Charlotte Charlotte 49ers junior point guard Pierria Henry discovered a lot about the human spirit over the summer.
Henry spent 10 days in August on an Athletes In Action basketball tour to the Ivory Coast. What Henry saw from the people in the impoverished west African nation was eye-opening.
“The way they live, how they look at life, their demeanor and their personality, you wouldn’t think these were poor people,” said Henry. “I’ve always appreciated the roof over my head, clothes and food. But I really appreciate it now. They were amazing.
“I mean, a simple pair of tennis shoes is so important to them. I ‘hoop’ in tennis shoes. These people need them just to walk around.”
Athletes In Action – which Henry said also included players such as Saint Louis’ Dwayne Evans, Michigan’s Jordan Morgan and Elon’s Jack Isenbarger – played games against the Ivory Coast national team that was preparing for the African Cup of Nations tournament later that month. The American players also conducted clinics for children.
“After every game, we’d get in a circle with the other team,” said Henry. “We’d share our story, tell them where we’re from and give a little background. Then you’d hear their story and hear them speaking English as best as they could. It was amazing.
“I was able to build my spiritual relationships with people. Having the opportunity to step out of my country and do it with that background was really amazing.”
Henry is one of three starters back for Charlotte, which is returning to Conference USA after going 21-12 last season and playing in the National Invitation Tournament. As one of college basketball’s top defensive guards (he’s finished among the nation’s leaders in steals the past two seasons), he’ll be the unquestioned leader on a team that lost several key players, including center Chris Braswell (graduation) and guard E. Victor Nickerson and forward Darion Clark, both of whom transferred.
“I like this team,” said Henry. ‘But we’ve got a lot of young guys. We need to be working on our basketball IQ.”
The 49ers, who open the season Nov. 8 at Halton Arena against East Tennessee State and whose “Basketball Madness” preseason event is set for 9 p.m. Thursday, have more experience and talent on the perimeter than in recent seasons. Junior Terrence Williams (7.6 points per game) returns at shooting guard. Sophomores Denzel Ingram and sophomore Ivan Benkovic are both threats from long range, as are newcomers Ben Cherry (a transfer from Tulane) and sophomore Shawn Lester (academically ineligible last season).
It’s in the frontcourt where the 49ers will need to quickly develop. Sophomore forward Willie Clayton, an all-Atlantic 10 rookie team selection last season who averaged 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds, returns. But the only other player with any kind of experience is 6-foot-10 sophomore Mike Thorne, who showed signs of progress last season while averaging 6.6 minutes. Marcus Bryan, a 6-foot-7 freshman, will probably need to contribute.
"These young guys are all still learning and I’ve got to do my part in helping them out," said Henry.
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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