My first pass on a basketball court in one of the world's poorest countries was too hard and too late—six skips, and the ball had rolled into the riverbed. I ran after it, saved it from the impoverished trickle that is the dry-season river and was about to return to the court, when out of a shack constructed of branches, plastic and scraps of aluminum came tumbling a small boy, crying desperately. Immediately I heard a man's shout from inside the shack. a little girl's shriek and the sounds of a father beating his daughter. I stared for a moment, absently tossing the ball toward the court.
As I turned to rejoin the game, I saw a player from the other team passing the ball inbounds to the man I was supposed to be guarding. He walked in for a layup. So that's how you play here, I thought.
Inside I felt myself turning cold and hard. Now I had the ball at the top of the key. I faked right, drove left, the lane opened and the sun came out and I strolled in, double pumping for the sheer hell of it. Make it, take it. Now I was dribbling on the left side of the basket, doing something 5'11" former high school point guards only do to their little brothers, backing slowly to the hoop, posting up my man, with each step feeling nothing behind me but the thin Andean mountain air. I wheeled, shot, missed, rebounded and scored. Playing in the Third World was like playing in the NBA: no defense!
I came back the next day and the day after, reveling in my dominance. Then I began to grow frustrated. To me, basketball is one of the holy things; once, in a dirt-driveway pickup game in the Ozark mountains, I swarmed my wife so furiously on defense that when she exploded out of her crouch, her head crashed into mine, leaving a preposterous lump on her forehead, a purple moon around my eye. Where was such seriousness here?
They loitered on defense, they giggled at air balls. They lost track of the score. Part of me admired this happy-go-lucky approach to a sport—but that part was in my head, and the game was in my blood. "!Defensa!" I began imploring my teammates. "¿Dónde está tu hombre?" ("Where is your man?") I stopped taking pleasure from my strolls to the basket—I began passing off instead. And still, every time I raced out of bounds after a ball or stooped to tie my shoelaces, the other team shook off its nonchalance, exploited my disadvantage and scored, indifferent to my protests in sputtering Spanish.
At the heart of my frustration stood Fortuna, a short, dark boy who played in a jacket on 80° days, took siestas on defense and, grinning, chucked 35-foot shots from his hip every time he touched the ball. Instead of scolding him, his teammates fed him the ball. "Fortuna! Fortuna!" they serenaded every one of his heaves, following the ball's are with giddy delight. Every now and then, the ball grazed the rim or the backboard. I wanted to strangle Fortuna.
Some days, in no mood for such blasphemy, I avoided the pickup games and practiced my shot. My eyes had time to wander. More shacks were being built on the riverbed, and not all of them belonged to families. Abandoned children were congregating inside them, selling cocaine in order to live, smoking it in order to forget. One day the police swooped down and flushed them out of the shacks—drug users, gasoline sniffers, venereal-disease sufferers—none of them older than 15.
I stopped shooting and indifferently watched a game of three-on-three. Mostly I was staring at the riverbed. As my wife and I discovered soon after beginning a year of volunteer work—she in a hospital, I teaching English—rotting garbage and excrement were everywhere; there was no adequate disposal system, so people dumped their garbage in the closest empty space. Pigs, sheep, dogs, cows and donkeys nosed through it for useful morsels. Taxi and bus drivers wheeled their vehicles into the sorry trickle to wash them; amid lorries and livestock, women washed their clothes and men washed their hair. People, even animals, moved at a slow, resigned rhythm.
Something about poverty here was very different from it in the U.S., on the court just as on the riverbed. No one's poverty made him burn. People let fate glide past them instead of moving their feet and grunting to try to stop it; they found shortcuts, quick inbounds passes while the opponent or the authorities weren't looking. Here, that seemed to be the only way to survive.
I looked up and saw Fortuna chucking another 35-footer, everyone giggling, the ball caroming toward the river. That was three months ago, and I haven't played basketball since.