Say Yes: Become an All-Star

The Yes

Immersing into an unfamiliar place and culture can be like exploring a maze of serpentine paths and alleyways that may or may not lead to a significant destination.  Sometimes the disoriented wandering leads to hidden treasure, but most of the time treasure lies in the middle, right there in the center of the road, just waiting for the aimless passerby to collect it. 

So how does one navigate through the cultural maze?  One method we use during the immersionship is The Yes.  This story is about The Yes and how a series of affirmatives ended with Sergio and I playing in Sierra Leone’s first-ever National Rookie All-Star Basketball Game.

Soccer is more or less the lingua franca of Sierra Leone.  On any stretch of beach, patch of dirt or cramped alleyway you’re sure to see kids kicking around a ball (or anything that kinda rolls).  Unfortunately I’ve never taken to following soccer. My foot skills are not good.  My abilities are pwehl (literally, broken).  I am told this by random Sierra Leoneons anytime I play. But I love to compete and was intrigued when I heard rumors about pick-up basketball game taking place near the national stadium.  Great!  This was my chance to partake in a sport I’m at least familiar with.

The author on his way to the game. 

The author on his way to the game. 

When Sergio and I hopped into a kehkeh  to see what this basketball thing was all about I tried to recall a single time I’d seen any sign of basketball here—perhaps someone dribbling a ball, a small conversation about basketball, maybe I’d seen a hoop somewhere.  Nothing registered.  I thus decided to set my expectations somewhere between very untalented players and guys using a basketball to play soccer.  When we made our way to the stadium and saw the basketball court for the first time my expectations were turned upside down: players were jumping, dribbling, passing and running from one line to another in an orderly fashion while coaches shouted commands and critiques.  This was an organized, serious basketball practice.  The players clearly weren’t just the untalented scrubs who didn’t make the cut for the soccer teams.  They were playing like they’d grown up on basketball.  My stomach dropped. Clearly we’d heard wrong about the pick-up game. Sergio and I took a seat and watched for a little while, deciding after a few minutes to leave the stadium.  As we began walking away one of the players shouted at us asking if we wanted to join in on the practice.  I began questioning myself: I came here hoping to play in some fun 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 pick-up games, not to remind myself of intense high school basketball practices marked by repetitious drills and expectant coaches.  Sergio and I looked at each other, shrugged and said, “Yes”.

After two (exhausting) hours of jab steps, pick-n-rolls and defensive drills, we thanked the coach for allowing us to join in.  He then introduced himself to us as Coach Dukusamba and insisted that we come watch the team play in a game the next day.  I thought about our Sunday plans and wasn’t particularly keen on skipping out for the sake of watching some strangers play basketball.  Sergio and I looked at each other, shrugged and said, “Yes”.

So we showed up the next day at the specified time.  As is customary in Sierra Leone, we waited for the game to start. Everyone waits for all things to start. It’s a tradition of sorts.  As we waited, Coach Dukusamba approached us with two jerseys, asking if we wanted to play in the game.  Now I’ll admit, I definitely prefer playing hoops to watching hoops, but I wasn’t too sure how the other players would feel about two foreign guys joining their team and taking away playing time.  Sergio and I looked at each other, shrugged and agreed to play. Another yes.

The Big Game. 

The Big Game. 

Some players on our team were eager to explain to us that this was Sierra Leone’s first ever all-star basketball weekend.  Following the upcoming game would be a dunk contest, three point competition and all-star game.  As we sat and listened about this exciting event we saw Coach Dukusamba and another coach yelling at and pushing three other men.  I assumed they were arguing over politics and the divisive upcoming presidential election.  Sergio joked that they were probably disputing whether or not the two white guys would be allowed to play.  Turned out Sergio was exactly right.  Apparently the other team hadn’t won a game yet that season and didn’t want two foreigners to stand in the way of their first victory.  For all they knew we could have been Ricky Rubio and Steve Nash.  Our infuriated team and coaches explained to us that this was an unacceptable case of segregation.  After brainstorming various ways to protest such segregation they concluded that they would select me and Sergio to represent them in the rookie all-star game which was to follow the upcoming game.  Whoa.  My mind was somewhere between flattered and perplexed.  As far as basketball skills go, Sergio and I were probably in the lower echelon compared with the rest of our teammates.  On top of that, we had just met this group of guys the day before—I could only name maybe two or three of them—yet they were protesting on our behalf and even asking that we represent their team in their nation’s first ever All-Star weekend.  We looked at each other, shrugged and agreed to play.

The following game was a massacre—Sergio and I watched with open mouths as the opposing team threw down one outrageous dunk after another, mercilessly defeating our team 80-20.  Sergio and I weren’t exactly change makers. Rubio and Nash we were not.  After the game each of the players on the court removed their dripping jerseys and handed them to us with a smile, reminding us we’d need them for the upcoming rookie All-Star game.  Besides the thought of wearing a strangers wet and dripping jersey, Sergio and I just couldn’t believe we were about to suit up for the all-star game. We both laughed. With looks of ribald wonder we shrugged and gingerly slid the jerseys over our bare bodies. Twenty minutes later we were running the floor in Sierra Leone’s first-ever National Rookie All-Star Basketball Game with the country’s most talented young players.

As a man lip-synced to 50 Cent for the halftime show (which was actually the third-quarter show), I reflected on the compassionate decision our team made on behalf of two foreigners whom they hardly knew.  I also thought about how Sergio and I had used The Yes to end up at this profound historical and cultural event.  Sometimes it is inconvenient and sometimes it is, but saying yes can place you before people and in places unimaginable.  The Yes is a thing, a type of truth for us, and it is essential as a navigation tool during our immersionship. Remember, our goal is to go beyond plans for change and in fact create relationships of deep understanding. Love. That’s what we are after. We want to become knit right into the fabric of the communities we hope to serve. Great projects demand this.

Dan Padrnos