Friday, July 9, 2010


I received the outlet pass and immediately turned up court. Taking a long dribble, I surveyed the scene in front of me and saw one teammate and one defender streaking towards the basket. Getting closer to the goal, I considered the options: continue onwards for a lay-up, pass the ball off to my teammate, or pull up for the short jump shot. I chose the third, and about 8 feet from the basket, stopped on a dime and rose into the air. With a flick of the wrist, the ball left my hands as it has done thousands and thousands of times in my life, and swished softly through the net. The crowd cheered, and I rushed to get back on defense.

Sounds like a pretty typical basketball scene, right? Could have been a pick-up game in DC, or scrimmaging with my teammates at Vassar. But this game came at the YMCA in Kampala, and my teammates and opponents were my new Ugandan friends.

One sunny day, on the recommendation of a friend, I wandered over to the court in a bustling section of the city. A fast-paced pick up game was already going on. Taking a place in the bleachers, I watched for about 15 minutes, before asking another bystander how to get on the court.

"Say you got next game," he sneered to me, and walked off.

Sounded simple enough. "I got next!" I yelled, and no one seemed to pay much attention.

When the game ended, a few people coalesced around me, and I chose four others to play. I learned that the players were all part of Team Power, one of the better teams in Kampala. Last year, they won the city championship, and so far were undefeated this season. We walked to center court to meet the winners of the last game, when one guy put his finger in my chest.

"Mzungus don't play here."

"We'll see about that," I said, and brushed past him.

The game began. Despite being 5,000 miles away from home, playing hoops felt like... home. Pick-up basketball is universal. The rules are the same. The terminology is the same. The competitive fire is the same. I almost wanted to pull a Gene Hackmann and go measure the height of the basket. And yes, it would have been ten feet tall, just like in Indiana.

My team won the first game, and then the second. People crowing around the court were having fun with the idea that a pale, short mzungu could hoop (take this with a grain of salt - while I've played a lot of basketball in my life, I am in terrible shape after drinking too many Nile Specials (Ugandan beer), and spent most of the game trying to keep up with my talented, athletic counterparts.)

Finally, after an hour, I was exhausted and retired to the sidelines, breathing heavily.

One of the players on my team, a lightning-quick guard named Richard, ambled over to me. "You'll be here tomorrow, right?"

Yup, I said, and we slapped hands.

Felt like home.

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