by: Ian Johnson
The follow-up to Ian Johnson’s “Gijon.”The journey across Europe continues with a reflection on what compels a person to perpetually compete…
The phone rang mid-morning, late December at my parents’ house in Virginia. I was sitting at the kitchen table – weight forward on my elbows, an empty cereal bowl shoved off the placement – perusing the local sports page.
My mom, busy with yuletide cookie cutters at the counter, wiped her hands on a dish towel and answered. Fingers over the speaker, a curious frown on her forehead, she looked at me and said, “For you. Some guy named Karel calling from the Czech Republic.”
I pushed myself back from the table and held out my hand. Karel was the General Manager for the Condors of Liberec. Liberec is a city a hundred or so kilometers north of Prague. Its basketball team, the Condors (Kondori), at the time of the phone call, were in 9th place in the Czech Narobni Basketbalova Liga and they were looking to sign an American big man for the second half of the season. Karel was calling to feel me out.
“This is Ian.”
Karel asked about Spain. What had happened in Gijon? he wanted to know. I maneuvered around the question. When he pressed, I diplomatically divied up the blame, a little for me, a little for Joaquin, a little pour for the boys in State, and Karel let it be. He asked about Davidson. He asked if I was in shape.
It was good enough. A day later my Agent Mike faxed another duo-lingual contract to me and I signed with Liberec on a two-week tryout. The Kondori were skeptical. Terms for the rest of the season were laid out, but if the team didn’t like me they had fourteen days to give me the axe. I remember scanning the thick contract. I couldn’t pick out more than a few words on the diacritic-heavy Czech side, Ceska Republika, auto, dolar. Even with the English translation, it sort of felt like I was blindly initialing an “I’ve read and agree to all terms and conditions” box, signing away the next months of my life to strangers in a strange land, which, in a way, I was.
The turnaround was sudden. One minute I’m languidly lapping up the sugar-stained milk in my cereal bowl, checking movie times, and then an intercontinental phone call later and I’ve less than thirty hours to pack up my stuff and get to the airport.
But first I’d take a glimpse at my destination. Just like I’d done with Spain, I unrolled my big laminated world map and checked out the Czech Republic (Even when fully aware of what is happening, it is sometimes frustratingly impossible not to use the word “check’”when writing about the Czech Republic. Something about neuronal activation. I apologize in advance for its overuse). I stared blankly at the yolk-yellow-shaded smudge in the lower center part of Europe, landlocked by Deutschland, Polska, Slovensko, and Osterreich. Liberec wasn’t on there. Only Prague earned a black dot. After Spain, I knew better than to stare too long. I quickly made the map a scroll again and shoved it back into my closet. This time I’d keep a leash on my imagination. Still, I was strangely amped about this second professional at-bat. More amped than I thought I’d be. I was a little tougher now, it felt like. I still had a proud ego to defend.
On December 30th, 2006, I pond-hopped Austrian Airlines to Vienna. As I settled into my seat I thought of the flight attendant from my maiden trip to Spain. Illogically, I peeked around the cabin, just in case, although I couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Plenty of blonde-haired, Deutsch-speaking replacement candidates were shimmying about making pre-flight preparations, dressed scarf-to-pumps in magic-marker red, but I knew better here too.
From Vienna I puddle-jumped to Prague. Karel picked me up at the airport (on time!). He had one of those motel-cot-like baggage trolleys for my stuff. My stuff: I had a backpack, a computer bag, and a single suitcase, which wasn’t, quite noticeably, all that full. The front flap of my suitcase sunk into itself like a hollow cheek. If not for my basketball shoes, I probably could’ve gotten by with a couple of carry-ons. Eying my meager assemblage, Karel asked, “Is that all you got?”
I remember glancing down at the suitcase, trying to understand what he could possibly mean.
We loaded ourselves into Karel’s car and worked our way out into the flow of Skodas and Alfa Romeos. Karel was somehow just like I’d pictured: slightly suspicious looking, robotic, a touch of squirrely and very serious. When he started talking, his English was excellent. Just like Raul in Spain, he talked with genuine if somewhat inflated affection about his team. They’d won their second division championship the year prior, granting them “ascension,” which made this their first season in the top division. He told me about the coach, Ales (Ale-sh). He told me the Condors’ goal for the season was simply to make the playoffs. He told me about my teammates. I nodded along, forgetting most everything he said before I could remember to forget it. I was tired, overseas flights can suck the wind out of you.
As we zoomed up an overpass on the E-65, Prague unfolded out the window to the left. Karel told me Prague – or Praha in Czech – meant “Little Door.” Anyone who enters Prague, therefore, has to duck to do so. This is a humble nod to its beauty, a beauty that prevented the type of destruction in Prague that had over the centuries befallen countless other European cities across countless wars. The Germans didn’t destroy Prague in World War Two. The Habsburgs didn’t raze it in 1916. The Russians deferred before that. All these conquerors ducked through the same Little Door that I was now myself stooping to enter.
Karel wasn’t from Prague, but, like every other Czech person I met he had both connections to it and strong opinions regarding it. He explained the duality of the Czech Republic: there was Prague, and then there was Everywhere Else. Citizens from Everywhere Else weren’t particularly fond of Prague, maybe because, according to Karel, the people of Prague didn’t particularly care for the citizens of Everywhere Else. But Prague was and is the point guard of the Czech Republic, dictating the cultural and economic offense for the rest of the country. I decided I liked Prague.
