A Lesson in Fun, Far Away

TODAY was my inauguration into the world's basketball league. I joined team USA as we played an exhibition match against a scrappy collection of hometown favorites.

The game was held on their aging concrete court nestled among the buildings of the Satya Wacana University hostel complex in Salatiga on the island of Java in Indonesia. The court was well loved, with its crumbling plywood backboards clinging to the rusted, double-rimmed hoops. One net was a freshly replaced neon blue and orange, while the other was a faded gray that attested to the durability of native Indonesian fiber.

I stepped onto the court, ending a two-year hiatus from basketball. I felt entirely unlike Michael Jordan returning to his greatness. I had never been a basketball player, nor really an athlete of any kind since my prepubescent days in Little League and summer drill camps. I felt much more like the last man picked in my junior-high gym class.

This feeling was amplified by the crowd that had turned out to support the home-team Salatigans. Just as in junior high, there were many girls on the sidelines watching the game, and me. They watched as I tired quickly. Soon I was unable to keep up with Arizona, the court name of the Indonesian I was covering. Like many of his teammates, he wore a T-shirt relating to some US state, brand, or NBA team.

Arizona was leading me up and down the court in his bare feet as I puffed to catch him in my brand-new Nikes. The girls giggled every time I plowed down the court chasing Arizona and reached the basket just in time to have the ball fall through the orange-blue net and into my hands. With each girl's laugh and each futile drive down the court, I began to pay less attention to playing than I did to not playing.

By the second half, I was doing my best to give the appearance of being in the game while doing everything I could to avoid being passed the ball. I justified to myself that it was better to look bad in general than to get the ball and look bad specifically. My fatigue was overcome only by my preoccupation with how soon my turn would come to sit out and avoid embarrassment altogether.

When I was finally on the sidelines, I was able to really see the game for the first time. It wasn't teams Salatiga and USA I watched. Instead, it was what happened at the other end of the court.

EACH time the teams moved from one side of the court to the other, the newly vacated end filled with children who would flood from the sidelines to the basket and gleefully shoot hoops until they were ousted by the teams returning to that net. The joy I witnessed in their faces had been smothered for me by my insecurity. These children were not blaming missed shots on the physics of the equator, as I had; they were having fun. I had missed that.

As it turned out, the game ended before it was time for my return. Team USA was beaten rather handily, although no official score was kept. But I had learned an important lesson.

I discovered that the mental side of athletics is as crucial on one side of the planet as it is on the other. Now I look forward to the next time I play basketball: It will be less a chance to hone my skills and more an opportunity to express the joy I felt from those Indonesian children playing in the wake of our competition.

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