The Young Money: Basketball Jones – Exploring the Blacktop Game Around the Globe

I love basketball. I mean I really love basketball. I do not want to come off as an insensitive American, but it really pains me to see other countries not have the same passion for the game of basketball like I do.  I’ve traveled to Korea, Thailand, Turkey and then back to Thailand over the past three years and every time I touch-downed in the foreign land I craved one thing and one thing only.

Yes, I did crave the scrumptious delicacies of the new world, but I also hungered for a pickup game of basketball. As the staff member took me and my group around the new country, I would usually ask, “Do the people in this country like basketball?”

Whether it was Turkey or Thailand, I found myself shaking my head in disappointment when they tell me “Not many people play basketball, but many people football is popular.” Football meaning soccer, of course. Like an alcoholic who can’t imagine a day without a drink, I begin to contemplate how long into the trip it will take until my mind finally cracks from not playing some basketball. Luckily I’ve managed to find a local basketball court in all my trips that were not too far from where I stayed.

Judging by how the 2010 FIFA World Cup expected to have 27 billion viewers compared to how the FIBA World Championship’s expected to have 1 billion viewers, it’s already evident that soccer is the world’s game. If you still don’t believe me, just go to any country outside the USA and step into a city park. You will see a basketball court being used for a game of street soccer. Try talking with the locals. You will see them scratching their heads if you bring up Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant or Metta World Peace, but you definitely will excite them for an hour and a half if you spill the dirt about Joey Barton, Mario Balotelli or Robbie Fowler. That’s just how it is with sports outside the United States. Very few people know much or care passionately about basketball.

Recently in my second trip to Thailand, I found a basketball court outside the dormitories of Payap University. There were groups of Thai students that were running a game on that one court. I asked a group of students at the bench if I could join their squad and they allowed me to join them in the next game. They were pretty tall, the largest guy being 5 feet 11 inches. After some small talk about their background and school life, I tried to talk about the NBA. After seeing some smiles when mentioning the Lakers, immediately I got some confused looks when I brought up the Dallas Mavericks. Even the guy in the Miami Heat jersey did not know what I was talking about. Maybe I needed to say it in an accent? It didn’t matter because before I knew it, the game on the court already ended and we were up next. We stepped onto the court and got the game started.

I found their game to be fairly easy. First, I managed to scramble around the low-key and had many open looks, but sadly the guys did not pass me the ball because I’m a stranger. The Thai people played up to seven and in the end of the game I got two passes and went two for three. Our team lost 7-5 though because whenever we played defense, one of my teammates would lazily leave his guy open, thus leaving the latter open for shots.

If I were to describe the style of basketball that was played there — along with the 20 other pickup games I played back at Korea, Turkey and Thailand — I can tell you that it is very “soft.” If I find myself outplaying the guys who frequently come to the basketball courts in that foreign country, it’s already determined that these guys aren’t that very good. Why? Because I’m not that good either. For the record, I just want to say that as much as I love the game of basketball, I am not at all great. Those of you who come to the ARC might recognize me at the courts and maybe a few of you refuse to play alongside with me because I was the reason why the team lost the pickup game. I’m 5 feet 11 inches tall and I enjoy playing the inside position. I can’t drain 3-pointers in a game but I somehow make them in practice. My midrange is fairly inconsistent and my post game is the only thing I can depend on.

Overseas, a lot of people tend to take or force midrange shots. If they try to drive it in, it’s either because the lane is completely open or they are extremely faster than you. You hardly will — or never — see guys who would post up on you, run a pick-and-roll with you, make a cut to get open for the basket, or box you out. While a typical pickup game in the U.S. would feature at least two of these elements, expect to see none when you step into another country.

You can play a whole game in Thailand, Turkey or Korea without having someone make physical contact with you. After playing five pickup games in America, I find myself feeling banged up, whereas after playing five pickup games in Thailand, I might be sweaty but I would still have my breath. Though my sample size of countries and games played is small, I can confidently live by my assumption that wherever I go, I will never find basketball played physically and aggressively like it is in the USA. You should live by those assumptions too. If you ever go to another country and play basketball, go by my assumption and take it easy on them in the first game. It’s not polite to overplay someone and show them up in their country. There might be a small core of people who really love basketball outside the U.S., but within that group of people, don’t expect to find players that are of the same caliber as the guys you play with in your neighborhood park.