Recently my friend Marek Wojtera - the founder of Eurobasket.com - asked me to write a few pages summarizing my experiences playing basketball abroad. He thought that my somewhat-unique story might be an interesting addition to a book he's currently working on. (Apparently, not many guys played in the "mega-powerhouse" leagues in Costa Rica, Ireland, Malta, Mauritius, and Switzerland!)
What follows is my contribution to his project...
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was at my desk working as an equity trader with a midtown Manhattan hedge fund. It had been about two years since I had "retired" my professional basketball sneakers, having played my last game in Switzerland in 1999. Our trading desk had just hung up from a conference call with a firm on the 105th floor of the first tower, and we'd soon find out that they were hit directly. That day was a swirl of emotions for me; some traumatic, some confused, but almost all were negative. About the only thing positive I can remember feeling that day was the warmth and genuine concern conveyed in those first few emails to hit my inbox post 8:46am. No, they weren't from my family, or even from within the United States, for that matter. Instead, they were from Ireland...from Malta...and from Mauritius...all asking if I was ok.
That's probably a bit much to take in, and you'd be right in wondering how all this relates to basketball. So let me explain...
There's a Phil Jackson quote that sums up my feelings on the sport best. In his book Sacred Hoops, Jackson - ever the basketball philosopher - says "Not only is there more to life than basketball, there's a lot more to basketball than basketball." And for me, basketball overseas was - in large part - about finding out if that statement was true.
I never had delusions of grandeur when I set out to play for a paycheck. I knew that I was not NBA material - that much is obvious. But I also knew that basketball could help me achieve a set of life experiences that few are lucky enough to have. I knew it could take me to unique and interesting countries, and gain me entry as a local, rather than a tourist...a neighbor rather than a visitor. And that makes all the difference. So, my goal was two-fold: First, maximize my physical ability to get the absolute most that I could out of my own potential. And yes, as a six-foot, relatively slow jump shooter, that was already asking a lot. And second, I simply wanted to use basketball as my passport to cultural and geographical exploration. I wanted to use the sport as a means to see whatever I could of the world, and to soak it all in.
I should also mention at this point that the experience of basketball overseas back in the mid-90s was quite different from today. Back then, I spent most of my money buying phone cards to call back home. Or I sent actually paper letters - this was just before email! And there was certainly no Skype! I have to imagine that players today are much less homesick simply because there is so much more technology to help stay in touch with family and friends back home.
It started in Costa Rica in 1995, where I played for the Universidad InterAmericana de Costa Rica (UICR) team. My coach was a hustler named Francisco, who was excited by the sparkling white-skinned gringo that landed on his doorstep. We played our games in the Gimnasio Nacional in La Sabana Park in San Jose and the basketball was surprisingly good. The Costa Rican league had good athletes - although not much size - who loved the game and played hard. (At least on my team.)
Playing before a "packed house" at the Gimnasio Nacional
From what I remember, Costa Rica at the time was geographically split into three parts: the west coast, the east coast, and San Jose. The east coast was considered rough, and was mostly Caribbean in culture, whereas the capital and the west coast were more hispanic. One of my first games was in Limon, a rugged, industrial east coast town. Apparently we weren't playing at the usual venue, and our team bus nervously circled the dimly lit streets, searching among dilapidated waterfront buildings for the unmarked gym. Truthfully, I wondered if I was about to play a basketball game, or instead wander into some kind of back alley, secret, Far East fighting competition. We finally found it, though, and we were escorted to a locker room that was just below street level and under the side of the building. Looking up through the grates - which offered the only ventilation amidst the coastal humidity - we could see the sidewalk above. Of course, as it turned out, the grates offered more than just ventilation. They also provided just the right opening for the little kids in town to either pee or spit down at visiting teams! It was pretty funny to see my teammates jump out of the way when the first stream of water came down, and it was just luck that had me sitting across the room against the opposite wall. Holy crap, I thought. Welcome to "pro" basketball!
