Going global: Murken building international culture within Minot State’s men’s basketball program
The biggest obstacles on a basketball court are usually opposing defenders, not garbage trucks.
Yet, that’s exactly what Matt Murken saw barreling down the hill at him. The garbage truck had lost its brakes, come crashing through a fence and was now bearing down on him and everyone else on the Nairobi court.
Murken, Minot State’s men’s basketball coach since 2012, was in Kenya on an Athletes in Action trip to help promote and grow the game internationally. Now, he was wondering what exactly he had gotten himself into.
There was no need to worry, one of the kids at the clinic reassured him. He told Murken, “That’s the third time a truck ran onto our court just this year.”
On another trip to Nairobi, he was part of clinics in the East Lee neighborhood, a place on the U.S. Department of State’s Do Not Travel list. After some time, the group was made aware that two individuals attending had ties to Al-Shabaab, a clan-based insurgent and terrorist group that had a presence in the city. Ultimately, the clinic was cut short.
“After three times in East Africa, you start to pick up the language a little bit,” said Murken. “Certainly, enough to know when it’s time to leave.”
That time, a number of college athletes were traveling with the group, making them more cautious in deciding to cut the gym time short.
Other challenges arose as well.
Once a shipping container of equipment and supplies got hung up in customs, where port officials were refusing to release it until they were paid a bribe.
“We chose not to pay that, and eventually it came,” said Murken. “But there’s always those things that don’t really run the way they do here. They run on ‘African time’ over there.”
Despite the risks, the trips always involve some level of humanitarian aid or outreach, such as building wells or basketball courts.
“You just fall in love with it more, and I enjoy that part of the world,” said Murken. “It’s just the flexibility of trying to teach basketball, connect with people and see different places.”
Other countries, Murken has traveled to include Rwanda, Tanzania and Kazakhstan, a landlocked former Soviet state that extends from Mongolia and China on the east to Russia and on the north and east, making it the ninth largest nation by size.
Murken was struck by the cultural divide. On one hand, there was the Russian influence, fueled by foreign investments in mineral, natural gas and oil extraction and on the other side was the more rural Mongolian influence.
With the global popularity of basketball exploding over the past few decades, fueled in part by the NBA spending hundreds of millions of dollars to grow the game abroad, global ties are being created here locally.
For example, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, a British-born Nigerian, played basketball at Bismarck State College from 1993-1995 after attending Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Wash. Another Nigerian, Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme played basketball at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake before founding Samaritan’s Feet International with his wife Tracie. Samaritan’s Feet has provided over ten million pairs of shoes to children around the globe to help promote health and wellbeing.
Not long after accepting the Minot State position, Murken hired a graduate assistant named Dusan Radivojevic. Radivojevic, from Cacak, Serbia, played collegiate basketball at Bowling Green State University and Arkansas Tech. Seeking a masters’ degree, Radivojevic joined the Beavers’ as a graduate assistant and formed a strong bond with both Murken and the university.
During his time at Minot State, the team organized a showcase in Serbia.
The trip also marked the first time Radivojevic had seen his brother and dad in eight years.
“I’ll never forget them picking us up in their old beat-up Volvo, at 2 a.m. in the middle of the night,” said Murken. “We had a layover in Paris, and we stopped to meet up with one of his friends there that runs an academy. I saw some players there never slept.”
The team toured the country, ran different showcases, and made connections for the future.
Today, Radivojevic runs a basketball academy in Brazil, which has sent several players to Minot State including Diego Novais da Cunha, who is currently a freshman for the Beavers.
“I started playing sports at a really young age,” said Novais da Cunha. “Not necessarily basketball. Football [soccer]. I wasn’t good at it, so that’s why I migrated to basketball at around ten years old.”
Novais da Cunha first got introduced to Radivojevic last summer, and it didn’t take long for Novais da Cunha to develop trust with him.
“I could tell quite quickly that he knew what he was doing, and when he was helping me come here that was really important.”
Novais da Cunha is one of nearly two dozen current and former players from outside the United States who have played for the Beavers during Murken’s tenure. Countries represented include Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Macedonia, Rwanda, New Zealand, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Tasmania (an Australian state).
Besides Novais da Cunha, other international players on this year’s roster include Michael Jok, a Sudanese-Australian from Pakenham, Australia; Braelyn Dale, from Perth, Australia; and Caleb Van De Griend, from Bridgetown, Australia.
The chance to play professionally after Minot State adds to the appeal for recruits, and several players have gone on to play professionally after their Beaver career ended. Among those is Max Cody, who played for MSU from 2016-2022, setting numerous records for the Beavers including career minutes, career games started and played, and career assists with 643.
He now plays for the Ballarat Miners, a semi-professional basketball team in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Cody joined former Beaver teammate Tyler Rudolph, a native of Bismarck, N.D. who holds the all-time scoring record for the Beavers with 1,987 points.
Rudolph is currently averaging 25.23 points and 11.32 assists per game, while shooting over 53.33% from the floor for the Miners. He also has become the face of the franchise after signing a two-year contract extension in August. Rudolph led the NBL1 South (the league Ballarat plays in) in scoring, while being named to the All-Star Five team.
There are challenges in the recruiting process.
Another challenge is adjusting to the American game from the FIBA rules that govern international play. For example, timeouts can never be called during live ball play. They can only be called while the ball is out of bounds. Additionally, FIBA courts are slightly different sizes.
“There are so many different styles of basketball throughout the world, just like there are within the United States,” said Murken.
Typically, Murken is looking for players with experience at the national team level because they can pick up subtleties in the game quicker than others.
The language barrier is another.
Minot State has higher TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and Duolingo score requirements than many colleges and universities, demanding stronger English skills from recruits.
“It’s one thing to be able to speak another language, it’s another thing to do it internationally at a college level. It takes that time to process,” said Murken. The kids we’ve had internationally usually are really good at math because numbers are numbers. If they have to read a lot, it can be challenging.”
According to Murken, often times the international students become the best students academically on the team because they know how important it is to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given at Minot State.
“It’s been great to coach these kids and learn a little bit about where they’re from, what basketball is like there, and what life’s like there,” said Murken.
The diversity has positively impacted local and area players as well.
Junior guard Jaxon Gunville, who played at Minot High, appreciates being exposed to cultural differences from everyone.
“Growing up in Minot and going to Minot High, you don’t see it as much,” said Gunville. “Maybe because we’re only two middle schools and stuff. You kind of grow up with everybody that you’re going to associate with in middle school and high school.”
Murken has seen the impact collegiate basketball can have on international players.
“I’ve gone with kids on their embassy meetings, and seen kids really stand out in Nairobi on buses to get in line at four in the morning at the embassy to see if they get the visa to come to school in the U.S,” aid Murken. “There’s a lot of emotion with that when kids either do or don’t get that opportunity, because we’ve got a lot of benefits here that sometimes we take for granted. But that education can be really life changing for kids.”