Home away from home: balling in Bangladesh

FIVE LOCAL SOLDIERS surrounded our bench in camouflaged body armor, MP5 sub-machine guns slung over their shoulders and Glocks on their hips. Snipers paced the nearby rooflines.

Plush leather seats filled with well-dressed dignitaries and government officials extended along the sideline, a white canopy protecting them from the sweltering heat.

We loosened up, to the extent that was possible, by hoisting casual 15 footers and halfheartedly tussling for rebounds. We had done our best to coordinate white t-shirts for uniforms. One of my teammates was wearing thick cotton shorts, the kind that look like cut-off sweats.

At the other end of the plain concrete court, the Bangladeshi National Police team moved crisply through an obviously practiced series of lay up drills. Except they weren’t laying it up, they were dunking — one after the other, in mechanized perfection.

I tried to reconnect with lifelong muscle memory by working methodically through a series of one and two dribble pull ups. My legs didn’t feel right, but the worn Spalding ball felt familiar rolling off my fingertips.

Warm-ups ended and we went back to our bench. I sat down to tighten my Nikes and tug on the metal brace that steadied my twice-torn left ACL. A noisy twelve-piece band rattled away in the corner next to our bench, rocketing national hymns off the peculiarly modern buildings on the police campus. In a few minutes I would take the court for my lone appearance playing basketball as a representative of the United States.

Just before the game could begin, our starting center, U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty, now coated in sweat from the 95-degree heat, addressed — in perfect Bangla — the assembled media and spectators, many of whom were seeing basketball for the first time.

His easy confidence with the language struck a powerful chord with the audience. “Desh” means land; the country is named after its language, which West Pakistan tried to ban in the lead up to the horrific conflict for Bangladeshi independence in 1971.

His speech also reminded our team that we were there in an official capacity. After the game, we were invited to a tea reception with some of the Bangladeshi movers and shakers seated in the shaded leather chairs.

With ceremonies out of the way, the referees waived both sides onto the blacktop. We shook hands at half court; each member of the National Police was taller than his American counterpart. They’re knees looked decidedly un-rickety.

It was almost a relief to recognize that familiar tension in the top of my stomach that always arrives before a “real” game. Wearing my XL Rajon Rondo t-shirt jersey, I licked my hands, wiped the bottom of my shoes and got in position for tipoff.

IF YOU TRAVELED from the beneath the hoop in my mom’s driveway to this court in Bangladesh, and then took one more step in any direction, you’d be coming home. It is literally the other side of the world, and it feels like it.

I recall this twilight scene: In the hot darkness descending over the city, jingling rickshaw bells, persistent car horns, chattering vendors and the whir and clang from omnipresent construction blend with the rank smoke from burning trash and car exhaust to overwhelm the senses.

A few feet from the brown footpath along side the road, a man lies on his back in a patch of rough gravel. His eyes loll back in his hot brain as his mouth falls open, his chin shivering. The beat of determined feet fall around him as his last sensations on Earth present themselves, perhaps unacknowledged. He is clearly dying, with no family at his side, his body a mere and minor impediment to the pedestrians passing by, not looking.

160 million people–about half the population of the United States–live in this river delta the size of Wisconsin. There is no space, food is a luxury, potable water scarce and political and corporate corruption omnipresent.

I was not there to solve these problems, but to teach high school English at an American International School. So I set my sights on the comparably trivial goal of helping local young ballers build proper shot mechanics.

FARAZ LEARNED TO PLAY by watching YouTube and the occasional NBA game. All of 5-foot-6, he idolized 6-foot-6 Kobe Bryant. His largely self-taught hoops education gave him an admirable goal, but few of the resources necessary to reach it. More than anything, it seemed Faraz dreamed of lighting it up exclusively with pull-up jumpers.

I first met Faraz when we both went to an orphanage to spend the day teaching defensive slides, nailing up basketball hoops and donating art supplies to children whose parents couldn’t afford to feed them. Still in high school, Faraz was a junior member of the Big Bangs charity organization and basketball team, and in love with the idea of being a real basketball player.

Any time the Big Bang ballers met to hoop, he was sure to show. Faraz was everyone’s little brother– Americans and Bangladeshis players alike took responsibility for picking on him while also doing what they could to improve his game.

At a charity tournament, I was warming up by bombing in some deep 3’s when Faraz asked me, “how long did it take you to learn to do that?”

He assumed that I learned the game the same way he did, as a solitary teenager surfing the internet. But basketball lived in my bones — one of my treasured childhood pictures is of me, barely old enough to walk, dunking on a plastic hoop, my Dad hanging onto my ankles in mock terror.

I thought about his odd question as I continued shooting. Just how long had I been “working” on my shot? Perhaps since middle school when I first integrated jumping into my midrange shots; or since high school, when I became strong enough to work with the form that I use today.