On our way out of the city, we stopped for lunch at an IKEA cafeteria in some grey suburb just off the highway. While we ate, I further studied Karel. His sternness, particularly the semi-slitted eyes and perpetual mini-flare of the nostrils, made him look like he was always on the verge of a sneeze. I decided I wasn’t sure what to make of Karel.
Liberec, like a lot of European cities, is better known for what it once was than what it is. Three-quarters of a millennia old, Liberec was once the “Manchester of Bohemia,” home to a thriving textile industry. The 19th century saw a brief boom in cultural and political significance. In 1918 it became part of Czechoslovakia. Today it’s known for a massive TV tower, as an annual stop on the Ski Jumping World Cup schedule, and, if and once you finish reading this chapter, as the place where expat Ian Johnson scratched his noggin a little more sharply and soberly as he further considered the funny ways of the world of professional basketball.
Karel dropped me at a hotel near the arena, where I’d stay until my tryout ended. “Rest up,” he said, and he told me to be at the practice facility tomorrow morning at nine. He handed me some Czech bills and wished me a Happy New Year.
Later that afternoon, as the darkening grey squeezed the remaining pinkish-yellow from the cold winter sky, I left the hotel and ventured, hungry, in search of food, memories of my first night in Spain very much on my mind. Not two hundred yards from the hotel I happened upon what looked like a decent restaurant, deemed decent mostly because of the impressive, swirling, clef-like calligraphy on the menu taped to the inside of the front window. I made binoculars with my hands and leaned into the tinted windows. The dining area was empty but the lights were on. Next to the menu hung a sign on a hook, the kind that can be flipped Open/Closed, but I didn’t know the words for open or closed in Czech. Plus it was New Year’s Eve. I tried the door and felt it give. A draft of warm air assaulted my face. Inside, a chef and a waitress stood by the bar. They showed me their eyeballs.
I pointed to a table. “Yes? Okay?”
The waitress was blond. She smiled and shook her head. Private party or something.
I didn’t venture any further. I trekked back to the hotel, shoved a few koruna in the vending machines, and enjoyed a dinner of Kit-Kat-imitation Czech chocolate bars and greasy bags of vinegary chips. Both of which were rather delicious. Besides basketball itself, there were few constants from country to country as my career progressed, CNN International being one. And it was at this Czech hotel that I got hooked. Shoutout to all my favorite anchors.
I was horizontal before eight, my feet hanging off the end of what was otherwise a spectacularly comfortable bed. I awoke around three in the morning to rowdy revelers returning to the hotel.
It’s a New Year, I thought, before drifting back to sleep.
Early one morning a couple days later, two full days into my tryout, our big team bus lumbered away from Liberec, sloping southeast towards the city of Ostrava, Prague’s little brother when it comes to commerce and culture, and where I’d play my first game with the Kondori.
A couple hours into the drive, just as the Czech movie without English subtitles gratefully ended, and just as we were all laying our heads on balled up sweatshirts for a little nap, black smoke began filling the aisle of our bus from an unseen source. We pulled off the road and everyone clamored out. We hustled upwind and eyed our billowing bus. The driver was busy with the fire extinguisher. He managed to kill the flames, but the engine was shot. Karel was on the phone, scrambling for a replacement, his phone-face displaying levels of seriousness previously unseen east of the Rhine.
For an hour or two we stood with our bags between our legs on the road’s gravelly shoulder, nasally high-speed noises crescendoing in our left ears as cars approached before fading dully like retreating surf in our right ears as they passed.
We arrived in Ostrava maybe twenty minutes before tip-off. Smelling faintly of forest fire, we hurriedly changed into our uniforms then changed into our warm-ups. I had completed one lay-up maybe when I realized I had to shit, and this shit was no squeeze-for-ten-seconds-and-it’ll-go-away situation. This was the kind of shit that made the word “urgent” flash like hazard lights in your brain. I darted off the court and into the arena’s back hallways in search of a bathroom. I didn’t want to use the locker room, where the coaches were doing whatever coaches do in the locker room before games, because I didn’t want them to see me not warming up, as if that would somehow affect their decision-making regarding playing time. Besides, the locker room was small, and the coaches would be right there able to see my shorts around my feet and maybe even my head sticking out. I didn’t want performance anxiety of this kind on top of the performance anxiety I was already feeling about the game. So, no locker room. I didn’t want to blow up one of the public restrooms either, the ones by the main entrance, because it wasn’t exactly the time or place for a meet-and-greet. After some maze-like movements, trying doors at random, descending and ascending stairwells like in a video game, I somehow found a little bathroom next to what looked like a janitor’s closet, though it was immediately apparent that said janitor neglected or forgot to clean his own bathroom. The water in the bowl was a feverish non-color. It smelled like a crusty microwave. I reached for some toilet paper. There was none.
And so minutes before I was due to debut my Czech career, my second swing at professional basketball, I was not out warming up with my teammates but alone in some filthy bathroom stall, debating whether I was spoiled, water closest-wise, and considering whether or not to shit without TP. I wasn’t thinking about the few set plays I’d learned in the scattering of practices I’d been a part of so far, nor did I mentally rehearse the scouting reports on their big men, how we’d defend the pick-n-roll, or whether we’d double their center.
