Local backpacker unexpectedly hoops the dream in South America
I didn’t take the offer seriously at first. A 23-year-old Californian backpacker in South America recruited by a Bolivian basketball team? Coach Sandro approached me during a Saturday morning pickup game at the university in Cochabamba, a Bolivian city about the size of Sacramento. He spoke Spanish and shot straight: “Here is the deal. I will pay for your food, accommodation and women.”
Back up four months: I’m from Sacramento and hadn’t played basketball since my years as guard for the Granite Bay Grizzlies. I’d arrived in Buenos Aires in February of ’07, planning on an eight-month, 10-country South American jaunt with two friends. But after three months in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, I’d grown weary. Too many uninspiring towns; most of Lonely Planet’s “To Dos” left me unsated. But crossing the border into Bolivia was a new day. Street vendors grilled cow hearts, marching bands gigged the streets, a glass of fresh OJ was 10 cents. I had the runs after a day! Now that’s traveling.
I stayed in Cochabamba, took Spanish classes and found a job at a small bar. In time, I got word that the best basketball players gathered for pickup games once a week at the university, so I went. I balled. Made friends. Then Coach found me. My friends and I were leaving for Peru that week, so I barely considered his offer at first; it was good for laughs at the bar later that evening. Then something clicked. Why not?
A week later, I was on a basketball court, a man with arms as wide as my thighs yelling at me in a language I half understood. It was my first day of official practice, my first since high school and the first real physical activity I’d undertaken after months of fried chicken and beer. To add insult to exhaustion, Cochabamba sits in the Andes, 8,300 feet above sea level. One fast-break drill left me gassed—like breathing through a straw. But I was a happy camper.
Teams from all over Cochabamba competed in the city league. Some teams paid players a living wage; others paid just the starters. San Simon, my team, provided two meals a day and $40 a month, enough to break even. We were the poorest team in the league and won only two games the previous year. They brought in Coach Sandro to rebuild. And that he did: Only one player remained from the previous team. Sandro himself was a former international player, now in his 30s, and had recruited some of his drinking buddies/ex-teammates out of retirement for the current season. He rounded out the roster by offering streetballers money—and women.
So needless to say, equipo San Simon was a motley squad. Our guard, 17-year-old Jesus, knew only one English phrase: “There is a party in my pants.” But it was Coach who upheld the gold standard for drunken antics. One night, he barged into my bar with some teammates, drank his weight in beer and disappeared. I found him later on in the bathroom, lights off, passed out on the toilet with his pants around his ankles. This was our coach.
San Simon followed suit. Huddled together at halftime, we’d debate what nightclub to dance at that evening. For us, five minutes late to practice was actually 10 minutes early. One Sunday morning after catching a ride home from the bars at dawn, we passed the stadium, and in the cold morning sun our rivals were at the gate stretching before practice. Heck, we didn’t even practice on weekends! At one team barbecue, our power forward, “Fox,” was caught with a woman in Coach’s bathroom. He was so embarrassed, he didn’t show up to practice for weeks.
I was the gringo, the only white boy in the league. The team and I only had two things in common: basketball and beer. But it was enough. We bonded. Improved. Halfway through the season, we’d beaten every team in the league.
Things got even crazier. Coach Sandro called. I’d been offered a spot to play for Cochabamba in the Bolivian national league. On the table was $150 for the first three games. An eight-hour shift at the bar paid only $5.
Now, I’ll admit I’m lucky. I’m not terribly ambitious, but I realize that spontaneity leads to good stuff, so I usually say OK, even if I’m uncertain—and it often turns out for the better. In May, I said OK to playing for San Simon. Six months later, in November, I’d represent the city in the national basketball tournament.
The phone rang again. My new coach, of the national team, was calling, and he had bad news. He came over immediately, sat me down and explained that the league now was charging teams an outrageous fee for foreign players. Cochabamba couldn’t afford me. I couldn’t play.
I showed up to practice anyway that day, even though I wouldn’t be on the team. Simply to play. Simply because I loved playing. When I entered the gym, the team stopped dribbling and sat down. Their faces read goodbye. I’d say thanks. We’d shake hands. Then I’d leave.