I responded, “well… I guess pretty much my whole life.”

He watched with an unhinged jaw as I bricked a 30-footer.

BASKETBALL DIDN’T FEEL like an American game when the police’s center exploded upward to command the opening tip. Our middle-aged center barely managed a courtesy leap.

We fell back into a soft 2-3 zone. We knew they could dunk, but weren’t convinced about their outside shooting.

After getting a quick stop, we attacked their man-to-man defense with the fundamental movements of pick up basketball—really any basketball—moving to create space, then moving to occupy it. Our only other under-30 player, a substitute teacher named James, received a ball reversal off the left elbow and shot. Swish.

Nods all around.

On our next possession, I curled around a screen and hit a straight away three pointer then got loose for a floater in the lane. With a 7-0 lead we forgot about the uniformed machine-gunners lining the court.

The way the police played, I suspect ours was the first zone defense they’d ever encountered. Missed jump shots encouraged turnovers, which encouraged bickering amongst their ranks.

It turned out many of the most impressive players in warm-ups were actually repurposed volleyball stars.

We continued to carve up their defense, which always seemed to be a step slow despite their quick feet. No cutters were bumped, no screens avoided, no passes anticipated. The ball and player movement principles instinctive to even our least experienced players seemed as foreign to our hosts as we were.

By the end of the first half, we had a 30-14 lead and a steadily growing group of spectators. Around 200 Bangladeshis pressed against the roped-off court, some cheering for their countrymen, most simply intrigued by the activity and rare presence of white people outside the diplomatic zone.

AMERICANS ON ASSIGNMENT in Bangladesh deferred to local custom as much as possible, but not on the basketball court.

In a previous game between some US Embassy staff and Big Bangs, refereed by local officials, an athletic US soldier blew up at an official because he perceived they were favoring the mostly Bangladeshi Big Bangs team.

After one hard drive was met with silent whistles, he grabbed the ball and stormed around the court, berating the referee in a way that would earn an immediate ejection stateside. The ref, a middle aged man, took it silently until the soldier eventually marched angrily from the building.

Some Americans saw basketball as a national birthright, and that brought out the colonialist fallacy that they “knew what was best for the natives.” There were Americans who, during pick up games, would insist, perhaps subconsciously, on calling specious fouls against Bangladeshis. Though high-ranking Americans routinely bungled things, a blown lay-up by a brown kid seemed like an offense to the game.

Passionate competition could bring to the surface a certain resentment that everyday life in service work concealed. These momentary affronts to basketball’s meritocratic virtues served as wincing reminders of the gulf that lay between our two worlds. The game connected people, but it also exposed an ugly cultural arrogance even in people who bravely traveled to a sad and distant place for the purpose of making it better.

MY LAST PLAY of the game came when I was flattened on a drive by a blue-clad blur who flew into me from my left in awkward attempt to block my shot. The player who fouled me helped me up, attempting with unpracticed English to explain that I did not go where he expected me to.

With our best players benched, the game tightened in the fourth quarter. The police adjusted by running-out off of our misses and throwing the ball over top of our wheezing, arthritic team. On a couple breakaways, their agile big men rammed home dunks, sending the crowd into a whooping frenzy. Everyone knows dunks are cool.

After building a 25-point lead, we ended up winning 55-44.

We shook hands with our opponents and the Inspector General of the National Police grabbed the mic after the game to thank us, and explained to the crowd that “this was not exactly an NBA league match.”

No matter, they seemed to appreciate the effort. A small, bald man in a lungi and a collared shirt approached me as we milled around the court and thrust two thumbs up in my direction, “Number 9, number 9… YOU were the best!”

He patted me on the back excitedly and I felt the same pride I had when a parent on the opposing team would compliment me after a high school game.

After a few more speeches, the national police team brought over gifts wrapped in festive metallic silver paper that read “For You On Your Wedding!”

Inside were enormous yellow, blue-collared polo shirts with unidentified insignia. Over the left breast of the shirt were two players jumping towards a floating hoop, one laying the ball in– normal enough for a basketball-themed golf shirt. However not a single member of our team could explain the acronyms found on the uniforms of the floating players: DMP and APBN.

We couldn’t even ask the people who handed us the gifts because, just as I was about to score a set of their warm-ups, we were ushered to the tent to drink piping hot tea. Sweaty and a little aromatic, we mingled and sipped with the swanky elite from the leather couches as they completely ignored mostly everyone besides the Ambassador.

During the game we had been enthusiastically talkative and encouraging, like a team full of coaches’ sons. Now we mumbled through the dry sugar cookies that accompanied our tea. No longer the point guard, all I shared with these men was my country of birth and current location.

I looked out to the clean, blue court shimmering in the heat, the newly hung nets inviting an afternoon of shooting against invisible competition. So much the same as home, in a place so unfathomably different.

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