KNOXVILLE - Josh Richardson had never set foot outside of the United States.
So when the Tennessee sophomore stepped off the plane late last month in Poland for a basketball exhibition tour with Athletes in Action, he truly was venturing into a foreign land.
Unknown languages. Unusual culture. Unfamiliar food.
Two comforts, though, made Richardson's two-week European trip memorable: hoops and his faith.
"It'll be my first time going overseas, so that'll be a big thing," he said earlier this week. "I probably made friends that I'll have for the rest of my life there [because] we have so much in common. It's never very common that you see people who are radical about their faith in college basketball that put it out in the open."
The Oklahoma City native's opportunity to step outside his comfort zone originated last year, when Athletes in Action, an organization that uses sports as an outlet for global ministry, contacted UT assistant coach Kent Williams to gauge Richardson's interest in joining a team of Division I players for a summer tour. While he was with Volunteers' coach Cuonzo Martin at Missouri State, Williams coached a similar Athletes in Action team of Division I players on a similar tour of Poland. The former Southern Illinois sharpshooter stayed on Richardson about the trip during the season, though Richardson first had to do some homework.
"He just kept asking," Richardson said. "I looked it up and researched it a little bit. It looked like a good thing."
Once he decided he'd become one of the team's 11 players, Richardson had to raise money for the six-game tour through Poland and Germany. Williams and Martin encouraged Richardson to take advantage of the opportunity to improve as a player and soak up the experience. Tim Maloney, the director of basketball operations at Baylor, was the team's coach.
"We don't force our guys to do those types of things," Martin said in April. "My thing is the summertime, guys learn at a different pace. Some guys like to get in the gym by themselves the whole summer. Some guys like to go play in events like this, and I think for him, he wants the opportunity to play against some good competition."
After his research, Richardson also realized there was another attractive part of the trip. The team held one-hour morning Bible studies amid the practices, games, traveling and touring. Richardson said he and his teammates would look for opportunities to share their faith.
"It was the Christian aspect of it that I didn't really know about at first," he said. "I knew it would be a good chance to grow in my faith because I've been slacking a little bit lately. It picked me back up, and I think it helped a lot."
After playing six games against European competition, Richardson believes he improved as a basketball player, too. The team swept games against three German professional teams, defeated the Poland under-20 national team twice and won another game against a team from a Polish university.
"The game is really different there, and it was a game I had never played before," Richardson said. "All the centers could shoot. That was the biggest difference. They would step out to 22 feet shooting threes. It was crazy."
The 6-foot-6 wing made an impact for the Vols his freshman season as a perimeter defender, though he believed his one-on-one offensive game improved in Europe. He said he used the trip as a chance to improve his offensive game, which last season consisted mostly of his favored pull-up jump shot at the free-throw line. Richardson played in every game for UT with nine starts and averaged 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds in 16 minutes.
In a relaxed atmosphere with no role that needed filling, Richardson made the most of his basketball freedom and recalled two fast-break plays as examples.
"I think I got a lot more confident there because [Maloney] just kind of let me go," he said. "The first fast break I was running, I caught the ball, took two steps and did the nastiest reverse [dunk] I've ever done in a game. The second time I tried to do it again, and my knee gave out.
"I just kind of threw the ball up there. If I did that here…"
Richardson then imitated Martin's stern glare before flashing a smile.
The team spent a week in Poland, where Richardson's favorite moment was a late-night run with teammates to a Polish bread bakery. After flying to Germany, the team made stops by the Berlin Wall and the German capital building. During a bike tour of the city, Richardson saw a large crowd of protesters outside one of the German parliament buildings.
Perhaps the most powerful memory from the trip, though, came far away in a more solemn location. The team, which had the same tour guide throughout the trip, stopped by Auschwitz in southern Poland. The site was the largest of Nazi Germany's concentration camps where more than a million people died in the Holocaust during World War II.
"It was surreal," Richardson said quietly. "It didn't hit me that I was actually there until I saw that sign that said 'Work will set you free.' I just started seeing everything, and it opened my eyes a lot to how blessed we are to be in America. We don't have to worry about any of that. It made me think about the little things we take for granted."
Basketball, bakeries and Berlin protestors aside, that's what Richardson he'll take most from his first venture outside the U.S.
"I'd never been out of the country before," he said. "To see the small things that they don't have that we have, it'll keep me thankful."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...