In hindsight and however disgusting, I believe this ill-timed excreta, this bowel blessing, was good for my career. The smoky bus too, for that matter. They shook up my routine, twisted my brain a little and kept me from fretting the contract implications this game would have, implications far heavier than the weight in my midsection. If I played poorly tonight, I would likely fail my two-week tryout, and that would be two failed contracts in two different leagues in just six months. After that Agent Mike, for all his cache as an agent, would’ve struggled to land me a job in third-division Lichtenstein. There is no third-division Lichtenstein. There’s barely a first-division Lichtenstein, which is the point.
Anyway, I did my business best I could, tucked in my uniform, then went to wash my hands only to discover there was no soap. And so it was with un-WHO-approved hands, an ass like an unlicked brownie batter spoon, and no real warm-up that I rejoined my team out on the court. Several players gave me looks as if to say, Where you been, dawg? In Spain, the situation would’ve bled into a Shaq-sized pity party. In Czech Republic, it was….kind of fun.
Halfway through the season, Ostrava had yet to lose a game at home. The top team in the league, Nymburk, had lost only one game all year, at Ostrava. They, Ostrava, apparently had the best fans in the whole of Czech Republic, though the arena wasn’t massive. No more than twelve hundred or so seats. But just as many were finding standing room along the rails overlooking the seated sections, their escalating numbers reminding me of the countless Mr. Smiths lining up to fight Neo in The Matrix. The arena provided good evidence that, when it comes to fan support, it matters less how many fill the stands than their density in the spaces they do occupy. The more people crowded into smaller spaces, the greater their impact was on the game. Or so I theorize. Think of two hundred people at a party in a spacious ballroom. Now think of a hundred people packed into a tiny dive bar. Which is more conducive to rowdiness?
I didn’t start that evening, instead checking in somewhere towards the end of the first quarter. It was my first real game in a month and a half, and my first game with meaningful minutes in a lot longer. I made a bucket and played some okay defense. I felt okay. Things seemed okay. I mostly avoided self-analyzing. Towards the end of the second quarter I nailed a three from the corner. Like my pre-game bathroom break, this three was crucial – to the quarter, to the game, to the rest of my career. I made it in front of our bench. Someone smacked my ass as I ran back on defense. It bumped my confidence up over some critical mass, or at least prevented it from sinking into the red. Either way, I went into the locker room at halftime invigorated.
Sometimes when you don’t know what you can or can’t do, you can do a lot more than you would’ve had you stopped to think about what you can or can’t do. In Spain, my mental tabula was definitely not rasa. In Ostrava, it had been wiped partly clean through relocation. I had little idea who I was anymore as a basketball player. I had little self-concept when it came to self-expectations. This was freeing, and I was able to play basketball for the sake of basketball. In the second half I dropped 21 points as we handed Ostrava their first home loss of the season. That gave me 26 for the game, but the stat guys messed up and gave me 28. Even better! I hadn’t scored 28 points in a game, mistakenly or not, since high school.
My performance that night effectively ended my tryout. Karel moved to sign me for the rest of the season, and Agent Mike moved to make sure I got everything I’d been promised (Karel, ominously, had been maneuvering to cheapen the original agreement). Within a few days it was all worked out, and I signed through the season with Kondori Liberec BC. I gave Karel my bank information, and he promised me he’d wire the first installment of my salary soon.
My second game with the Condors came the following week. Again, an away game, though in a less hostile arena. We arrived a couple hours before tip-off, no fiery engines en route. Plenty of time to warm-up and take all the shits I needed. The stalls were well-stocked, TP-wise. Their fans weren’t as vicious, more of the politely-applauding tennis or golf variety. Nor was the team as good as Ostrava. We were expected to win.
Yet we lost. I had four lethargic points. Strains of self-paralysis, so familiar in Spain and so absent in Ostrava, reappeared in game two like sky-darkening weeds through the cracks of my consciousness.
Okay so why? Why the shift from game to game? My self-doubt had one-upped UPS in terms of speed of overnight international delivery. 28 points in the league’s toughest arena one night, then a ho-hum, head-clenchingly mediocre 4 points four days later against a lesser, middling team? Why? Did that second team employ some wicked new defense? Here’s a hypothesis: Against Ostrava, I’d been able to play for the sake of playing, mostly unattached to any personal expectation. As a result, I played spectacularly. But, given a few days to think about it, I’d determined 28 points was a dissonant figure when it came to what I self-conceptualized my abilities with a basketball. 28 points was an outlying statistic, even if it was the only data point so far. I did not see myself consistently scoring 28 points, even if I was perfectly capable of doing just that. The expectations I’d created with that first game, then, proved too much mentally, and were therefore unsustainable. My actual points over the next few evenings eventually evened things out. I was now averaging 16 points a game. Much better. Much more self-congruent.
Or maybe that second team really did have a wickedly good defense? Or maybe I’d slept funny the night before? Or maybe now that I was signed I just didn’t have the urgency anymore? Or maybe I played better with engine smoke in my lungs. I don’t know. Whatever, it’s worth thinking about. Basketball is so much more than basketball.
