WARREN - Darwin Leslie has no problem looking a person in the eye, enveloping his oversized hand when greeting someone and telling you how lucky he is as he stood in Gillen Gymnasium at John F. Kennedy High School.
He is one of the coaches on the up and coming Belize basketball program chock full of high-school age players that is scheduled to play in the King James Shooting Stars Classic Friday through April 28 inside the Akron Sports Center.
The Belize team had its first practice in the U.S. Saturday afternoon at JFK.
"We've never had this in the existence of Belize," Leslie, 31, said. "This is a new world to these kids and to us, the coaches."
This is Akeem Watters' second trip to the United States from his native land in Central America. He and a handful of Belize players made the trip the King James Classic last season.
"For me, it's a blessing," Watters, 18, said. "In Belize, you really don't have much of tournaments and stuff going on. For me to represent my country, it's always been a blessing from above. We're excited, by the way."
Niles native and 1986 Girard High School graduate Bernie Tarr, 45, is the driving force behind the Belize team as team technical officer. Tarr, a former Bedford St. Peter Chanel, Hubbard and Badger High School coach, is in his second year with the Belize team.
"Trying to develop a program. Trying to raise the level of basketball within the borders of Belize," Tarr said. "We face a lot of adversities. We have one wooden court in the whole country. All the courts are basically cement. We have a lot of covered roofs. We can't play at noon because it's too hot in the sun."
That's just part of the scenery.
"I've seen things I never thought I'd see," Tarr said. "Just the experience of shooting. The one wooden court sits right along the Caribbean Sea. There's usually a nice 20-mile-an-hour gust coming off the sea. They call it sea breeze. So, we have to work on our shots. It's a little challenging."
That said, his team has made the necessary adjustments and has plenty of talent. They placed in the top 20 of more than 260 teams last year at the King James Classic. That exposure got the Belize team plenty of recognition in front of a plethora of collegiate scouts. Four Belize players got scholarships last season.
"That's reason I'm here. That's what I want to do, get into a college," Watters said.
Tarr wants to put his players in a better position this year, giving these aspiring college athletes more visibility.
His team hails from all over the country which is a bit smaller than the state of Massachusetts.
They've had weekend practices to accommodate all the players and got in a couple of scrimmages prior to coming to the states.
Tarr is planning a couple of games in Pittsburgh, including playing the DeJuan Blair All-Stars.
He's hoping the Belize team visits with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin when they're in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
"Even though I'm a Browns fan," Tarr said. "to meet a Super Bowl Champion, to me as coach, his pedigree speaks volumes and how well he's organized and pays attention to detail."
On Monday, the Belize team meets with former Ohio State and NBA player Brad Sellers.
"He's going to get a chance to tell what it's like to play with Michael Jordan," Tarr said.
The Niles native is trying his best to make this Belize team a well-rounded program.
"He's trying to make these kids better male figures in the world," Leslie said. "He brings so much teaching of basketball and I feel he's just teasing us. He's just opened his book. He has a lot more to teach.
"Coach Tarr is like an angel to Belize. He's one of the best guys I've ever met in basketball. I'm just trying to stay as close as I can to him."