It didn't get any easier once we took the court, and it turned out to be a pretty tough game. Of course, after the locker room incident, it was easy to assume that the local refs would swallow their whistles when we had the ball. But I hadn't expected the level of athleticism and "style" that we encountered. Cable TV and modern basketball - someway, somehow - had made it to the sleepy little industrial town of Limon. during warm-ups, every opposing player wore wearing baggy shorts, short socks, and wagged their tongues while dunking (which is legal in international ball). In other words, they had seen Michael Jordan play. And these skinny, long-limbed, big-shorted, tongue-waggers were pulling off all of Jordan's best dunk contest stuff with ease. I was transfixed, and I figured that we were in serious trouble. But my teammates were surprisingly calm, and - as it turned out - they were right and I was the naive "rookie." As the older, more experienced, organized, "big city" team, we pulled out the win. After our locker room experience, though, no one showered after! I can remember Coach Francisco saying "forget the showers, guys...let's get out of here!"
It was on the drive home that I first realized that the driving in Costa Rica is...well, um...insane. The roads that branched out from San Jose were windy and elevated, and were carved around mountains and rain forests. UICR charted an old school bus for road trips, and after that game in Limon we all fell asleep on the midnight ride back to San Jose. As the nervous "new guy," I was a little too aware of the mortality rate on Costa Rican roads (highest in the world at the time, or so I had read), and I stayed awake. And with the bus snoring in peace, imagine my shock (and horror!) in watching the grizzled old bus driver repeatedly sticking his entire torso out the window - all the way out to his waist. He was either using the blast of air to keep himself awake, or trying to see around bends to avoid advancing cars! And either way, I was more than a little freaked out. Are we about to die? Is this normal? Should I wake everyone up? Is this guy crazy? Somehow my squirming woke up Francisco, who - in classic "island-cool" style, like the Jamaican guy dozing on the street corner - barely rose his head from his crossed-arm dozing, opened just one eye, spotted my panic, and just started cackling. "Don't worry," he said, in broken english. "This is just how he drives. We haven't died yet." I nodded along and pretended to calm down. But it wasn't reassuring. And as you'd expect, I never slept on any roadtrip in Costa Rica. I kept a close eye on Jose the bus driver instead. Wouldn't you? I always wonder if that guy is still out there somewhere, navigating his bus around volcanic mountaintops, in the beautiful cloud rain forests surrounding San Jose.
Our practice facility also offered a valuable lesson in expecting the unexpected. It was basically an old barn with a painted concrete floor. During normal weather, the sliding "barn doors" on each side stayed open. And when it rained, they were pulled closed. But that's not the interesting part. About half way through my first practice there I noticed two things, both at roughly the same time. The first was that the floor was getting really slippery. The combination of humidity and sweat droplets on painted concrete did not exactly lend itself to solid footing and traction. Quite the opposite. It was more like playing on an ice rink in basketball sneakers. Basically we'd practice until we were pushing the limits of dangerous injury with regards to the floor...and then we stopped. Again I thought Where the hell am I? This is basketball overseas?? But that wasn't the surprise. Around the same time the floor turned slippery, the ball also turned sticky. How was that possible? I finally stopped, and made a close inspection of the ball. It turns out that over time - whether due to attraction to the lights or attraction to the players' sweat - the court would draw more and more ants and jungle bugs. Bouncing the ball killed the bugs, which left a stickiness all over it. It was tiny dead ants!! My teammates had a good laugh over my reaction. It wouldn't be the first time...
After Costa Rica, I landed a contract in Ireland, playing for the Dungannon club, in County Tyrone, just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, I had severely sprained an ankle playing in a U.S. summer league before heading to Ireland in September 1995. Without ample time to heal, the injury nagged me for weeks and my play was sub-par. As a result, my time in Dungannon was short-lived and the team manager, Frankie O'Loane, released me six weeks after my arrival. It was a valuable lesson on the realities of professional sport - I had never been cut from any team in my entire life. It was a harsh experience, but at 23 years old, it helped me mature and it certainly toughened me up. And in the end, it proved to be a blessing.
After allowing my injury to heal, I was picked up by Marathon Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, where I played out the season, ultimately making the all-star team, leading the country in scoring (36ppg), and setting the national record for points in a game at 61!
