Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pick-up in Liberia

March 18, 2010
Amos, my government driver, had just sped away with my laptop and clothing in the backseat, leaving just me and my $15 dollar supermarket-purchased basketball on the side of the road in Monrovia, Liberia. I laced up my sneakers on a rock, trying to look inconspicuous and unattached to the Amos’s SUV, which had disrupted the local pick-up basketball game.

There is a dearth of pavement in Monrovia, and as a result, basketball courts are scarce. This hoop, on Ninth Street in the relatively middle-class Sinkor neighborhood, rose out of the dirt above the road that took people from main drag on Tubman Boulevard to the residential compounds by the swamp. The road was wide enough to accommodate a good half-court, about as deep as the three point line; the catch is that the game had to stop every time a car or motorcycle comes down the road.

I approached the court with some trepidation. Rolling up to a pick-up game by yourself is always a little butterfly-inducing. People on the court could be way better than you. The teams could be set. Calling ‘next’ is always awkward when no one has your back. Here, of course, those concerns were magnified, because I was the only ‘white’ guy on the court. Liberia is the only place in the world I’ve been called “white.” It used to throw me off, but after a trip to up-country, where little kids shrieked “white man” everywhere I went, I’m getting used to the social experiment.

I stood by the court watching what appeared to be some kind of shooting contest. Various players asked to mess around with my ball, which was clearly the best one available. One dude practicing post moves with it reminded me of a young Kevin Garnett. I began to question whether I was ready to play with these guys. But judging by their appreciation for my ball, I figured I would be on the court soon enough, an assumption that proved correct.

After the shooting contest ended, though, a man came out with a broom, barked at the kids to get off the court, and started sweeping around the free throw area. I thought maybe he owned the store the court was in front of or something. Soon two teens were joining him in the sweeping process, and it became clear they were clearing enough dust from the road to create a half-court, no small task. During dry season, everything in Liberia is just caked in dust, and the pavement was slippery in areas that weren’t swept.

After about ten minutes they were done, and we were ready to play. Left open for a mid-range jumper, I knocked down the second basket of the game. It was 3 on 3. I did not know my teammates’ names, what we were playing to, or why they wouldn’t give me the ball after I made my shot. It turned out this court practiced “loser’s ball”- giving the ball to the team that is scored on, rather than the team that scores, as is the universal streetball practice in the United States.

Basketball is basketball, and for most of the afternoon I was able to contribute with my usual strengths, and was held back by my usual weaknesses. There are a couple things that make Liberian pick-up a little different than New York pick-up, however.

First, loser’s ball makes the pace of the game very frenetic. As soon one team scores, the other rushes to inbound the ball before the scoring team can set defensively. This leads to a lot of scrambling, and you often end up picking up the guy closest to you at the time of the basket, rather than guarding a specific opposing player. The play was made no less frenetic by the panoramic nature of the inbounds pass, which could come from any sideline, including right underneath the basket. When things settled down, however, like after a foul, we could make more appropriate defensive assignments.

Second, defense was very lax. There was decent one on one defense, in order to respond to the flashy, show-em-up one on one offense. Team defense was non-existent however, so you had to make sure not to let your man beat you off the dribble. I didn’t mind the lax defense, of course. It gave me plenty of open looks near the basket, and as people got tired later in the afternoon, even clear paths for driving lay-ups. I learned to drive from the right side when possible; the blackboard was tilted such that any attempt to bank a lay-up from the left side would send the ball sailing past the rim. The lack of defense also didn’t prevent me from playing defense, and given the sizeable community crowd that had gathered to watch, I wasn’t about to let everyone watch the white man get showed up.

While my defense was solid, I was called for a lot of fouls. A lot of fouls. If ever asked to define street ball, I’ve always cited its rough and tumble nature- a system in which you call your own fouls leads to more bumping and grinding, hand checks, over the backs and loose elbows than a regulated game. It’s just something everyone lives with, unless the situation gets egregious. One of the main reasons New York pick-up games get ugly is the perception that a prima donna scorer is calling too many fouls. Not an issue here. One player I was constantly matched up with was quick off the dribble with a low center of gravity. Whenever we made any kind of contact, even if there was no way I ultimately altered the shot, he’d raise his hand to signal a foul call.

This was not the first time that foul calls had befuddled me in an international pick-up game. I played several times in a small gym in the basement of my student dorm in Hungary back in 2000, and was straight-up astonished the first time I was called for an offensive foul. I am not a big guy, and back at age 17, I was rail-thin. Nevertheless, Hungarians would perfunctorily stop playing to call me for a charge, over the back or offensive hand check. At least in this Liberian game the foul calls were not personal- I was whistled no more or less than anyone else, whereas a Hungarian box score would have made me seem like some Shaq-like menace.

