Since I left university, I’ve lived in a few different places and one of things that gives me a sense of home is having a regular pickup basketball game. A bunch of guys joking around and getting some exercise on a regular basis gives me a sense of connection to a place, so when Miguel, our Cusco landlord, suggested that we play some basketball I enthusiastically agreed. Anywhere that I’ve lived I’ve been able to find a weekly venue for pickup basketball, a habit from my high school and college playing days. When I lived in New York City I played in a league in Harlem on a team of ex-Columbia University players and in Tokyo I was invited to play in an expat recreation league. While living in Los Angeles I found a regular pickup game about a mile from my house and back home in Marin County I’ve been playing with the same group of neighborhood dads for the last 12 years,
Miguel and I agreed to play the following Sunday morning. That day I rounded up my son and daughter and we met Miguel and his brother David and their niece and nephew downstairs. We jumped in two taxis and headed down to Parque Zonal, a large sports complex with soccer fields, basketball courts, a track and field stadium and a 1960’s-era domed indoor arena. We paid our entry fee and walked over to the courts and met Miguel and David’s basketball buddies. We exchanged pleasantries, chose teams and started playing and I quickly realized how much I missed basketball.
Most of my interactions with Peruvians were on a somewhat superficial level due to my limited level of Spanish. That Spanish ability allowed me constant interaction with locals but it was always on a slightly formal level. I missed making jokes and speaking colloquially and above all, bantering with the boys. There’s a level of intimacy on the basketball court that is not language-dependent so I don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to give my teammate a “high five” after a nice shot. Mastering the intricacies of conjugation is not necessary to set a screen for a teammate. Jostling and bumping and laughing with the locals allowed an intimacy that I didn’t get from working in the office. The little language we needed we picked up quickly. My son made a shot from beyond the three point line and Miguel said “Buen punto.” (good shot) David came up to screen my man and said “ventana.” (screen) My daughter eyed the hoop from the top of the key and Miguel said “Tira!” (shoot!)
We played about an hour and a half that first day, fully winded from a half dozen games and the altitude, but I felt energized from the experience. We slapped hands with the guys we played with and said “buen juego” (good game) as we were leaving. We would be back every weekend during our time in Cusco. It was a little slice of home in the Andes.