Ireland was full of amazing experiences, and I always look back on my time there fondly. Yes, winter time is dark and drizzly, but for the rest of the year, the rolling green hills and historic countryside more than made up for winter. I was lucky enough to arrive in Ireland just as the movie Braveheart had been released, and I loved imagining that the roads I traveled were once walked by the Celtic tribes of yore. And just as a reminder that Irish lands still remain contested to this day, it was a feature of the "border crossing" between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is officially the U.K., like Scotland or Wales) that armed guards would board the team bus for a quick bomb search because of the still-ongoing Protestant/Catholic conflicts in the country. In fact, one of these late night "inspections" by a border patrol after a long road trip was probably the first time I had ever seen a real machine gun in my life. It truly made me think I was in a different world - I had only seen guns like that in third world military conflicts on the nightly news...
IRA graffiti along buildings in Northern Ireland
Funny enough, even though Ireland is an English-speaking country, surprise language differences sometimes made me feel like I was in a different world too. For example, I will never forget when one of the club members - Paddy Gross, who remains a good friend to this day - welcomed me to town, and asked me if I wanted to join him at the local pub for some crack! What?! Do the Irish have a drug problem? Or just this guy? Openly talking about crack rock? What was next, heroin? I stared back and him and stammered "cr...cr...crack? Did you say crack?" Yes, Paddy chuckled. Craic. You know, a bit of fun. Good times. It's a gaelic term. Ah, so that explained it. I quickly learned that the trunk of car was called the boot, that sidewalks are called footpaths, you don't root for a team - you barrack, you never say thanks for the ride - instead it's thanks for the lift. And remember, this was the mid-90s, but under no circumstances would you tell a young lady that she had a nice fanny pack. (I will let someone else explain that last one to you, but I am very lucky that Paddy set me straight early on.) I also learned to appreciate afternoon tea and "bikkies" (biscuits), I found out that when I ordered salad they brought me cole slaw, and I quickly became addicted to their candy bars. Chocolate bars in Ireland are dispensed in refrigerated machines set alongside soda machines. So...yes, Kenmare mussels are incredible, fresh caught whiting is delicious, and a local Irish stew on a cold night is an absolute pleasure. But you truly haven't lived until you've tasted a perfectly chilled Kit Kat or Twix bar, especially with the less-pastuerized milk chocolate overseas.
Guinness and good craic with the Marathon Limerick team.
I am third from the left and Ian Stewart (Southern Illinois) is third from the right.
As for basketball, the Irish League was good, but very rough. Most of the Irish were converted rugby players or gaelic football players, so physicality was part of the game for them. How did that translate to the game itself? Well, lets just say that I collected a few bruises along the way, and took my share of free throws. Speaking of free throws, referees were a huge drawback to the Irish League. No fault of these guys (and girls, seriously...well ahead of the NBA!) -- it's just that they were completely new to the game. Bad calls were a problem, inconsistency was a big problem, and even positioning came into play. Playing for Mid-Sutton in a big "National Cup" game against storied club (or side) Neptune, I shot a deep three pointer and actually landed on the referees foot, twisting my ankle pretty badly. I was furious - what was that guy doing standing right on top of me! I had it taped at halftime, but managed something like 10 points in the second half after scoring 25 points in the first. Losing that game was incredibly frustrating, since it was the upstart MSB Club's chance to beat an established powerhouse...and I am still mad at that damned ref.
Early scoring was a strategy I employed with great success in the Irish League. The first time through the league, when no one really new one another's players (even the locals moved around a lot in the off-season), it was easy to for me to sneak in the first ten points of the game. In general, with two Americans per team, most imports were either tall or African-American. And I am neither. In fact, I look more Irish than anything. I would enjoy a good laugh about five minutes into the game, asking the other team's Americans "did you figure out that I'm the American yet? One of you guys might consider guarding me." Trash-talk, yes, but it was subtle and effective. And fun...
