Basketball: Miller Finds Self On Trip To Belize
Matt Sullivan, Director of Athletics Communications
Junior forward latest in line of Cajuns playing for Sports Reach USALAFAYETTE – What was supposed to be a trip to the Far East for Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns men's basketball forward Justin Miller turned into a trip of self-reflection.
Heading into his junior season with the Ragin' Cajuns, Miller was given the opportunity to spend 10 days in Belize, playing basketball and helping others for Campbellsville, Ky.-based Sports Reach USA. The trip, from May 16-26, saw Miller and Sports Reach go unbeaten in six games against teams from the Belize National Elite League, along with local all-star teams from across the country.
"It was a fun trip for 10 days to just clear my head and compete with some guys that I knew," Miller said. "It was kind of like the AAU experience where you just, 'go with the flow.' The experience was really good, but the thing that I got out of it was just getting close to God, speaking to him every day and connecting with the kids.
"The goal was to find myself a little bit more and become a better man."
The trip for Miller was the latest in a line of Ragin' Cajuns who have participated in foreign trips with Sports Reach over the past five years in foreign trips, joining a list that included alums Elfrid Payton (China), Jay Wright (China) and Frank Bartley (China/Belize).
While basketball was part of the trip, the main focus of team was conducting clinics for local children, visiting children's home and churches, as well as experiencing the culture with tours of nearby Mayan ruins, snorkeling and cave tubing.
Miller had originally planned to go to China, but a last-minute change forced the trip to be cancelled. With no trip to the Orient in line for Miller, he settled for the next best thing with his third visit outside of the United States in the past nine months.
He got his first exposure to life outside of the country during Louisiana's week-long trip to Cuba last August. The experience of daily life for individuals on the island nation helped prepare Miller for what to expect on his trip to the tiny Central American country.
"It was an eye-opening experience," said Miller. "When we went to Cuba, the perspective changed. You always think that you have it bad, but when you go to some different places outside of the country, you see that you really don't have it bad like others do. I'm glad that Coach (Bob) Marlin picked me to go and I really appreciate the opportunity with Sports Reach and Robby Speer. It was a really great experience.
"Knowing that everyday, we wake up, we get to go to school and have tremendous opportunities that kids back there don't have. Everybody there was so happy just to play basketball with us and be on the same floor with us. We take stuff for granted over here. It's kind of sad because people over there don't have anything and you wouldn't know that by how they acted."
One particular day during the trip was resonant for Miller during a visit to the Montero family. There, the group visited with the family who lived in a very small house and had lost a daughter to cancer a few years ago.
The demeanor of the Montero's, still coping with the loss, but maintaining a joyful and inviting attitude, moved Miller.
"On our visit, the mom was just asking us if we needed anything … if we wanted something to drink, did we want some food," Miller said. "I saw the look in her eyes and it reminded me of my mom so much in how much she struggled and how much she's had to go through and how she keeps fighting and putting a smile on her face. And you wouldn't have known that she lost somebody.
"I just wanted to talk to her, one-on-one, and pray for her and tell her how proud I was of how she handled herself during an emotional time. I couldn't fathom losing one of my sisters or my mother. The hospitality that she showed was so amazing."
As for his Sports Reach teammates, there were plenty of familiar faces for Miller. One of his Sports Reach teammates - Perry Ayers of Centre (Ky.) College and a former prep star at Bowling Green High School – was on the losing end to Miller's Owenboro High squad in the 2015 Kentucky High School Basketball state championship game. Another Sports Reach player, Jared Savage of Western Kentucky, was a high school rival at Bowling Green-Warren Central.
Also on the team for Sports Reach was Malik Burnette of Sun Belt Conference rival Troy and Miller's roommate on the trip, Marlain Veal of Southeastern Louisiana.
"Some good, Christian dudes that I've been knowing for awhile," Miller said of his teammates. "There were guys that I played against in high school. It wasn't hard to fit in with all of the guys."
What about the competition? Well, let's just say it wasn't as experienced than the Cuban National Team that Miller and the Ragin' Cajuns faced three times last summer. While Miller and Sports Reach played against teams from the BNEL, they also faced teams comprised of mostly kids, aged 15-16 years old and had just finished participating in a clinic.
"We actually played the day we got there," Miller said. "We played on some concrete. (Louisiana Basketball Athletic Trainer) B.J. Duplantis told me to expect anything when I got there, so I was already prepared.
"It was kind of weird and cool at the same time to play against some of the younger kids. It was like I had just taught this kid how to do a behind-the-back pass and now we're playing against each other."
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