Sometime later I’d go back and think about my college career from this perspective. I’d scored over 1500 points in my four seasons at Davidson, but rarely in one game had I had more than eighteen and rarely less than ten. Often when I’d have a stretch of “good” games, I’d follow with a stretch of “bad” games, as if to even things out. This pattern seemed more significant than could be attributed to some standard ebb and flow of gameplay, and it was particularly prevalent in conference play, when competition was more even. It was like I had a mental quota I had to meet for each and every game. I would do what I had to do to meet it. Once it was met, it was a struggle to surpass it, no matter what my capabilities otherwise. If I did happen to surpass it, I’d subtly self-sabotage myself until things evened back out. Basketball so much more than basketball indeed.
The funky cognitive wiring of individual players aside, team success starts with the collective culture of the team, and the culture of the team starts with the head coach. Ales had a decent enough basketball IQ, in my humble opinion, but what he did well, or least way better than Joaquin, was create a team environment conducive to buying in. Nobody minded playing for him. He was generally loose and was even spotted genuinely laughing on several occasions, unheard of behavior for many, many coaches. Maybe it was our steady climb up the rankings since my arrival. Or perhaps it had something to do with Czech culture in general. Of all the countries I ended up playing in, the Czechs had the best sense of humor and the greatest capacity for playful self-mockery.
In Spain I’d achieved near fluency. I could read newspapers, understand television shows, and eavesdrop on locker room conversations. This was useful logistically, but not when I read or heard unflattering things about myself. In Czech I knew maybe fifteen words, and ten of those were numbers. I couldn’t understand shit and I wasn’t exactly studying the dictionary in my spare time. Most things in Czech, then, were lexical mysteries I didn’t care to solve. But my ignorance was proving blissful.
In Spain the team paid for a meal-a-day at a local restaurant, where junior players often ate, trying to show off their English, where the owner was a fan and pestered me for the inside scoop on the team. There’s not a thing “wrong” about this, but at the time I was in Loner Mode and trying to escape basketball whenever I could, and the restaurant being a prandial pseudo-extension of the locker room didn’t help. There was no meal-a-day perk worked into my Czech contract, but I still ate daily at La Fonduta, the restaurant where that waitress had shooed me away on New Year’s Eve. Her name was Adela and she was there a Stephen-Curry-free-throw-percentage of the times I showed up, which was like two times a day as I couldn’t cook in the hotel and the vending machine food from the lobby wasn’t exactly nutrient-dense. The food was cheap and delicious at La Fonduta. I ate by myself, and nobody asked me about basketball. It took me a couple of weeks to figure out what was what on the menu, but once I knew where to tap, and once Adela understood my gestures for water and more bread, it was all good. (This waitress Adela and I really bonded during the trial-and-error session, like, the first time I tried to order sparkling water, I made a drinking motion and then a sizzling sound like steaks on a grill.)
My first apartment in Spain, if you happened to read and remember, was not quite even an apartment. My hotel in Czech Republic was clean and comfortable. Every morning housekeeping came to tidy things up, often with me in the room. If I was still sleeping, the nice old maid (literally) would fluff the blanket with me still in bed, a broad sly grin across her crooked brown teeth.
In Spain I’d ostracized myself on an island. It was hard to be friends with the guys on the team, for that very reason. And it’s not like I went out much in Gijon, trawling for a soulmate. In Czech most of team didn’t speak English well enough to converse, but I didn’t feel alone in the locker room either. They laughed a lot, and real laughter can be contagious, even when you only have a vague idea about what’s funny. Plus, one night at La Fonduta I overheard two men speaking in English. I promptly stood up and plopped myself down at their table, hand extended across their tuna fish pizza. Their names were Mike and Ivan. They were older and living in Liberec because they couldn’t live in the States, for reasons you’ll have to use your imagination to surmise. They were friendly and gregarious. The three of us had dinner once a week.
One day Karel invited me to his house for dinner. Karel was in the tiny minority of Czechs who don’t drink beer, but, still a Czech, he drank the non-alcoholic variety anyway, which he served me my own bottle of as I sat down at the kitchen table inside his modest home. His wife stood by the stove, hovering over simmering pots and pans.
“You like the beer here?” Karel asked me. The Czech Republic has the highest per capita beer consumption rate in the world. Budweiser, the American staple, got its name from Budwar, a Czech brewery. The Czechs, in fact, drink so much beer they’ve built a plethora of “non-stops” (this is actually what they’re called in Czech, “non-stops”), small huts sprinkled across the country that serve 24/7 cheap beer and spirits and snacks. Not quite a bar, not really a grocery store, they basically mean that on Czech soil you can get drunk anytime you want, anywhere.
I had been relishing in Czech beer since my arrival, but I also knew Karel had worked a no-alcohol clause into my contract, which is extremely rare, and this fashioned this inquiry into a sort of trick question. “Standard procedure for all our players,” he’d told me when he pointed it out, the clause. I’d assumed it was in there in case a player got out of hand, alcohol-wise. The team would have an out if they wanted to cut the player.
If I said “Yes, I do enjoy the beer here,” I’d technically be admitting to a breach of contract. If I said “No,” I’d be lying, and I didn’t know how convincing I could be.
Karel cut in before I could answer. “I love beer. I drink it after workouts. Good B vitamins. Great for recovery.”
According to Karel, Czech beer, particularly sans-alcohol, is super-nutritious. However many years or decades ago, Karel said, the Czech government slapped the butt of its hand on its forehead in realizing just how much beer the country consumed. So much beer, apparently, that meager wages were often spent on beer instead of on real food. To ensure the country was getting needed nutrition, the government coerced beer manufacturers to fortify their product with whatever vitamins and minerals they could squeeze in.