Off the court, Ireland was equally enjoyable. However, while the Americans were able to dominate the basketball courts, the locals got their revenge after the games, when they would dominate the pub. My teammates loved lining up the Irish whiskey and the Guinness drafts after games and practices, and would then "teach me how to drink." Let's just say that I left a few braincells in Ireland during my time there. To this day, I think of a pub called Nancy Blake's when someone asks me about my favorite bars in the world. The front section was dimly lit and had a cackling fire. Local musicians played traditional Gaelic music while an older crowd sipped strong Irish drinks.
Traditional Irish music in the front room of a pub.
The middle section was a bit more lively. A younger crowd swayed to contemporary Irish favorites like U2, The Cranberries (from Limerick), and Thin Lizzy. And the back section boasted an open dance floor that spilled out to a heated outdoor terrace. This was the loudest and most energetic room of Nancy Blake's, and my teammates and I spent most of our post-game outings here. One great thing about drinking in Ireland - the pubs all stop serving alcohol at 11pm. The lights flicker and "last call" is announced. Typically, groups would then pool their money into one last large order, lining up - say - 10 pints and 10 shots to last the next hour or so. It depended on the bar...sometimes they'd toss you at 11:15pm, and sometimes you can hang around an hour. The best thing about this, however, was that it made you go home and go to bed! In fact, you'd typically be home by midnight for at least eight hours sleep, which greatly aided the hangover recovery the next day! This may sound strange, but as a happily married father today, I can now admit that I really enjoyed the fact that Irish pub culture seemed - at least in part - more about "male bonding" than the social scene. I truly enjoyed hanging out with the guys, cracking jokes on each other and drinking the night away. And I found it hilarious when my young Irish teammates would break into song together. I mean, there's something you never see in the States! These guys would lock arms at every damn U2 ballad and just nail the sing-along. No fear, no shame, and they sounded half-decent! It's a singing culture, truly.
Limerick was a really great town, despite it's rough reputation. And in many ways it was a throwback to traditional, rural Ireland. During my off days from basketball practice I would jog in the roads surrounding the city, and oftentimes my route would be diverted by cows completely blocking the road, as a farmer would be moving his herd from one field and down the road to another. The farmers always gave a smile and a shrug as if to say "hey, what can you do?" In truth, I probably looked stranger to them in my bright basketball gear and headphones than they looked to me, walking down the street surrounded by 50 head of cattle!
As for Dublin, what a great place. Food, people, parks, history, architecture...Dublin in 1996 was just in the beginning stages of the "Celtic Tiger" rise that a 10% flat corporate tax helped spark. It was a fun place to be, and I actually enjoyed some great basketball in Dublin, where the 1996-97 Mid-Sutton Baldoyle team became known in the local media as the "Dream Team of Ireland." Naturalized veteran Americans Ed Randolph and Jerome Westbrooks had teamed up and recruited another very talented veteran wing player named Gerald Kennedy. The missing piece was a point guard, and as my season in Limerick came to a close, Jerome invited me to Dublin for a "recruiting visit" to gauge my interest for that following season. Standing on the curb outside a traditional Irish fish & chip stop with Jerome, swaying slightly from the 4-5 Guinness we'd just enjoyed, and watching the whisps of steam escape in the chill Irish night as I peeled back my newspaper-wrapped fried fish and inhaled the salt & vinegar scent, I looked up at the crisp, clear night sky and thought "yeah, I'd like to play here." It was a great decision, and Dublin will go down as among my favorite cities of all time as a result. My Irish teammates are also some of the most interesting characters I have ever come across. More than a few of these guys worked as bartenders in addition to their basketball duties, and they were always full of jokes and quick-witted quips. In contrast to my Costa Rican experience, I spent most road trips in Ireland laughing the entire way to the gym, and I think back fondly on those trips.
