Tayler Persons had a summer to remember.
The Ball State men’s basketball senior guard spent part of his offseason representing Team USA, along with Athletes in Action (AIA), as one of six countries to compete in the FISU America Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
He earned a gold medal for his efforts in the July 20-29 competition when Team USA followed up its 79-65 semi final victory over Brazil with a win over Argentina, to clinch the gold medal.
From the second the medal was around his neck, Persons knew it was a moment he’d always cherish.
“It was awesome. It was a feeling that I don’t feel like I’ll ever be able to have again,” Persons said. “Just to be able to represent your country and win a medal, especially against different countries. I shared a bond with the team I had there, and it was awesome to see everyone’s face celebrating.
“It was amazing. I’m just blessed by God to be able to have that opportunity.”
As a player who led the Cardinals in scoring last season with 15 points per game and connected on a trio of game-winning 3-pointers, Persons has never lacked confidence. But he said earning this medal and everything he was able to experience in Brazil will only boost that confidence as his final collegiate season draws nearer.
“It gives me a lot of confidence. It was an amazing trip, both on the court and off the court for me,” Persons said. “It just gave me a lot of peace.
“I’ve always been a confident player, but going into this season, I’m just ready to go back and get back with the guys again and enjoy the season and take it day by day and just try to get this championship that we’ve been trying to get for years now.”
The journey taught Persons a lot, and he said he’s looking forward to sharing what he learned in Brazil with the rest of the players on the team.
One thing Persons noticed while playing in a new country is the fundamentally sound style of play the other countries possessed, citing the team’s 92-79 victory over Chile as an example.
“They were really, really fundamentally sound; it was a little bit different,” Persons said. “That’s cool to see because it’s hard to play against. They’re not going to beat themselves, and they’re going to cut the right way and make it hard for you. It was a nice challenge, and it was fun to play against.”
Ball State head coach James Whitford knows playing on a different team and learning a new role can help a player develop his game and help increase the sense of being a team player, and that’s one thing he thinks Persons got out of the trip to Brazil.
“I think playing on different teams like that is very good for you because you get another data point of the dynamics of team, another set of teammates. You get to see what worked well, what didn’t work well with that team, and I think those experiences to be able to compare and contrast help a lot,” Whitford said.
The other stark difference was the physicality of the game and the way it was officiated. With the language barrier that comes with playing in Brazil, a country whose primary language is Portuguese, communicating with referees was another obstacle.
Persons said the experience taught him to just play the game and don’t try to talk to officials or get calls changed because it won’t work.
“The game was called a lot different. It was hard to get an explanation from the refs because obviously they don’t speak English, so it was kind of hard in that way,” Persons said. “It was more physical too, and I liked it. It was a good experience for me.”
Off the court, his trip as part of AIA allowed his team to visit a juvenile center in Brazil and meet with kids who have had troubled pasts. As part of that trip, Persons and the rest of the team spent several hours playing basketball with the kids and trying to teach them about faith, something he said he won’t soon forget.
“That experience changed me. Just to see how excited the kids were to see us. They looked at us like we were celebrities,” he said. “You get to spend time with people from a different culture … it was cool, man. It was life-changing for me and put a lot of things into perspective for me that I needed.
“The opportunity I got to get close with God, that’s one of the most important things to me.”
Winning medals and making a difference in kids’ lives isn’t the only thing Persons spent his offseason doing. He’s also lost about 20 pounds.
Persons knows the dropped weight could help his game immensely, and he noticed a difference while playing in Brazil.
“I really loved it. I felt more athletic; I felt quicker. Going by people I felt like was a lot easier, and just for the upcoming year I feel like it’s going to bring me in, in better shape. I feel like it’s going to be a big step in my game in college that I haven’t had yet.”
For coaches, seeing a player take the time to improve and work the way Persons has done can make their job much easier. Whitford knows the work Persons put in during the offseason is a great sign for both himself and the team heading into the season.
“To have that kind of self-discipline and commitment goes a long way,” Whitford said. “It makes him be the best player he can be, and it gives him the chance to be a great leader because guys are going to respect people who put in the work.
“... That is leadership. That’s inevitably going to put pressure on other people to do the same thing you’re doing.”
Ball State’s new assistant coach Ben Botts said Persons’ approach is one thing that has stuck out to him during his first couple months on the top.
“Tayler has been unbelievable,” Botts said. “His body changed drastically in eight weeks. Unbelievable change, and that takes dedication. He’s always a high-motor guy … But I think he’s changed his diet and took a really mature and professional approach to his diet, which allowed him to change his body so quickly.
“Now you can show more, like, ‘Hey, I can lead by example,’ you know, ‘Look what I did in eight weeks. Hop on board.’”
Contact Nate Fields with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NateNada.