But that didn’t happen. The team goofball, a 300-plus-pound giant with a Nike “swoosh” tattooed on his shoulder, stood up and spoke. He wanted to know if there was any way I could still join the national team. Other teammates asked if anyone could pitch in money to pay the league fees. Swoosh suggested that the team could forfeit the airplane tickets and go by bus.
Now, this was quite the proposal. Some of the most dangerous roads in the world are in the Bolivian mountains. Tarija, the city hosting the tournament, is at the other end of the country from Cochabamba. By bus, you’ll brave 20 hours of 15,000-foot passes, dirt roads with potholes the size of small cars, desolate pueblos. It’s a cold, bumpy night’s rest. Twenty hours … if you’re lucky.
Nobody in Bolivia likes buses, but without hesitation, the team agreed to take the bus. We’d leave that night to make up lost travel time. I’d known these guys for less than two weeks. I was totally honored.
We chartered a private bus, which sounded great. My previous experience on chartered buses was with the University of Southern California, traveling to championship bowl games with the Trojan football team. Those rides were sweet—free Gatorade, candy, movies. In Bolivia, the bus arrived two hours late. And it was a tiny bus, the kind you’d take across town to buy a street taco. No room for luggage, no reclining seats and certainly no free Twix. Our legs didn’t fit, of course, and piling our luggage under the seats didn’t help. The engine sputtered and we were on our way. My teammates’ families must have hated me. They literally were crossing their hearts while saying goodbye.
Our first stop was for booze, of course. A round of pre-bottled Cuba libres. We passed bottles around with the intent to drink enough to pass out. The chat was about Tarija, our destination, which evidently produces the finest wine and women in the country. We passed out drunk, dreaming, the bus chugging through the Andes.
I woke up either to the thud of the engine shutting off or my teammates cussing in Spanish. Carajo! Stuck somewhere, nowhere, in the middle of the Andes. Our chartered bus? Out of gas. No pueblo, no gas station, no living soul within a hundred kilometers. Just one team and the frigid high-desert air. So we started hitchhiking.
I was surprised by how willingly the team accepted its circumstance. Most seemed pretty content, throwing stones down the mountainside, enjoying the views. They laughed at a bus that recently must have plummeted into the canyon. But we were screwed. Would we even find a way off the mountain, much less make it to the tournament halfway across Bolivia?
We saw a small bus trickle down the horizon. It was your typical Bolivian city bus: striped with blue, yellow, red and green, “Jesus is sacred” painted across the top. Pink stuffed animals and soccer team flags dangled from the windshield. The driver’s cheek bulged with coca leaves. We flagged him down, bargained a bit and he agreed to give us a lift to nearby Potosi, which at just less than 14,000 feet, is purportedly the highest city in the world. In Potosi, we enjoyed a cheap fried-chicken meal and arranged a ride to Tarija, whereupon we arrived with sore asses and tight legs at 4 a.m. the next morning—30 hours after leaving Cochabamba. Our first game was that afternoon.
Basketball is second only to winemaking in Tarija. The hoops scene there resembles that of loco soccer matches I’d witnessed in other South American countries. Total mayhem. Crowds sing, horns blare and drums thump. Fans hurl bottles onto the court, wear flags and banners, and people dangerously outnumber seats. And now I was in the position to silence or awaken this mass of crazies.
In the tunnel before the game, I felt hypnotized. Was this a mistake? I came to South America a wandering backpacker. I was supposed to pay to sit in these stands. Now, thousands cheered me on, but I didn’t know a single person. There was no reference point for reality: family, friends, English, Arco Arena food. It was the loneliest moment of my life—and it was awesome.
We didn’t win a single game. Our undersized team was outmatched and out-home-court-advantaged. Most teams had the coffers to fly in ex-NCAA players, guys who’d just been cut by NBA squads. Opponents were stacked with 6-foot-11-inch monsters, and they rolled over us.
But we made up for our losses in bottles of wine. And by the end of the tournament, I had a dozen new friends. A dozen ways of living. A dozen guys that aren’t in Lonely Planet guides, but will be with me longer than any South American ruins or hostel parties.