Karel’s wife set three hot plates on the table, chunks of steaming potato and pork and a kind of picklish salad, classic Eastern European fare. She briefly sat down before jumping back up, taking her plate with her, off to tend to some unseen matter, leaving Karel and I alone in the kitchen. I finally had his seriousness figured out. He was the kind of guy who couldn’t quite believe the job he’d lucked into. He couldn’t believe he was the General Manager (GM) of a professional basketball team. It felt like he was perpetually surprised that he was in charge, and to mask that surprise he’d mastered the stone face, because of course everybody knows that pro basketball is nothing if not serious. He never really turned off GM mode either, which meant our dinner would be nothing more than an extended tryout, even though I’d already signed.
Karel asked why I played.
“You mean like basketball?” I said.
Karel smiled the way serious people smile, close-lipped and without the eyes, as if to say, What else?
The suddenness of the question threw me off. It was like when your computer breaks down and you call the support number and you get the nerdy-sounding tech guy on the line, and while you’re troubleshooting the busted software he all of a sudden asks you if you love your spouse. You think you do, you’ve always thought you have, but the abruptness of the question, and that it was asked out loud, adds to its force, and you feel compelled to really think. Basketball, at the time, was my wifey and my side piece all rolled into one.
“Basketball,” Karel said. “Why do you think you compete?”
The question quickly took on an outlandish significance. I still remember the moment, the intensity of his interrogative expression as he waited for me to say something, and the peppery feeling in my stomach as I scrambled to come up with an answer.
I had one, but my answer was only what I thought Karel wanted to hear. The way I arrived at my answer, interestingly, perhaps partly answered the question: to win the approval of others. To please others so as to validate myself, in the manner I was now attempting to please Karel, in hopes his response to my hopefully correct response might make me feel a certain way, like I was worthy enough to sit at his table, to be on his team, to play the game.
Had I managed to honest, however, here’s what I might’ve said:
“Well gee, Karel, that’s a great question. Let’s see if I can take a good hard stab at it. So, why do I play? Why do I compete? Well, my dad’s tall, and my mom’s not short, and my grandfather was like 6’6 back in the days when being 6’6 was like a crane, so I have the height. I played other sports growing up, too, notably soccer, and I actually liked soccer a lot better than basketball for a while. But then in eighth grade I got cut from my travel soccer team. That same year I averaged thirty-some points a game in a competitive local YMCA basketball league, and I got a little more crane-like myself, height-wise, and I started playing some decent AAU ball. So things were kind of falling into place. By the time I reached high school it was pretty much a given I’d try out for the team, because that’s what tall people with potential do, am I right Karel? They try to make it. Anyway, I made Junior Varsity and played really well, and by the end of the year people were talking about my promising future on Varsity. Other people said I could play in college, maybe on scholarship. At the time basketball was mostly fun, Karel. I liked being good at it. It made me anxious, but not that kind of anxious. I didn’t think about why I played. There was no need. It would’ve been like asking a kid at the playground why he’s having fun.
My sophomore year I started getting letters from colleges, early pitches from coaches who’d eventually offer me four-year scholarships worth six figures to come play at their schools. After my junior season, my AAU coach thought it would be a good idea if I left Charlottesville to play my senior year for Oak Hill Academy1, some boarding school I’d never heard of in bodunk, Virginia. I said “okay I’ll look into it because why not?” I ended up going. I left Charlottesville to transfer to a boarding school pretty much exclusively for basketball reasons. And if I’m leaving home before I really have to, if I’m giving up my senior year at home for basketball’s sake, I guess that means I’m pretty invested in basketball. That might’ve been when we got married, me and basketball. That senior year at Oak Hill I committed to play college ball at Davidson, and man, Karel, once you’re playing Division 1, that’s pretty much your life. Suddenly your whole existence revolves around hooping, if it didn’t already before. And then you play decently in college and people start talking about pro ball, maybe not the NBA, but you’re definitely good enough to play in Europe, and it’s not like you’re going to start looking for jobs anywhere else. Part of you, maybe, questions why you want to keep playing after college, but what other option is there? It’s not like you can see yourself in finance or dentistry or something mundane like that. Besides, you’re still pretty raw when it comes to making decisions for yourself. People have been telling you what to do all your life. What sets to run, what positions you’ll play, how to rebound, how to play defense, what schools to go to, what to do when there are no more schools to go to.
They tell you you can make it overseas. On a side note, you’re still not sure what making it means, the definition keeps getting amended. Perhaps making it is only a carrot. Anyway, to stop playing after college would’ve meant rendering useless the years of my life I’d devoted to the game, according to certain people. It’s like I played in high school to get to college, and then I played college only to get to the pros. This is what it felt like. It sucks, Karel, ‘cause the more you keep investing, the more you have to keep playing to keep validating that additional investment. I mean, think about it, if you gave up a “regular” sans-sport college experience – the kind of college experience that years later, when you reflect, you most wish you had – then you’d probably go to some lengths to make that sacrifice worth it. Plus, who quits a lifelong pursuit right when he’s about to start making some money from it? Why not make a little cake and go see the world? Are you starting to see, Karel, why I play and compete? And plus there’s the “What else is there?” angle. Let’s say you were me, Karel. If you gave up basketball, what would you do? Remember, you’re a Basketball Player. What, exactly, is your skill set otherwise? You can’t honestly tell anyone you have any clue about yourself away from the game. You play basketball, that’s what you know how to do, and so you go to Europe to continue playing. The sport by now has become your life. Sure, often it’s not fun. Often it makes you super-anxious, and yes, that kind of anxious. But you don’t know anything else. It’s what’s most familiar. The bounce of a ball and the resounding echo in an empty gym. That’s your meditative gong. The cheers from fans when you score, the approval of coaches, high fives from teammates. These are the things that feed your self-worth. Your name stitched across the back of your jersey. This is your identity. Your stat line is your Social Security Number. Walk away from this and you have no idea who you are. So you keep playing. You have to keep playing. There’s no other option because you’re a Basketball Player. The longer you stay in the game, the harder it is to see yourself any other way, so you stay in the game.
