CINCINNATI -- "We always have a choice of how we treat people," University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said Tuesday afternoon. "Unfortunately, right now, there are too many people making the choice that, ‘I’m going to treat you poorly because you’re not one of us.'"
The legendary coach, who emigrated from Italy as a child and Tuesday night led the UConn Huskies to their 98th consecutive win, cracked a smile.
"At one time, 300 years ago, none of us were one of us."
He was responding to reporter Keenan Singleton’s question about President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which temporarily outlawed travel from seven countries and indefinitely suspended the United States’ Syrian refugee program. Auriemma’s response was lengthy and candid, reflecting on both his own immigrant experience and the unique challenges that immigrants from countries such as Syria face in America today.
"It’s a bad road that we’re traveling on," he said. "I saw what it did to kids when I was a kid."
Auriemma, who has twice led the United States women’s basketball team to Olympic gold, was not a refugee when he arrived in the country, but his family was also fleeing untenable circumstances. His home in Montella, Italy, did not have power or running water, and his parents wanted to take him to a country where he would have a chance for a better life. Neither of them spoke fluent English; his mother handmade his clothes.
Life was difficult, but in some ways, he said, he had it easier than immigrants who arrived in America from other countries.
"My struggle was a little bit easier because I looked like all the kids that weren’t struggling," he said. "You would never know I was an immigrant. However, if you’re black or if you’re of a different ethnic group and you come to this country, you announce (your difference) just by showing up."
That difference gives other people a test, he said: Are they really good people or are they biased against groups they perceive as 'other?' Despite the nation’s rich history of immigration, it’s easy to form in-groups and out-groups in modern life based on appearances, Auriemma said.
There is one place in the modern world, however, that Auriemma said is less prone to making these judgments than others.
"In the world of sports, what you look like, where you go to church, where you pray has got nothing to do with whether you’re accepted or not," he said. "Can you be a great teammate? Can you help us win?
"Everything else doesn’t matter. And maybe not enough people have played enough sports to understand that concept."