Bill Murray Plays Hoops in Africa

by andrewcagle

Last weekend, while hopping into the front seat of the Toyota LandCruiser to return home from Wudu market, a young man approached me. He was holding a basketball hoop that sported a tattered red, white, and blue net. “Excuse me, hi. My name is Stuwart (this is how he spells his name.) Can I ask you a question?” He then proceeded to ask me if I could teach youth in Kajo Keji to play basketball. Now, when it comes to sports, I love playing and even coaching. Out of all the sports imaginable, Stuwart happened to ask for help with basketball. In order to picture me playing basketball, I would like you to envision a less-skilled version of Bill Murray in the movie Space Jam. I am an average height white man, with average length arms. I do happen to have a decent vertical, but that doesn’t add much to my meager basketball resume which includes a game of H-O-R-S-E a couple years ago and one season of YMCA league play at age seven. I feel grossly inadequate in this field of sports.

I initially told Stuwart that if the sport was American football, ultimate frisbee, or competitive public speaking I could help, but that I didn’t think I would be of any use with basketball. My lack of confidence didn’t deter Stuwart’s insistence and he still seemed to think that I could have something to offer in developing a group of young teenagers into a team of decent basketball players. Before driving off, I learned that the club he practiced with the kids at was just around the corner from my residence in Leikor boma. He said that he and a group of “youths” were usually at the club for practice during the week around 5:30 in the evening.

Rebecca was with me, and after I explained further why I viewed myself rather useless in this task, she could only laugh at me and the irony that African life brings at a constant pace. Why do Africans need me to teach them how to play basketball, anyway? I remember watching NBA players actually from Africa like Hakeem Olajuwon as a young boy living in Houston. Even South Sudan’s Manute Bol made it to the NBA. While I thought of the irony of my situation, in the context of Kajo Keji, it made more logical sense. Kajo Keji has one basketball hoop, and most of the kids under 18 spent a good deal of their childhood as refugees in Uganda. Their experience in organized sports extends as far as a pickup soccer game, which rarely uses a real ball. Children here improvise and kick around soccer balls made up of plastic bags or other materials fashioned to hold the shape of a sphere. Basketball is a sport that has been heard of by some and rarely witnessed. Even my cursory knowledge of the sport was going to be helpful. To what degree? I wasn’t really sure.

Thankfully, basketball is a simple sport. I had made plans to help Stuwart coach on Thursday afternoon. Naturally, after lunch that day I googled “basketball” and “basketball drills + technique.” Browsing the rules, positions, and basics of dribbling, passing, and shooting, I realized that the fundamentals of the game were easy to take in. In high school I was a safety on The Woodlands High football team. I remember studying defensive schemes, reads, techniques, rules, and audibles like it was an academic subject. Communicating the rules and concepts didn’t seem like it would be a challenge. I just hoped that demonstrating them wouldn’t prove problematic.

After arriving home from work, I changed into athletic shorts before heading over to the Leikor Country Club where Stuwart and the basketball court were located. As an extra touch, I donned my “Nike Basketball” t-shirt that someone on one of the short term mission trips had left behind. I used to have a plain grey t-shirt and our clothes must have gotten mixed up in the laundry that week. As a result, I now own a shirt that proclaims that the person wearing it strives for excellence in a sport he doesn’t play. Nonetheless, I decided I needed to appear as legitimate as possible if I was to help coach.

I arrived at the club and was met by a smiling Stuwart, clearly excited to have help in his basketball development program. Before organizing the kids, we went into his small office on the compound. He wanted to share his vision and goals for his work with sports programs here.

Stuwart works at this modest youth club to develop sports knowledge and culture among kids and teenagers. He also is employed by GOSS (Government of South Sudan) to work with agricultural programs in Kajo Keji as well. Stuwart is about my age, early twenties, and was brought here from Uganda to work with government programs. His English is good, but not great. We communicate fine if I tailor my vocabulary and speed of talking. Even though he is an outsider here as well, he exudes enthusiasm for the work. His goal is to build and train two basketball teams made up of teens 12-18 years old that can enter competitions and hold their own against other teams in Juba. The club also has a soccer program and he even shared with me hopes of getting equipment to start boxing lessons. I didn’t delve into the thoughts and concerns that entered my mind when he said boxing, but I can deal with that when the time comes.