In early 1997, however, Mid-Sutton faced some financial difficulties on the sponsorship front, however, and my salary seemed to arrive later and later each week. It made me nervous that I would even be paid at all, and - as a result - when a Maltese team (Qormi Basket Club) parted ways with their American and was in need of a replacement, I was more than happy to head to the small, sunny, historic island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean island of Malta from atop an old fortress
I was surprised - as you probably are - to hear that Malta had a league at all. It was small by most measures, and reflected the tiny nation (estimated population in 1997: about 400,000). The league had 10 teams, and only allowed one import per club. Seven clubs had Americans, two brought in less-expensive Yugoslavian imports, and one went without an import at all. The teams practiced in their local towns, but all league games were played in Ta' Qali National Arena, which was a converted World War II airplane hangar. Because the island was so small, all the Americans new each other, and we actually met at the National Arena almost every morning to lift weights together and play 3-on-3 before heading out to our individual team practices at night. I had certainly never seen that done before, but it was fun. And it was great training; these 3-on-3 games which featured players like Tim Britt (Tennessee-Martin), Brian Holden (Drexel), Lynn Tryon (Colorado), and Roger Fasting (Montana) were some of the best that I have ever been a part of.
Going up against Tim Britt from Tennessee
I had arrived halfway through the season and immediately fell in love with the historical element of Malta, which sits just off the "toe" of Italy and had been a crossroads of culture dating as far back as the Phoenicians. I was placed in an apartment in Rabat, a small quintessential hilltop town which sat beside the history ancient Roman city of Mdina, and looked down on the entire island and the surrounding deep purple Mediterranean Sea. After rainy, dark, and often-dreary Ireland, it was heaven on earth for me. My team also set me up with a restaurant - The Camps - which provided me with my daily meals.
The lunch crowd at The Camps - Johnny is at the far right.
The owner of the place, Johnny, wore coke-bottle glasses and spoke with a rich Maltese accent, which made him sound like a cross between an Italian mafia don, a belligerent Brit, an Arab elder, and a Hebrew wise man all at once. (In fact, Maltese is an incredibly complicated language. It borrows vocabulary and elements of speech from each culture that has controlled the island at one point or another: French, English, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, etc.) Johnny looked me up and down on my first visit to The Camps and said "ah, de new American...burrrger and cheeps, right? Datsa what de last guy eat all de time." Tell you what, Johnny, I laughed. How about you give me the special of the day every day, and just don't tell me what it is until after. His eyes widened. Reeeelly? Johnny was so excited, and apparently, I had made a friend for life. It also kicked off a culinary adventure of sorts. I ate horse that season. And sweetbreads. And massive stuffed squid. And fenek (rabbit), a local delicacy. Johnny also made his own wine and sheep's cheese...and the Maltese bread? Wow. In my opinion - and I love French bread - Malta's bread is the finest in the world. I also discovered a local pastry called pastizzi, which is something like a croissant filled with creamy and delicious cheese. Washed down with the national soft drink - Kinnie - it was absolute heaven.
The basketball in Malta was so-so, but the sunny climate and historic element of the country more than made up for it. The capital, Valetta, is essentially a fortified city, frozen in time, from an era of Knights and Crusades, and pirates and brigands. In fact, steps in the hilly city center of Valetta are very broad but only an inch or two high because the knights could not lift their armored legs any higher!
The broad, thin steps of Valetta
Being in Malta is literally to walk in the footsteps of history. And at least twice Malta has been at the forefront of critical military conflict. In the 1500s, a small garrison of one thousand knights held off an invading Ottoman army of 30,000 or more. Had Malta fallen, we might all be speaking Arabic to this day, for the Ottomans would have then controlled the Mediterranean and moved up to Sicily and right on through Italy into the heart of what was then the Western world. And during World War II, when the British controlled the island, a haggard skeleton crew of soldiers and pilots, exhausted and starved, cut off from supply lines, repelled attacks from Mussolini's air forces time and time again. In fact, the entire nation of Malta was awarded the King George Cross for valor during WWII...
