by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Today’s basketball world is full of well-documented stepping stones. Kids are starting to get nationally ranked and recruited in fourth grade. Type in any amateur baller’s name into YouTube and you’ll probably find an array of highlights and candid videos. Essentially, if you’re good at putting an orange ball with four spherical black lines into an iron hoop, you can no longer have any secrets.

Yet yesterday, 12 legitimately talented college basketball players fled this American basketball society for an off-the grid, week-long voyage through the hardwoods and streets of Estonia.

The team, and program, is called the East Coast All-Stars and opportunity, experience and basketball is their motto. Guy Rancourt, the head coach of D-III Lycoming who previously made stops at Stony Brook and Florida State, has been heading the ECA’s since the summer of 2006. But, the program didn’t quite have the allure it does today.

“Although we’re called the East Coast All-Stars, there wasn’t much All-Star about it,” Rancourt says. “It was more a culmination of college kids that wanted to experience kind of a semester abroad opportunity that they can’t do during the season. As I’ve continued with it, we’ve started to get better and better players.”

Over the years, the team’s players have started to emulate the name on the front of their jersey.

Former Illinois guard Chester Frazier, who played pro in Europe and now is on Bruce Weber’s staff at Kansas State once headlined Rancourt’s team overseas. In 2011, former Notre Dame big man and now NBA Summer League phenom, Jack Cooley, participated. Last season, former Syracuse guard Brandon Trische and Rodney McGruder, then of K-State, starred for the squad, just to name a few.

This year, Rancourt hasn’t stopped adding big names and star talent. The biggest is none other than Louisville Cardinal and National Champ, Russ Smith. One of the NCAA’s biggest stars last season, Smith will be joined by Eron Harris (West Virginia), Mike Gbinije (Syracuse), Jarrodd Uthoff (Iowa), Jabrille Williams (Binghamton), Phillip Nolan (UConn), Kadeem Batts (Providence), Tate Unruh (Northern Colorado), Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), Tom Knight (Notre Dame), Mike Rudy (Lycoming) and Justin Miller (Lycoming).

“We’re pretty athletic. The guys all have an all-in mindset,” Smith said of his teammates. “I don’t know how the competition is, so I can’t say we’re going to go there and do this or do that. But what I can say is that we’re going to play hard and try our best to win some games.”

For Smith, he’s using this opportunity—which he chose to partake in over visiting the White House with his Cardinal teammates on Tuesday—to work on “ironing out wrinkles” of his game. One of those wrinkles, he says, is getting his teammates involved.

Rancourt says Christmas could be a player who takes a big step forward playing with a guy of Smith’s caliber. Christmas is looking forward to the experience.

“Being invited to this is an honor to be able to represent our country over there,” Christmas said. “To go over there and play international ball, it’s like a whole different game. I’m just going over there to have fun, work on my game and take everything I’ve been working on this summer and do it in a game setting.”

Smith, Christmas and the rest of the team will represent America in the Four Nations Cup in Tallinn, Estonia from July 25-27, where they will compete against top FIBA National Teams of Belarus, Estonia, and the Slovak Republic. They will also have an exhibition against an Estonian Club on July 23. The team departed from New York City on Sunday after a two-day training camp at Fordham University.

“It’s been good. We went over the plays and did a lot of stuff that the USA team did,” Christmas said. “The team looks pretty good. I think we put in a lot of hard work [during camp].”

The Cup has presented the ECA’s with plenty of competition in previous years. Last summer, Rancourt and company beat a Republic of Georgia team in overtime that had Zaza Pachulia and Tornike Shengelia, along with former Villanova guard Corey Fisher and former K-State guard Jacob Pullen. Each team is allowed two non-passport players.

“We certainly compete against some of the top talent that Europe has to offer,” Rancourt says of the Cup. “I’m not anticipating much American flavor this year, but our guys will be tested in each game, that’s for sure.”

Overall, the ECA program provides collegiate players that could explore international playing careers with a chance to get acquainted with FIBA basketball.

“This is a great opportunity for a great group of young men,” Rancourt says. “It’s a chance for some of these guys to get their feet wet in the International game and an opportunity for them to be exposed to foreign cultures before they get a chance to play over there professionally.”

The program also serves as an alternative to the summer USA Basketball program for certain players.

“We just like to be kind of a secondary option for some young men that want to go over and have an opportunity to represent their country,” Rancourt says. “The people at USA basketball have been really good to us. We are not USA Basketball, but the relationship we have with them is great and we try and format and structure stuff very similarly. We have a brief training camp, theirs is a little longer than what we do.”

Estonia may not be the golden route of amateur basketball. It’s not the Final Four in Atlanta or a USA basketball minicamp. But sometimes taking a different route, or running on a different court, might just help build an alternate path to success.

Photo by An Rong Xu