You and the game are homogenous, a long-simmering stew of genetics, precedents and antecedents. You’re a Basketball Player, and that’s the only way you see yourself, and that’s why you play, that’s why you compete. To fit your self-image. Because there’s no other way it could’ve happened. That’s not to say I wouldn’t do it all again if I could, Karel, I’m not saying that at all, because there are some really incredible angles of basketball that I’m pretty grateful to be a part of, but it’s just that you asked. Does that answer your question, Karel?”
“I think I play for fun. Because it’s fun. I like the camaraderie I feel with my teammates,” is what I actually said. This was at least 38.5% true 27.4% of the time.
“I play to win,” Karel responded immediately, as if I hadn’t responded, as if the whole point of the question had been to set up his answer to it.
Karel’s ever-serious expression betrayed hints of self-satisfaction, his nostrils flaring a little wider and his eyes slitting a little thinner, ever closer to that elusive sneeze.
“Yeah,” I said, feeling stupid that I’d stooped to answer the question with his approval in mind. Winning. Suddenly I didn’t like Karel as much. Everything I’d previously thought about him was adjusted in the perplexing sting of this harsh new revelation. I started to feel more alone in the Czech Republic, all because Karel said he played to win. Which was confusing because a big part of me played to win too. Before I left Karel’s house I asked him whether he’d wired my salary. He said he had and that it should arrive in my account before the end of the week.
It wasn’t just me. Every single player on the team had a no-alcohol clause worked into their contracts. Yet every single player on the team seemed to love to drink, and so drink we did. This was the Czech Republic after all, a place where the government itself takes the time to consider the nutritiousness of the beer in its non-stops.
Although we had to be surreptitious. We avoided the non-stops in favor of our own speakeasy of sorts, the Sailor Pub, a place with golden anchors and nautical maps on the walls. The Sailor Pub was located in a darker part of the city, noticeable from the stone street only by a small, night-light-like, white-and-green Staropramen coat-of-arms-like sign jutting out from the gray Soviet building it occupied the basement of. We all sat around a thick medieval-ish wooden table emptying fifty-cent pints until it was time to sing Czech folk tunes. One of the guys actually had an accordion and whenever the Czech guys were good and hoarse and whenever I started to think I knew the words we’d squeeze into taxis and zip over to the legendary and eternal Zanzibar, the bar attached to the local university, where seemingly every Liberecian under the age of thirty-five hung out on Friday and Saturday nights.
I had terrible trouble picking up women at the Zanzibar. One day at dinner with Mike and Ivan I told them how I kept striking out.
“That’s because they know you want them,” Mike said. “Pretend like you don’t care.”
He nodded. “Really. It’s sad, but that’s just how it is. They get suspicious when you give them too much direct attention.”
It was in Liberec that I first did some “serious” writing, producing in the span of a month or two a one hundred and seventy page novella. The protagonist was a twenty-something male studying abroad in Europe who liked to party. One night while he’s out he meets a beautiful but kind of dark and enigmatic woman who, a half-hour into their conversation, tells him she’s an alien. Though she is still a mostly-human alien, part of a colony of former Earthlings who fled the solar system long ago for political reasons (the geopolitical inter-planetary situation is complicated). She’s visiting Earth in search of a suitable sperm donor, as all the men on her home planet are sexually and irreversibly impotent.
The mostly-human alien’s name is Adela, which was, of course, the name of the blonde waitress at La Fonduta. She was around my age. She was playful in a mischievous kind of way. She had eyes that always made her seem like she was thinking about something a little sad. She did her part to uphold the Czech Republic’s high visual standard when it comes to women, and, unless she or I learned a new language, she was eternally mysterious, which only increased her allure and only added to the speculation with which I molded her fictitiously into my pages.
The novella’s protagonist falls madly in love with Adela, and if you possess anything resembling a functioning nervous system you can probably draw some parallels between how the protagonist feels about Adela, the fictitious Adela in search of a sperm donor, and how I felt about Adela, the Adela who brought me my check every day. Our interactions at the restaurant were almost narcotic, full of subtly blatant sexuality and that thrill that accompanies impossibility but also tinged with a gnawing sense that the whole attraction thing might be one-sided, that she might be a tease and is simply having a little fun with the massively tall American who lumbers in everyday. The way her hand may or may not have brushed my shoulder as she set down my plate. The way we may or may not have locked gazes an extra second longer than we needed to. The way we randomly dropped a word of the other’s language into our non-conversations, the possibly flirty pitch of her giggle. I liked how indecipherable she was. All the while the possibility of a “real” relationship remained impractical, and, in a way, undesired. I’m not sure we would’ve gotten along had we been able to converse in a non sublexical language. But it didn’t matter anyways as she was involved in what I wanted to see as a sugar-daddy capacity with some older businessman twice her age, a guy with a fluffed pillow for a stomach who I’d see at the restaurant every couple of weeks, at which times Adela’s smile would flatten and she’d suddenly become very serious, even pouty, and ignore my table.