Getting back to basketball, I truly found myself pushed to the limit as an import in Malta, simply because so much was expected of that one player. When the team President and Manager met me at the Airport for the first time, I was surprised to hear that most Americans averaged 40 points and 10 rebounds a game! Hell, I had not gotten 10 rebounds in a game since I was probably 12 years old and then the tallest guy on the court. "Ok," I laughed. How about 40 points and 10 assists?" I quickly came to find out that American's routinely scored 50 points per game in the Maltese League. It wasn't that hard - we just took all the shots. I can remember one game between my club, Qormi (the Q is silent), and Floriana. Floriana's American was a tremendous player named Tyron McCoy (Virginia Commonwealth), who had a long career in Europe which even extended on to the Euroleague. Tyron and I had a shoot-out...I think he scored 50 points and I scored 55, but his team won by one point, 102-101. The next day's newspaper article, however, placed the blame for the loss squarely on my shoulders for misfiring on the final shot to win the game. Wow, I thought. This place is tough! 55 points and it was considered a poor performance by the press!
Referees were also a problem in Malta, as they were in any country where basketball was relatively new. Once, a league referee became sick, and had to be replaced at the last minute. The Maltese Basketball Federation chose a soccer referee to fill in, and brought in the oldest and most experienced professional. The only problem was, he didn't know the rules of basketball! At a critical point, near the end of a hard-fought game, I was trapping an opposing player with one of my teammates and we managed to steal the ball. But the whistle blew and I spun around to see the soccer referee with a raised arm pointing at me. That was bad enough, but he blew the whistle again (even though play had already stopped) and then pointed at my teammate, who already had four fouls. He was calling a foul on each of us on the same play! And my teammate had fouled out! I had never seen anything like it. My coach was going crazy. I tried to plead with the ref. I explained to him that you can't have two separate fouls on the same play. Oh yes you can, he said. Because you both fouled! Needless to say, we lost a close game...and that "double-call" had a lot to do with it!
At some point near the end of my season in Malta, I was contacted by the Real Club (yes, like Real Madrid) in Mauritius (!), who was looking to import an American for their playoff run. Completely confused, I asked a Maltese travel agent friend, Colin Portelli, for some information. He showed me a brochure for what looked exactly like Hawaii -- a total island paradise. In fact, Mark Twain once famously wrote - when passing through Mauritius in 1896 - "You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius."
New friends in Mauritius, island paradise...
I quickly accepted the contract since it was for a month of play after my season in Malta would be complete, and also not-so-quickly discovered - after a 45 minute flight to Rome and then 15 hours from Rome to Mauritius - that Twain was right. Again I had stumbled on another historically significant island. Mauritius was first "civilized" by the Dutch, who stopped off at this ocean oasis for fresh water and provisions while traveling from India and around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa during the 1500-1600s spice trade. Mauritius is also famous for the now-extinct Dodo bird, which was rumored to be so slow and dumb that the Dutch would simply walk up to them and club them on the head. Modern-day Mauritius is an eclectic mix of cultures. There was a wealthy French and British upper class, left over from the Napoleonic control of the country and then the British rule that followed. An Indian population had developed after Indian workers had originally been imported to work in the tea fields. A Chinese population remained from when workers had also been imported to work on rail lines. There were also eastern African muslims, and a local creole culture. All in all, it was quite a mix. In Mauritius, it's not uncommon to see a catholic church next to a mosque, which is next to a Hindu temple. Not every country can say that! Mauritius also has gorgeous beaches, amazing vanilla tea, fresh seafood, and one of my favorite local beers: Phoenix, otherwise known as "L'araignee" or "The Spider" for the design on the label.
After a Real Club practice. I am 2nd from the left.
I have to admit that I was something of a celebrity in Mauritius. No American had ever played there before. I was whisked off of my flight and right to a press conference, where I was proudly introduced by my new family, the Real Club. I found myself on the front page of the national newspapers for weeks, and people recognized me in the streets. On the other hand, other clubs were less than happy about my arrival and registration, and some clubs protested the games against Real. Other times, when we did play, opposing players tried to hurt me on purpose. On one occasion, an especially rugged local player gave me a cheap shot elbow to the jaw, then was tossed from the game, but not before throwing the ball at the referee. My jaw felt like it was broken, and as soon as the game ended, I was taken to the local hospital, or at least the nearest one that was open, and had an x-ray machine. To be honest, I thought the place looked a little different than most hospitals, but I just figured that I was not seeing straight considering I may have had a concussion. They took full x-rays of my head right away (given the technology/machinery at hand, I can only assume they pumped my body full of WW2 era radiation), and thankfully they came back negative. It was only later than I discovered why the "clinic" looked so funny. It was a veterinarian's office! No wonder the x-ray room felt strange to me - the prior "customers" had been cats and dogs! I still have that full x-ray of my entire skull, by the way. It's a great souvenir.