The games were up to five, a quick and preferable option to the New York style seven or eleven given the hot African sun. The second game in particular dragged on and on, as foul calls by both sides on nearly every play were driving me to the point of exhaustion. It wasn’t just the heat- I’m also in terrible shape, a function of my reluctance to go running when it’s too hot out, which is often. On and on the foul calls went, and I wondered how I’d play another game if we won.

Finally, we lost, and I was sitting on a stump nursing my water when Amos’s SUV rolled up. He handed me my laptop bag and was off to further errands. I announced my impending return and sauntered up to Jung’s apartment to drop off my laptop bag. The AC felt great, and I slumped to her flooor, drenched in sweat, mumbling to myself. I hope I didn’t freak her out.

I dragged myself back to the court, and soon was in another 3 on 3 game. Our heavily favored team fell behind 4-1 due to a complete lack of defensive effort, rallied to tie it at 4-4, only to have our dude have his behind the back pass in traffic intercepted for the game-clinching lay-up. I was displeased, but also ok with the prospect of more rest.

At this point I was asked to referee the following game. Referees were generally players waiting to play next, who would watch the game from below the basket. The referee’s primary function was to keep track of the score and make decisions on foul calls. Reffing was no joke. Even though I kept score quite loudly to avoid protest, my announcement of ‘3-1’ brought howls from one player, even though his team was leading. I think some of them just wanted to howl. A major shouting match over the score occurred nearly every game, actually, usually at moments so early in the game that anyone paying the slightest bit of attention would have known what the undisputed score was.

Players from both sides muttered at me all game to ‘keep my eyes open’ because the guy defending them was ‘shoving them around.’ I’m sorry, but this is still street ball, and I was not about to call away from the ball fouls. I called what I felt was an appropriate share of shooting fouls, let the boys play a bit, and kissed the sky when a deep jump shot ended my stint as referee.

I don’t like reffing at all. Over the years I served as a soccer line referee a few times, and it was most unpleasant. Some plays just happen so fast that you have to go with your gut and know you’ll be wrong a decent amount of the time. Things are particularly brutal for refs in pro sports that provide all their television views multi-angled instant replay, but don’t allow the access to refs, except in a few circumstances. Basketball and football both seem to be managing this process better than they used to, while baseball not so much. The moral of the story when it comes to refereeing mistakes is that any team that puts itself in a position where a single incorrect call from a ref can cost the game has to acknowledge their own complicity in creating the situation. A football drive that comes down to a single catch, a basketball game that comes down to a single shot, or a tennis ball grazing the line on a tiebreaker only matter because the two sides have basically played to a draw. It is a rare call that actually “cost them the game.”

During my first three games I had scored several baskets, but as the afternoon sneaked into evening, the already lax defense had pretty much conceded me any shot outside of 8-10 feet, sometimes from even closer. Sticking with straightaway shots, which minimize the rim situation, I began draining mid-range jumpers with ease. No one seemed interested in stopping me. Some players had decent skills, but low basketball IQs, refusing to use pick and rolls offered to them or box out properly. The same player who’d work himself into a frenzy to beat me off the dribble would let me coast deep into the paint without much resistance.

It was getting dark, close to the pointing of calling it a day, but we were using my ball, and I didn’t want to be the guy that shut things down. All of a sudden, midway through a game, a ruckus broke out on the court. Shouting angrily in Liberia seems like a national pastime, and given the track record of violence, it is quite unsettling to be in the middle of. My teammate, Pacy, explained that a group of players on the sidelines wanted to start gambling on the games, while one of our opponents, the original court sweeper, was yelling about a pact they had made not to gamble on the 9th street courts. Hessen, the sweeper, later explained to me that gambling on the games had led to police crackdowns before. That is not a crime I expected to get in trouble for in Liberia, so I appreciated his desire to keep things clean.

We finished the last game some time after the sun had set. I shook hands with a few of the guys, including Hessen, who I had been guarding for the last two games. Even though he called me for about a half dozen fouls, he expressed his wish to play as my teammate next time. Maybe he wants someone else to guard him. I appreciated the perhaps compliment.

I wandered to the local supply store and picked up a coca-cola. Glass bottle. It was great. I knocked on the compound door, and soon I was on my way up the stairs to air conditioning, a shower, work clothes, 30 Rock, and the memories of my first day of Liberian street ball.