To further answer Karel’s query, there was another reason why I played and competed. It was a big part of why most professional basketball players compete. Professional basketball was, after all, a job. By March, two full months into my contract, my bank account still looked like the front fender of an Audi. I began to formulate different ways of asking Karel the same thing, and Karel kept telling me he’d sent the money. Agent Mike told me to ask Karel for a bank receipt. When I asked Karel for one, he told me he must’ve been mistaken, the money actually hadn’t yet been sent. He told me sorry and that he’d send it that day, don’t worry.
Meanwhile on the court we were cranking out enough wins to keep fighting up spots in the league standings. I was playing consistently if not spectacularly. We’d climbed from 9th place to 6th in the standings since my arrival. We would reach our goal of making the playoffs, the question was now whether once in, could we could pull off an upset and advance.
It was around this time that I unexpectedly bumped into Karel in the back stairwell of the hotel. I had taken to skipping the elevators and he was on his way up, I was on my way down. I might not have thought anything of it, but then I noticed the surprise encounter had cracked his seriousness. He looked a little insecure and perhaps a shade sheepish, and then he started talking some nonsense about my passport, like he was here to see me. But it was obvious he wasn’t here to see me, and I knew exactly what he was doing sneaking up some emergency staircase in the back of a hotel.
By April I was threatening to sit out games if I didn’t get paid. Or rather Agent Mike was telling me this was a last resort, sitting out, but a viable and increasingly necessary last resort, as my money was still MIA. I began to try to politely relay to both Coach Ales and GM Karel that I was on US Route 1 heading south and leaving mainland USA and that lonely Key West was just another ten minutes across the Seven-Mile Bridge. I tried to be nice about my intentions, as I didn’t want Ales cutting my playing time over bad feelings in case the money suddenly came through, and I didn’t want Karel thinking I was trying to fight him for the money and give him any excuse not to send it. In other words, I wanted to dig out my own trench and establish a front line while still playing for the other side. Both Coach and Karel gave me legitimate-sounding reasons why the money hadn’t been sent. A change of ownership, different banks, different accounts. It’s not just you, they said, none of the players are getting anything. Still, as the only foreigner on the team, I was operating under a different set of circumstances.
By this point I didn’t know what or who to believe, but honestly I didn’t really notice not getting paid. Living expenses in the Czech Republic were comparatively cheap and I had money from Spain. I was getting along well with my teammates, was playing decently, and was generally enjoying my time in the Czech Republic, Mike, Ivan, Adela, novella and all. Money, in a way, felt like a bonus. I mean, I was basically on an all-expenses-paid extended European trip to play basketball. Still, money mattered, especially when I found out certain guys on the team had been paid portions of their salaries in January and February.
A few games before the playoffs I gave the team my ultimatum. They had one week to put a minimum of two months salary into my bank account or I’d refuse to play until they did.
Ales tried to talk me out of it. I shrugged and felt bad.
Karel and I met in his office to try and talk it out as well. When he realized I wasn’t going to budge, he said to give him a few minutes, and with me sitting right there he proceeded to make a series of phone calls, cashing in favors, scraping the dry bottoms of the team’s bank accounts, trying to scrounge up what cash he could. After each phone call he jotted a figure on a Post-it note. A few times he ran a hand back through his hair, his eyes wide, inhaling sharply, as if the person on the other end had revealed something horrid. After five or ten minutes he hung up the phone a final time, added the figures, and quoted me a number down to the cent. “I can get you this much,” he said. It was a little under half of a month’s salary. I stared back at him as if through a glass wall. I’d given him doubt’s naive benefit for months, but eventually the truth was too bright to ignore, and now his credibility was no longer even worth the arbitrary number he’d quoted me. I don’t think he even made a single call. He’d been speaking to a dial tone for those five or ten minutes, wanting to seem desperate, like he was doing all he could, like I was somehow being greedy, like I was somehow siphoning the nutrients from his precious non-alcoholic beer. Maybe he had done all he could, maybe he really was making desperate phone calls on my behalf, but that wasn’t my perception from across the office then, and I still hold that same perception now, and I guess there’s no way of knowing. I shook my head at the Post-it note and felt a little depressed. The exchange was bigger than what it seemed, bigger than a paycheck. It felt like Karel was forcing me to update and rewire a few internal motherboards and processors to accommodate what he’d taught me about deception.
I didn’t wait the full week. That afternoon, after getting Ales to sign a handwritten note stating that he understood my decision and agreed with it, I showed up for practice but not to practice. It was awful. I sat on the bench, sweating like I was actually on the court, feeling lame and caged, my mind dissecting and analyzing and massaging the situation from all possible points of view – my own, the team’s, my teammates’, the fans’, legal, moral, ethical – to determine which point of view was correct, to determine whether I had real rationale in sitting out or whether I was being some eggheaded American. Growing up I’d read annually about players holding out for better deals. I’d never looked upon those players favorably. Was I any better now? For their part, my Czech teammates didn’t give me any shaming looks. They treated me the way participating practice players might treat an injured player, indifferently and kind of dismissively but not degradingly. They weren’t getting paid either, but as domestic players they didn’t have the luxury of holding out. Again, I was the only foreigner. I had to navigate on my own.
