Basketball Comes Back, and So Does Cambodia

The recent deadly grenade attack is not the whole story to war-weary people who see new life rising at work and play

If you want to see how Phnom Penh has returned to life, just step onto the basketball courts of the Olympic Stadium, dodge the flying elbows, and relish the company of young men who finally can shoot a jumper instead of a rifle.

These five outdoor courts were often near-empty when I first played there in the late 1980s. Cambodia was then Communist-ruled, and all the able-bodied were fighting Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the northwest jungles. The few Cambodian players were scrawny middle-aged men who huffed and puffed and heaved the ball in set shots, as Americans did decades ago. They were the survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s.

American and European aid workers had more energy and stamina, and the advantage of the jump shot. They ruled the courts before yielding to a flood of United Nations soldiers during the 1991-93 peacekeeping mission.

Now, with a new government in place, the insurgency dwindling, and the urban economy thriving, the Cambodians are starting to take back the courts, as they have their own country. Every evening, as the harsh tropical sun sets, these courts fill up. Several old-timers remain, but they're drowned out and left behind in the down-court rush of youths and their cheering, drum-beating fans. Some of these newcomers are quick and tireless. They can bury the jumper.

The young pummel their elders on basketball courts around the world. That it's finally happening in Phnom Penh is a sure sign that normal life is returning after a quarter-century of war and violent revolution.

Cambodia is still plagued by very serious problems and is frequently on edge. As shown by the March 30 deadly grenade attack on a demonstration led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, one of the most worrisome problems is the escalating political rivalry ahead of the next general election, slated for late 1998.

Still, the new life you see on the playgrounds and the motorcycle-clogged streets belies the doomsaying about Cambodia that appears in US newspapers. Many American journalists and human rights workers expected the UN mission - then the largest, costliest, and most ambitious in history - to bring democracy and prosperity to Cambodia overnight. That didn't happen, so they see failure all around.

Start of a long process

But Cambodians know the UN period was just the start of a long process of change, and they must accomplish this change themselves. They've already experienced tremendous change from the political repression and economic ruin of the 1980s. Journalists are convinced that Cambodia is falling apart, because they focus on every little machination and bombast of government leaders - and ignore what is happening among ordinary people.

These politicians sometimes hold huge rallies at the Olympic Stadium's soccer arena, a stone's throw from the basketball courts. But it's different from the past, when much of life was at the behest of the politicians. Now ballplayers can ignore the talk and focus on the game.

Young Viseth Koy arrives on a big black motorbike, a must-have of Phnom Penh's nouveau riche. With a swagger of the hips, he flips his black cap around, just as they do on the playgrounds of Chicago to show who's cool and who's not. He's been watching NBA games on cable and satellite TV, a fairly recent import. Viseth not only has the outside jumper, but also the even more novel behind-the-back dribble. As he zips up and down court, he rattles off the few English phrases he knows: "Our ball!" "OK, time out." "That's a foul!"

If Viseth really aspires to Cambodia's national team, he'd better realize it's no NBA-style life of luxury. Practice is on the battered concrete courts where everyone else plays, because there's no money to turn on the lights at the indoor gym. A much-anticipated trip to the Southeast Asian Games in Thailand in 1995 was nixed when the government said it had no travel money. In tournaments the team has been stomped, except for one win over Laos.

American on the team

But the heart is there. UN worker Brad Adams has seen "a huge improvement" in the three years he's been playing pickup games with the national team. Mr. Adams, an American who played professional basketball in Britain, says the team is on a par with a small US high school team: "They watch a lot of games on TV and video, and they're exposed to a lot of foreign players now."

These must be some of the most multinational basketball courts in the world, an amazing contrast to the isolationism of the 1980s. At any given time, you can hear players speaking in Khmer, English, Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, and other dialects), German, Vietnamese, Tagalog, French, Italian, and other tongues. They're no longer only the charity workers or UN soldiers upon whom Cambodians depended to get them past food shortages and war. They're businessmen, diplomats, tourists, and others involved in Cambodia's reentry into the world community.

Physical conditions aren't ideal at the stadium, which shows all of its 33 years.of existence. Cracks in the concrete make the ball bounce at strange angles. Some rims are slanted. Backboards threaten to fall apart. The hands of the huge Seiko clock are forever frozen at 7:35. Many guys still play barefoot. You have to be careful. The moves still are herky-jerky; to defend is to shove, elbow, whack.

Ly Phlong, a Cambodian-American who's come back to work in Phnom Penh and plays here regularly, knows the true advantage of the outside jumper. The difference from play in America, he says, is "you can't drive inside here, you'd get killed."

But, after years of covering the war, and seeing women and children who'd lost legs to land mines, it's a kind of aggressiveness I don't mind at all.

* Peter Eng, a freelance writer based in Bangkok, spent 12 years covering Cambodia and other Asian countries for the Associated Press.

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