Four years ago, those were the two words that were birthed from a marketing effort by Menaul School to brand itself beyond New Mexico’s borders.
There is perhaps no high school in the state with a more United Nations-esque student body than Menaul School, and it’s no surprise that its boys basketball team – ranked No. 5 in Class 2A by MaxPreps.com – is a microcosm of that diversity.
There are varsity players from no fewer than seven countries, including the United States, that have contributed to the Panthers’ 16-3 record this season.
“On the court,” said Prashant Chouhan, a 6-foot-5 forward from India, “we speak the language of basketball.”
Are the Panthers – whose three losses came against Volcano Vista, Roswell and Sandia Prep, all schools larger, even much larger, than themselves – equipped to dive into the 2A state tournament next month and conquer the likes of Tularosa, or Hagerman, or Pecos, or defending state champion Rehoboth Christian?
“I think this team can win (it all),” said Max Mkpa, who hails from Esher, in the western part of England.
“I’m very happy Max said that, because that’s uncharacteristic,” said Menaul coach Dan Gayle. “The boys know this, I don’t care if we’re playing a middle school team or the Toronto Raptors, we’ll play anyone, anytime, and we’ll give them a game. That’s the mentality I have, and the mentality I want them to have.”
Mkba is not the only presence from England in the Menaul program. Gayle, 34, is from London. He was an assistant to Gary Boatman before Boatman stepped aside after last season.
A good number of players on this roster have been with the Panthers since before the pandemic gained traction almost two years ago.
The Menaul varsity roster has players from Mexico, Brazil, the Bahamas, England, India, China and the U.S. This is not necessarily out of the ordinary for Menaul as it has a strong international reputation, but managing all of this during a pandemic is not necessarily a simple task.
Junior guard Sting Wu from China, for example, hasn’t been home since the pandemic began. Boatman, Menaul’s athletic director, said much of this is because Wu fears he would be unable to return to the U.S. if he travels back home. Chouhan said it took him five months to smooth out all the red tape that would eventually allow him to travel to New Mexico.
And with a roster that features various personalities and upbringings, with various degrees of basketball experience, Menaul and Gayle, who has his own particular style, have more to juggle than most schools and coaches.
“Everyone has some sort of understanding of English,” said Mkpa. “Those who aren’t (as proficient), they get better.”
Thus, the Panthers are making this unique blend of athletes work, by and large. Including adapting to the quicker, American brand of basketball.
“It’s been good watching them, and them adjusting to each other,” said Gayle. “The biggest thing is, me being English, my terminologies, we’ve got the American guys, and we’ve got the international guys … ”
And, he added, his way of phrasing things doesn’t always fit comfortably inside the ears of his team, who “take the mick out of me every time they can,” Gayle said with a laugh.
“When he says ‘cinema,’ it’s the funniest thing in the world,” said junior point guard Alex Rael, one of the homegrown Panthers, and who lives on the West Side. “But we all understand that we’re here to do something, and it’s just a bond we’ve built through more than basketball.”
Gayle himself has coached internationally, in England, Spain and Estonia, among other places.
This Menaul embraces its internationality, as it were, according to Rael. The team even has specific plays that are simply named for countries. China, Spain, India. “We even have an ‘America,'” he said.
And the locals at Menaul often make sure their foreign teammates are taken care of. Rael said his family took in a couple of players during the holidays as they were unable to travel home to see their families.
Menaul’s top victory this season came against Class 4A Albuquerque Academy two weeks ago. The Panthers met Volcano Vista and Roswell on back-to-back days in December at Cleveland’s tournament.
“We’re a very gutsy team,” Gayle said. “I’m a very competitive coach and I try to give that to the boys. Many nights, it doesn’t look pretty, but we grind out a lot of wins. It shows that the team has a little bit of resilience. (And) I think they’re starting to believe in themselves a little bit.”
The Panthers are closing in on a District 2-2A title as the regular season ends next week.
“We’re completely comfortable with each other,” Mkpa said. “It’s kind of like family. At the end of the day, we all come together.”