Agent Mike eventually got me half of all that I was owed, but not until June, not until long after I’d said goodbye to Mike and Ivan, to Adela, to Coach, to the guys on the team. Not until I’d left Liberec in mid-April, a few days before the playoffs I’d helped us make. Not until I’d packed up my still half-empty suitcase. Not until I’d zoomed back down the E-65, sitting next to a chauffeuring Karel, both of us pretending like nothing was amiss.
I wish I could leave you with something definitive here, that I could tell you a certain valuable lesson was learned, that I’d navigated some moral mine field and deactivated them all along the way. I wish I could say that I could neatly tie-up my Czech experience in a coming-of-age bow, but I have no such lesson or gift to impart other than what you can make of what I’ve already shared. I left the Czech Republic a little more aware that people are people, just like basketball is basketball, just like life is life. The more you dig, the more complicated and layered and susceptible to viewpoint it gets, life, and perhaps therein lies the message, the message being that sometimes there is no message, and the only thing we’ve got is a Gatorade Cooler full of something murky, and you’re free to drink as much as you can handle as long you accept you might never understand what you toss down the hatch. I do know that following through on my threat to sit-out was pretty courageous, but I also know that if I could go back and do it again I would play in those playoffs, with or without a salary.
I spent several days in Praha before flying back to Virginia. I’d come to really embrace the land through the Little Door, riding the bus in from Liberec on our off days just to wander around. I wasn’t thinking about next year, whether I wanted a sophomore season or whether two pretty much failed pro excursions in my first nine months after college were enough to put the wraps on the whole professional basketball thing. I just wanted to forget about it all for a while. After dropping my bags at the hotel, I found an internet cafe near Wenceslas Square and began perusing my travel options. I had an unexpectedly open stretch of summer before me and I wanted to stay on the move. A couple of my Davidson friends were working at a bilingual school in Honduras and invited me to come for a week or two to teach Physical Education, specifically basketball. The idea was for me to teach the game I was still struggling to figure out myself, a game I might very soon decide was not going to be a part of my future anymore. My college roommate was working in South Africa and his place had an extra mattress. My buddies from Charlottesville wanted to fly over and check out Europe. Options, options, options. Later that evening, while I dined in some Old Town restaurant, I saw on the television mounted above the bar footage from the sunny campus of Virginia Tech. The camera was at a distance, zoomed in from afar as bulky figures in all black made movements outside of some dormitory. There was a body count.
The very next morning I was up way early. I dressed and once I left the hotel descended into the nearest Metro stop. Standing next to the turnstile, eying the color-coded wall mural of a map, I picked another stop at random, somewhere far out on the line, and decided I’d go there, would travel ten or so stops and blindly ride the escalator up into daylight and look around and see. En route I sat across from a man, a man visibly drunk or high or crazy or all three, dressed in national Ceska regalia. A blue jersey. A red scarf. Almost religiously, he rocked back and forth, obliviously and repetitively and hoarsely chanting stadium cheers. The Czech soccer team had played a match the evening before. This fan, apparently, had been out all night celebrating a win, or disparaging a loss. It was hard to tell which in his current state, euphoria and despair being pretty much the same thing once you get past a certain point.
One afternoon, back in Liberec, a couple weeks before I left, I was the only patron in La Fonduta. Adela was waitressing. She wore her regular black boutonniere-like apron and a purple shirt. Sometimes the shirt would ride up a little and I could see a sliver of a tattoo just over the rim of her jeans.
Throughout my meal we had one of our non-conversations, a goofy borderline-awkward kind of exchange. The kind of infatuation-laced schoolyard banter you cringe at when you’re witnessing it as a third party. But also the kind which is really sort of wonderful and riveting when you’re a participant, especially when you’re still an amorously-inclined 22 years old and you’re hanging out with the woman who over the past couple months has inspired you write a lengthy and leading-lady-reverent piece of fiction.
After my meal we were standing by the bar. I was still the only patron. The chefs were either chilling in the back or outside smoking. I was stalling some on my way out, and she was giving me reason to stall, and we were just kind of grinning stupidly at each other and not really doing anything. Then Adela’s grin seemed to increase its radiance until it reached a kind of wattage that could only signify a certain kind of long-awaited suggestion or invitation. My brain immediately and furiously tried to confirm that it was picking up the right signals, which was hard because all of a sudden my thinking cortex was like, pyrotechnic. For a few seconds it was like life had hit the “Hang On A Sec Let’s Make Sure This is Really Happening” button, and our eyes tingled and our smiles quivered and all the while we were ingesting and translating the intimations that each of us was subliminally yet obviously sending to the other. All of this took no more than a few seconds. And then when life hit the “Resume” button I stooped a little and slid my hands around her waist as she tilted back a little and reached up her arms to encircle my neck. And then it happened, there, a brief but very sweet cup from the Cooler indeed.
The ending of my novella is inevitable. The protagonist and Adela are from different parts of the galaxy. On the last page there’s a cloaked spaceship sitting in low orbit, lazily circling Earth, waiting to frisk her at high speeds back to her home planet, alone.
- Oak Hill is a high school basketball powerhouse. We were the consensus number 1 team in the country for most of my time there. [↩]