Basketball in Mauritius was scattered and disorganized. Players were athletic but unskilled, and games there were relatively easy for me. My club, Real, was very well-funded, but we still practiced at night, outside! (I can't even imagine what the other poorer clubs did.) Despite it all, it was fun to be a small part of Mauritius "history," as I helped Real win their first of several championships in a row. Just as a late night injury had been forced to take me to a vet's office for medical treatment, getting food at 10pm after practice was also very different. Mauritius in 1997 was just this sleepy little island. Even the capital city of Port Louis was closed up at 9:30 or 10pm. My teammates soon showed me a great "trick" on how to get food late at night however, and it was thanks to Ramadan. You see, there was a mosque (Jummah) near the outdoor court where we played, and a man would arrive each night with a huge metal cauldron somehow strapped to the back of his moped. He would set-up in front of the mosque to feed the hungry throngs of people just ending their day's fast, and the wafting smell of chicken biryani wafting from his massive pot was enough to draw me and my teammates over as well. It's a heck of a mental image: a group of muslims breaking fast, sitting side-by-side with a Mauritian basketball team, sitting on the sidewalk amidst the 1800s french architecture of downtown Port Louis, looking up at the Southern Cross constellation, and eating the greatest chicken biryani I have ever tasted.
Once again, I was simply amazed that the game of basketball - this sport where you tossed an orange leather ball through an iron hoop ten feet off the ground - delivered me here. All I could do was shake my head in amazement. After spending a few weeks in Mauritius, I quickly began to understand why the local players weren't better. There were simply too many distractions! I learned to scuba dive in Mauritius, which I consider one of my passions to this day. The underwater world is simply incredible. I spent my days at the beach and stayed up late after practice and drank Mauritius' famous Green Island Rum with my teammates, most of whom could only imagine what a day in New York City might be like. During the day, before basketball practice, I would walk to the local nearby beach where the locals would recognize me and share their coconut juice and grilled fruit bat (yes! I have eaten bat!) lunches with me. At night, I would sit on my terrace, looking up from my book (there was barely TV) to note the sounds of crashing waves and tropical birds. Yep, Mark Twain was right after all. Mauritius was heaven.
"Drinking from the Cup"...League Champions!
Trou aux Biches, my "personal" beach, down the street from my apartment.
My final season was spent in just outside of Lausanne, Switzerland, playing for the Echallens Club. After my experience in Mauritius, Switzerland seemed uber-modern to me, but in reality the facilities and the infrastructure were not that dissimilar from Ireland or Malta. As a country, Switzerland was simply gorgeous, and - given its size - I was amazed at how much open space there was. And the mountains...wow. I wasn't until the third day there that I realized that those "clouds" way up in the sky were not clouds, but instead the snowcaps of the Alps off in the distance.
In front of the Chateau Chillon, on Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Aside from the snowy mountaintops, however, Switzerland was much greener than I imaged. It seemed like the entire countryside was farmland. The basketball was good, but after 4-5 years of long seasons abroad on the rubber courts in Ireland or the outdoor courts of Mauritius, I felt myself slipping. Truth be told, by 1999 I realized that I was a step slower than I had been, and I also realized I had little desire to play any more. Actually, I didn't mind the playing, but I was growing tired of people telling me when I had to lift weights, when I had to train, when I had to run, etc. Maybe I was just growing up, but I felt like I was moving past sport as a career. There was simply so much more I wanted to do. I ended my career on a bittersweet note, losing a close game in the Swiss playoffs to a bigger and more experienced team. I scored 39 points, however, and shot 9 of 11 from the three point line. Not a bad way to go out!
