Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Straight Ballin'

 The "camino" to the court.
 Great friends..
 Greater enemies (only on the court, of course).
 Getting the rules straightened out, tie up your laces - let's go!
 The aerial battle begins.
 No uncontested jumpers allowed.
The battle for basketball supremacy rages on.
     True to form.

     For me, my year with Manna Project has been all about fostering new friendships, enjoying new experiences, and trying to learn as much as I can from my new surroundings.  Before coming to Ecuador, sports had always played a significant role in my life and since our arrival nearly a full year ago that has not changed (although the sports I play have).  Here in the Valley, basketball has supplanted hockey and baseball as my sport of choice.  Simply due to a lack of popularity (baseball does not seem to have caught on here), or lack of ice (poor hockey never had a fighting chance), the sports I have grown up loving were not accessible here.  But this has turned out for the best.  Thanks to basketball, I have met some great people, creating long-term bonds with some of them that I’ve played with, and had a great deal of fun.  I’m going to try to use this blog post to express to you a handful of different experiences/memories that basketball has gifted me during the past year…
     The first thing that comes to mind when I think about playing basketball in Ecuador is my friendship with my fellow PD Peter Wagner. Since meeting him last July in Miami (time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana) Peter and I have become great friends (or as he once memorably put it, “homeboys for life”).  We’ve certainly been through a lot together.  We’ve both seen one another at high points and low points, and we’ve shared countless laughs along the way.  One aspect of our friendship that has meant a lot to me is the time we’ve spent together on the basketball court.  When I think about it, my newfound love for the game (and some newfound moves on the court) stem from Peter’s influence.  Pete—a great basketball player—loves and respects the game, and his passion for it is contagious.  I don’t remember the first time we played together, but our trips to la piscina (a local court named for it’s location next to three public swimming pools) have become a weekly staple.  Peter has essentially
become my basketball mentor/guru; he has helped me to improve my footwork, he’s taught me a few moves down in the post, and generally has helped me improve my game while teaching me to genuinely enjoy it at the same time. Whether it’s just shooting around, running drills, “putting up 20s” (where one person takes 20 consecutive shots while the other rebounds and feeds), playing one-on-one, or playing three-on-three/four-on-four games with a group of Ecuadorian friends, our forays into the concrete playground have always been enjoyable, and I will sorely miss them when our time here soon runs out.
     The basketball court itself is like a small oasis where your focus becomes narrowed (delightfully so).  This is to say that on the court, you’re only thinking about finding the open man, hitting the open shot, playing solid defense, angling yourself for a rebound, etc.  To play effectively, and to enjoy the game, all other worries, responsibilities, and preoccupations must be temporarily pushed aside.  As John Cleese said once during a lecture on creativity, “Play is distinct from ordinary life, both as to locality and duration.  This is it’s main characteristic, it’s secluded-ness, it’s limitedness, play begins, and then at a certain moment it is over, otherwise it is not play.”  Basketball in this sense is a prime example of “play”.  The game is played over a finite time in a specific place, and not only is it fun, it’s therapeutic.  I have never come away from the court here not feeling refreshed and re-energized.
     Allow me to go off on two tangents: 1. Hooping full-court with a group of Ecuadorian buddies ranging in age from about 20 to 60 and 2. Connecting with someone from yet another country (this time France) through basketball…
     1. Patricio and the gang.  Some of our best friends here in Sangolquí are the Cevallos family (our great friends from Técnico del Valle—a local technical high school where Peter and I taught English classes for most of the year).  Patricio and Paulina, their children Jordan (very appropriately named after Michael Jordan) and Joselyn, Patricio’s parents Saul and Sonia, Patricio’s brother Carlos Saul, and others from their tight-knit clan have all become dear friends of ours.  For this blog novel/post I will delve deeper into our friendship with Patricio, another friendship that would not be the same without basketball.
     Patricio specifically has become someone we spend a lot of time with.  Lunches as his house, lunches at our house, time spent at Técnico del Valle, time spent at the Star Wars museum in Quito, celebrating New Year’s together, and of course, playing basketball… we’ve had some good times with dear old “Pato”…  Playing full court basketball here in Ecuador is much different than in the States.  There is much less contact and the offense calls fouls (normally in the States, the defensive player abides by a sort of honor code with respect to fouls: if you commit a foul, you acknowledge it yourself), which at times for us became frustrating.  Of course, adjusting to Ecuadorian basketball rules/norms was a learning experience in and of itself, indicative of the growing pains all of us go through when living in a new area of the world.  But regardless of these minor frustrations, we always had a blast playing with and getting to know a diverse group of Ecuadorians through sport.  There was Fabian, about 60 years old, the grizzled veteran and de facto of the group, white-haired and with belly the size of a small boulder, never moving too quickly, but frequently hitting the open shot, Carlos Saul, Patricio’s bull-in-a-China-shop of a brother, always driving hard with his head down to the basket, his
perfectly quaffed hair never falling out of place, and David, a middle-aged man with a solid command of English, he and his questionable goatee always looking for a baseline jumper, among many others.  Then of course there is Patricio himself, always decked out in Air Jordan apparel and Nike shoes, his hair suavely slicked back, cutting deftly in and out of traffic to hit lay-ups, make a smart pass, or hit a jumper.  Normally placed on separate teams, Peter and Patricio are kindred basketball spirits, separated by a generation and (normally) geography.  As Patricio once happily and sagely told Peter after winning a game (in his uniquely epic English), “Pete, once again, the old dog teaches the big puppy”.  Funny little moments like that (and there have been plenty) stay with you.
     2. Vladimir Molinié, Frenchman extraordinaire/bon homme.  Vlad was a first-session summer intern hailing from Toulouse, France.  He is a great guy: a gentleman with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a passion for basketball.  The three of us (but specifically Vlad and Peter) hit it off through the sport.  Watching Vlad mentally prepare himself to take on Peter, while suiting up in his Atlanta Hawks gear and his fresh white “dunks” always brought a smile to my face.  The look of pure concentration and determination on his face as he battled Peter one-on-one was fantastic. I must admit I was a little bit jealous when Vlad and Pete began stealing off for games of one-on-one (“That used to be me!”).  But I also couldn’t help but appreciate two guys, one from the US and one from France, striking up a friendship in Ecuador through a sport that they both loved.
     What I’m driving at here is that basketball (and sports in general) is an amazing conduit for inter-personal relationships and personal growth.  You can really learn a lot about someone by playing a game of basketball with him or her (I should say that you learn a lot about yourself, too).  Is a certain individual aggressive?  Passive?  Do they get upset after missing a shot or getting burned on defense?  Or do they maintain their cool and re-focus themselves for the next play?  Are they selfish?  Or are they a team player? Are they impatient?  Or are they methodical?  Arrogant or humble?  Peter and I have talked about this.  We believe that a person’s personality always will reveal itself on the court.  And learning to work with people on your team, no matter what type of personality they have, is critical if you want to succeed… skills one might find useful when living/working abroad… or in any kind of “real life” scenario.
     Basketball has become an integral part of my Ecuadorian experience.  The friends I’ve made through the sport and the memories that I now have to look back on are perfect examples of the stuff that has made the past year so special.

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