ROME — The tallest tour group in a crowded Roman Colosseum Wednesday stood along where the first row of stands used to be. History can be a boring subject in college but when looking down at the site of 400 years of bloodshed, the University of Colorado basketball team stopped playing with their cell phones.
"We all got to die eventually but when (the guide) told me 10,000 died in the first month, that's just astounding," senior forward Tory Miller said. "Makes you value life a little bit more. You've got to be the lead gladiator."
And they thought life in the Pac-12 was tough.
It was the first full day in Rome for a young Buffaloes team on a nine-day Italy tour. During the journey from Rome to Florence to Venice to Como, the Buffs hope to blend in nine new players, identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn why Michelangelo's David has such a smug look on his face.
At the very least, a team that needed a lot of introductions this summer will play four games and have a bond few young teams will have come fall camp.
"A lot of coaches go to Canada or they'll go down to the Bahamas or something a little more travel friendly," seventh-year coach Tad Boyle said. "I just think this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of these young guys. We have a Brazilian and a kid from the Netherlands. No one else has been outside the country. What an experience for these guys."
This isn't a first for Boyle. Five seasons ago, he took another young group to Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam. The team that included freshmen Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon went to the NCAA Tournament that season.
But Boyle wants them to learn more here than the Buffs' pick and roll. After landing in Rome Tuesday morning, they took a general tour of the city. Thursday they'll test their conditioning by playing their first game after touring the gargantuan Vatican.
On the way to Florence Friday, they'll tour the Tuscan walled city of Siena. Later in the week they'll visit David at Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia, cruise Venice's Grand Canal, get off the beaten path in the medieval city of Treviso, take a boat tour of Lake Como and lunch in Bellagio.
It beats Pullman in January.
"I want their horizons to be broadened," Boyle said. "There's a whole different world out there outside the United States that goes on on a day to day basis and functions pretty well. It's just a different way of life and understanding. The great thing about basketball is it teaches you to be part of something bigger than yourself. I think that's a great lesson for these guys to learn.
"As Americans, you've got to appreciate what the rest of the world offers."
The players have plenty of free time away from tours and coaches. Boyle hasn't set a curfew and isn't worried about players getting into trouble, saying, "When they go around and see the security with machine guns, that's kind of an eye opener for them."
So was the Colosseum. The tour guide explained how it was used as a political tool by the emperors to entertain the masses with gladiator games and wild animal hunts. The numbers killed isn't known. Archives only list a small sample of the number of games actually held. One historical account in History Today said in 108-109 AD Emperor Trajan held games over 123 days in which 9,138 gladiators fought and 11,000 animals were slain.
"It's a pretty savage time," junior guard Namon Wright said. "But it was also fun if the citizens were for it."
Freshman guard McKinley Wright was a little more direct.
"It's a cemetery," he said. "A little bigger."
How this trip plays out on the court this winter won't be known for months. Boyle just hopes what they experience off the court will last for years. Every day Boyle gives the players a thought for the day. He had a particularly poignant thought for the day before they left:
"Seeing something once is better than hearing about it a thousand times."