My teammates and I met for a traditional meal of raclette afterwards. We sat around a table grilling our own cheese and vegetables over a small flame with a paddle, and we tossed back more than a few glasses of crisp, local white wine. Looking around the room, I thought about the people at the table...I noted their smiling, laughing faces, and pictured myself from above pulling back from this house...to this town...to this country...to this continent...until I pictured myself as if from a satellite image, halfway across the planet earth from my home, sitting with people I never would have otherwise met, in a town I would have otherwise seen, eating a meal I had never heard of before...and all because of the sport of basketball.
Looking back, I feel that I satisfied my original goals. I certainly maximized my potential as a player. With limited skills and physical ability, I simply could not have gone further than I had. I had made a little money along the way, enough to make me feel justified to call myself a basketball professional. And I had also accomplished the more important goal of experiencing life...making new friends...seeing the world...and learning about myself and others every step of the way. I think back to that Phil Jackson quote - there's more to basketball than basketball - and proudly realize that I was lucky enough to have lived it.
And despite the horrors and trauma of 9/11, I took solace in the fact that I had made these friendships abroad and that they reached out to me with concern. Amidst a dark and disturbing day, it helped me remember the good in people, and that the world can be a very small place, and we its citizens are all connected in some way or another. And I thought about how most of my connections came from the game of basketball, and how lucky that made me...on that day in particular.
RANDOM FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
BEST MEAL -- Fresh-caught branzino, Valetta, MALTA; squid in black bean sauce, Port Louis, MAURITIUS.
BEST GAME -- 44 points vs. Hibernians for Qormi Club, 1997, MALTA; 42 points vs. Tolka Rovers for Marathon Limerick, 1996 IRELAND
MOST POINTS -- 61 points vs. MSB for Marathon Limerick, 1996, IRELAND.
BEST TEAM -- Mid-Sutton Baldoyle, Dublin, IRELAND.
BEST BAR -- Nancy Blake's, Limerick IRELAND.
BEST AMERICAN TEAMMATE -- Ian Stewart (Southern Illinois University), Limerick IRELAND.
BEST LOCAL TEAMMATE -- Bernard Walsh, Mid-Sutton, IRELAND.
FUNNIEST TEAMMATE -- Bernard Walsh, Mid-Sutton, IRELAND.
BEST AMERICAN I PLAYED AGAINST -- Brian Holden (Drexel University), MALTA; Mike Campbell (LIU), SWITZERLAND; Barry Pierce (UPenn), IRELAND.
STRANGEST MEAL -- Grilled fruit bat, MAURITIUS.
BEST BEER -- Guinness, IRELAND.
BEST DESSERT -- Movenpick ice cream, SWITZERLAND.
BEST CHEESE -- Sheep's cheese, MALTA.
BEST GYM TO PLAY IN -- Ta' Qali, MALTA.
BEST HOBBY WHILE PLAYING -- Scuba Diving; MAURITIUS.
BEST BEACH -- Jaco Beach, COSTA RICA; Pereybere, MAURITIUS.
BEST COACH -- Jerome Westbrooks, Mid-Sutton, IRELAND; Bane Vukovic, Qormi, MALTA.
LONGEST FLIGHT -- 24 hours, NYC to PARIS to MAURITIUS.
BEST LOCAL SNACK -- Pastizzi and Kinnie soda, MALTA.
SCARIEST ROADS -- COSTA RICA.
WORST REFEREES -- IRELAND.
MOST DANGEROUS FANS -- MAURITIUS.
BEST SEASON -- 1995-96, Marathon Limerick, 36ppg, IRELAND.
BEST YEAR -- 1996-97, Dublin to Malta to Mauritius.
BEST APARTMENT -- 4 Dingli Road, Rabat, MALTA.
BEST RUN -- Rabat to Dingli Cliffs, MALTA.
BEST SIDE TRIP -- Malta to Cairo, 1997.
BEST AIRPORT -- Malta.
BEST SIGHTSEEING -- Valetta, MALTA, Grand Baie, MAURITIUS, Dublin, IRELAND, Montreux and Lake Geneva, SWITZERLAND.