After a short conversation and listening to Stuwart’s ambitions for his work in Kajo Keji, we walked out of his office and across the dirt compound to the basketball court. The court was rough, to say the least. For an impoverished community in rural Africa, it wasn’t bad. There were two goals mounted on small wooden backboards, painted blue. To estimate the height, I would guess the hoops were eight feet off the ground. A good height for the kids, and even better for me. The court was a concrete slab, covered in a thick layer of fine dust, and uneven. I’m not sure who laid the concrete, but it appeared that whoever did, had forgotten to level the playing surface. A group of around fifteen youth, appearing to be ten to fifteen years old, ran wildly about the court with a volleyball.

While in his office, Stuwart had informed me that the two basketballs he had been using were now ruined due to the poor condition of the court. The club did happen to have plenty of volleyballs. In America, basketball without a basketball seems absurd, but here it wasn’t all that strange. It was a ball. It was round, and it fit through the hoop. It’s just like the trash balls for soccer. Life is a series of improvisations and creative solutions with an emphasis on functionality.

Stuwart and I walked up. The presence of a white man was enough to gather the group into a somewhat captive audience. I hadn’t been able to get a good sense of the baseline for where we were starting at with this group. I was now holding a volleyball, standing in front of a semi-circle of young teenagers ready to learn how to play basketball from an American. It’s important to note that in certain African communities, people assume that whites (white and black are pretty much how people differentiate cultures) know everything about anything. Being American adds to this. I had to at least act like I knew what I was doing. Stuwart also watched in anticipation to see what I could bring to the table. I had done some reading on passing and shooting technique. Having only one ball, I decided to start off with an overview of passing.

Earlier in the day I had learned that there were four passes used in the sport of basketball, the bounce pass, push pass, chest pass, and overhead pass. I decided to keep it at three. I won’t explain the nuance between the bounce pass and push pass, but I didn’t want to throw the concept of the push pass at them just yet. I also didn’t want to answer questions about it either. Good for me, it’s quite difficult to screw up the most basic aspect of basketball.

After demonstrating and explaining the three types of passes with Stuwart, it was time to get some hands on practice and do some drills. We split the group into two lines and I organized a simple drill where the kids rotated through their line and practiced each pass with the opposite partner when they reached the front. It is somewhat difficult to coach ball handling technique with one ball. However, the larger handicap in the area happens to be my lack of skill and potential for embarrassment. Instead, I devised a slightly more complex drill that combined dribbling and passing. It even incorporated the move of switching lines while rotating positions. I was proud of myself for coming up with these on the fly, and of the kids for being decently organized.

My last experience coaching youth sports was with my friend Nathan in high school. A flag football program for junior high football players gave high school player on varsity the opportunity to coach a younger team during a Spring league. One thing I learned was that young teenagers get restless after too many drills. Stuwart and I decided it would be good to divide the kids and do some actual play.

We let the group play five on five and I would stop to discuss certain rules and technique. After the first few minutes of observing their scrimmage, it was apparent that certain concepts like traveling and the double dribble had not been introduced. At one point I grabbed one of the older boys that had been translating for the kids who didn’t know English and paused gameplay. After explaining and illustrating traveling and double dribble violations, I received some interesting looks. I think some of the boys thought I was deliberately trying to ruin the game. One asked “So, you can’t dribble with two hands?” with a puzzled look on his face. Most appreciated the rule on traveling, and nodded in agreement. Once they looked satisfied and indicated that the concepts had landed, we resumed play.

Stuwart and I helped manage scrimmage play, stopping to reinforce rules and give pointers. As the informal game progressed, I could see the boys, running in sandals or barefooted, working hard to stop once they picked up the ball. I was in flip flops as well. Handling a basketball on an uneven surface in sandals is not easy. I stayed until the sun began to creep behind the horizon. The group of young basketballers continued to play and would probably continue till darkness enveloped the court. No one on that court, including me, is a talented basketball player. I will admit, I had a lot of fun playing, and the kids have  a blast, all while maintaing rather civil for their age.

Most of all, to my surprise, I managed to impart some knowledge to this group of energetic athletes, and I know Stuwart appreciated the help as well. At this point, I don’t know how they will turn out over time. This was my first experience helping organize sports here in South Sudan. If I reflect on my experience in team sports as a teenager, I can tell you that it gained more than good health and knowledge of the game. My six years spent in a school football program gave me discipline, character, and community. With time, maybe this humble program will be able to give the same to it’s participants.