coach isn't your teacher. It's a separate activity."
Schmitz said basketball isn't nearly as popular a sport in Sweden as it is in the United States and ranks well behind the country's favorite sports -- soccer and hockey, respectively.
"It's going to be really interesting to me to see how they compare to kids their same age from the U.S. where there is more of an emphasis on basketball in the culture and where it's on TV and everything," Schmitz said.
In order to make it to the United States, Granbyskolan had to get over some large financial hurdles.
Schmitz estimated the total cost for his entire team to come to the U.S. at 300,000 Swedish crowns, which is about $35,000 to $37,000.
However, through fundraising and sponsorships, each players' family has only had to put forward roughly 3,000 crowns or about $350 to $370 per child, according to Schmitz.
"Our goal was that no one would choose not to go because of finances," Schmitz said. "We wanted to make it really affordable. Of the 17 girls eligible all 17 are coming. It's really amazing when you set big goals how people will pitch in and help get things done. It's fun for me to see that Minnesota has welcomed these kids with such open arms."
Schmitz said the main source of financing came from businesses that acted as sponsors.
However, the team also sold pine tree garbage bags and delivered advertisements door-to-door to raise money for the trip.
"We worked hard as a group to get the financing in order and the plans in order and we were able to pull it off," Schmitz said. "It was a pretty ambitious goal to try and get all of this put together. So far, it's been amazing."