In my last year at university, I got the name of a European basketball agent who could help me land a job after graduation. He gave me a list of Americans already playing overseas. I called one of them and asked him what it was like playing in Europe. His answer reminded me of John Travolta’s line from Pulp Fiction, about ‘the little differences’. ‘They’ve got the skills and everything,’ he said. ‘But they don’t have that attitude, do you know what I mean? That edge …’
The first mistake I made when I joined the basketball team in Germany was admitting I spoke the language. It would have been weird not to – it would have been very weird. But sometimes over the course of the year, I imagined what it would be like for people around me (coaches, players) to talk naturally with each other in the expectation that I couldn’t understand them. It would have given me an edge.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to waste time at school by talking about the basketball box scores from the night before. (A box score is rows and columns of statistical information: minutes played, rebounds, assists, points scored etc. I think it started as a baseball term. Scores in a box.) We wanted to come up with a formula that measured how good a player was: the Dominance Quotient, we called it, only slightly self-mockingly.
For the past three months I have had the good fortune to be the Heimbold Visiting Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University, northwest of Philadelphia. Last night Villanova was in the final of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship for the first time since winning in 1985. (I am not claiming there is a connection with my being here, but any American universities willing to take a punt on next year are free to give me a call.)
The basketball World Cup ended on Sunday. The world won – they beat the Americans four games to one. The world’s team is represented by Argentina, Australia (twice), Brazil, Canada, France (also twice), Italy, the US Virgin Islands, and a handful of other Americans. They are based in San Antonio, Texas. The club they play for is owned by the great-grandson of the inventor of the caterpillar-tread tractor. Their coach comes from Indiana, the son of a Serb father and Croat mother; he graduated from the Air Force with a degree in Soviet Studies. I mention all this because people get funny ideas about Texas. They think it's parochial.
I didn’t even see the game. I landed after a 12-hour flight in Kuala Lumpur, or versts away from it down the coast where the airport is, took a taxi first along empty roads past miles of billboards and equatorial foliage, and then through chock-a-block city traffic, stuck in tunnels, surrounded by high-rises, for another hour, before I got to my hotel at around 9 a.m. But the room wasn’t ready, so I sat in a lounge with my computer trying to stream the NBA finals, which were happening not only on another continent but on another earth day, 12 hours behind me, on a Thursday summer night after work in Miami.