Basketball has served as a gateway to much of the United States for Newport teenager Chris Braley.
But during the last two weeks it provided an avenue to another part of the world — Red Square, to be precise.
Braley, who earned Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team recognition last winter for his basketball exploits as a junior at Nokomis Regional High School, returned late Tuesday from a trip to Russia as part of an exchange program organized by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and USA Basketball.
Braley, who has starred at the AAU level during his offseasons, was one of 20 young American athletes — 10 boys and 10 girls — who traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg to share their basketball expertise with Russian peers while getting a taste of life abroad.
The visiting American players were hosted by the Russian Ministry of Sport, Tourism, and Youth Policy and the Russian Basketball Federation.
Most of the boys who were selected as part of the exchange, like Braley, are being recruited by Ivy League and Patriot League college basketball programs, and it was a recommendation by one of the coaches recruiting Braley that led to his first trip outside the United States.
“I didn’t expect to have an opportunity like this until maybe after college,” said Braley. “It was awesome.”
Braley worked out not only with his teammates, but he also trained with members of Russia’s under-16 and under-17 national teams.
“We were basically idolized,” said Braley. “We were pretty equal to the national teams we went up against, but compared to the top-level kids in the USA, the USA would dominate them.”
In many cases, the teams were integrated so the American players could sample the Russian style of play and the Russian youths could experience the U.S. brand of basketball.
“The styles are pretty similar,” Braley said. “Their guys weren’t as athletic as guys in America, but they all had good skills and they shoot it well.”
Much of Braley’s exposure to Russian basketball came at a youth camp that helps develop players for that country’s national teams.
“That part of it is really different than in the U.S.,” Braley said. “Here you go to a camp for four or five days. Over there you go to the camp all summer.”
Also somewhat different from U.S. basketball, Braley learned, was the approach the Russians take to the sport, in particular their reliance on execution more than than athleticism.
“I’ve come to see that in the U.S. there are a lot of kids with good skill sets, but a lot of times it comes down to one-on-one play because of the athletes we have here,” said Braley. “Teams in Russia really run their sets, they make a lot of passes and their attention to detail is phenomenal. They’ll run the same drill for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, and they practice for three or four hours without even thinking about it.”
The trip, the fifth sports-related exchange of its kind since May 2010 under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, wasn’t all about basketball.
“There was a tour every day,” Braley said. “We got to see museums, a monastary, and we went to Red Square and saw the Kremlin. It was awesome. Their attention to detail, whether it’s basketball or architecture, is incredible.”
Communication was one of more challenging aspects of the exchange since none of the American players knew Russian. But staff from the U.S. Embassy helped out, as well as Russian tour guides.
“I learned about three words,” Braley said. “I learned hello and thank you, and there was one time they set up a dance for us and I had to dance with Russian women, so I learned ‘you’re beautiful.’”
Braley also found other differences between what he saw in Russia and what he lives with in America.
“I learned a lot about the culture, how different it is over there and how advanced everything is in the U.S.,” Braley said. “Another thing I noticed was in Red Square how all the police cars were either Mercedes, BMWs or Audis.”
Braley will have little time to rest before his next basketball sojourn, as he leaves Friday with his MBNation AAU team for the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., site of the AAU Division I junior and senior national championship tournaments that begin next week.
After competing in those events, he’ll relax for a few weeks before leaving in early September for Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., where he will be reclassified academically as a junior and study and play basketball for the next two years before heading off to college.
Braley, a 6-foot-4 guard, averaged 25.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per game last winter while leading Nokomis to a 12-8 record and an Eastern Maine Class B postseason berth.
He then scored 43 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in an overtime quarterfinal loss to Ellsworth after a 32-point, 15-rebound effort in a preliminary-round victory over Mount Desert Island.
Braley was a first-team All-Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B choice and a member of the Eastern B all-tournament team before earning BDN All-Maine first-team honors.