Sifnos Summer Basketball

Greek basketball

I had an exciting moment last night. I was sitting on the dock at Kambourakis restaurant, drinking my evening ouzo when former NY Knicks Basketball coach Pat Riley walked into the supermarket with his wife. I practically screamed to Andrea "That was Pat Riley!" but she had no idea who he was and when I explained, even less interest. I went into the store and introduced myself to him. It was actually quite a coincidence because that very morning I had picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune which had not one, but two articles on Pat Riley. The first was the wire report that he had quit coaching the Knicks. The second was an editorial that called him a power-hungry prima-dona. I did not mention either article to him but did answer his questions about where to eat. I also sent him to visit Lefteris (I told him he was a big fan) at the Old Captain Bar, which he did. I thought about going up to his table and joining him but he and his wife looked like they wanted to be alone and I knew that he was the one person on the island who could expose my lack of understanding of the game. He looked pretty good though, unshaven and with none of that goop in his hair that he wears for basketball games. If he knew that the streets he walked in Kamares were once a hotbed of basketball activity, he would certainly be surprised....

In the late afternoon, when the hottest part of the day has passed and the wind is blowing just right, I can hear from my balcony the sound of a ball hitting the pavement. It's a sound heard all over the world, from the ghettos of great American cities, to this remote island and beyond. The court is a mere hundred yards away and in the afternoon while walking on the beach I can see the kids running up and down. What a great luxury to have this basketball court right here within sight of the sea, shaded by the mountains in the late afternoon. It was not always so easy. I remember a time when a pick-up game of basketball required days of planning and scheduling.

The basketball court was only a rumor when we searched our knapsacks for our sneakers on that cloudless July day in 1984. Nobody we knew had actually seen it. It was one of many Sifnos myths. It was said to have been built by the Gods, then passed down from generation to generation of tourists. Now we, a fresh new generation were about to embark on the arduous journey to Vathy in search of what was said to be the most beautiful basketball court in the world.

The trip would not be an easy one. We had two choices. We could take the perilous foot path, a four hour journey over mountains and through ravines that perhaps some of us might not survive. Or we could take the always perilous sea route which seemed like it could be especially rough today as we beat back the after-effects of last night's retsina with cup after cup of powerful Greek coffee followed by frappe with ice-cream. As the horn of the Agios Spyridion sounded from the dock each one of us knew, it would be the sea route, despite its dangers.

As expected, the twenty minute boat ride was a little rough, but we were joined by a dolphin who led us into calm waters filling us with high spirits, for we took it as a good omen. Upon arriving at the tiny dock by the monastery we were pointed in the direction of the far beach by a helpful native and this too filled us with hope as he seemed to understand what it was we were searching for. Even if we did not truly understand it ourselves.

After many more adventures, we stumbled upon Manolis Taverna, where the proprietor, a grizzled old veteran, was turning lamb on a spit while several young tourists sat around reading, playing backgammon, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the manner we had grown accustomed to seeing in this part of the world.

It was then that our prayers were answered. It was more spectacular then we could have imagined. There were plexiglass backboards and crisp white lines painted on a paved surface of some unknown substance. A closer look showed us that beneath the surface was a layer of some kind of spongy material that could absorb the continuous pounding of our spirited play. All we really lacked was a ball which we soon spotted in the entrance to one of the little whitewashed stone huts that bordered the court. At first the old woman in black, who seemed to be the owner of the ball, was reluctant to let us have it. But with my quick mind I was able to fool her into thinking that we were indeed the North Carolina Tarheels and that any moment, the Greek National team was going to show up for The Big Game. Somehow she believed me and handed me the ball after making us all autograph it.

The thermometer hovered at the century mark as we chose up sides to play. Within moments both teams were decimated by injuries and I found myself teamed up with a Danish point-guard who had never played or even seen a basketball game before, a seven-foot Norwegian with excellent hands but poor eyesight, and the winner of the Slovenian Bill Murray Look-Alike Contest. Somehow we lost but it was all forgotten as we ran to the beckoning sea where we played Frisbee for the rest of the day.

Life changed after that day. Basketball fever had overcome us all. We returned to the court a few days later but the old woman refused to fall for the same story twice in one week and would not give us the ball.

The following summer we were prepared. My brother David arrived on the ferry from Athens and the first thing he pulled from his knapsack was a pump and a deflated basketball. No feeble old woman could stop us now.

From that point on all we thought about was basketball. Not only did we discover a new court high in the mountains of Apollonia, but each night the World Basketball Championships were being televised from Spain and we could cheer on our respective countries after having played all day.

The mountain top court had a certain charm and we played there often. Perhaps the only drawback was that if one missed a shot, and also the backboard, which happened more frequently then one might suppose, the ball would roll all the way down the mountain. This would cause long delays and arguments over who would retrieve it.

After one particularly grueling day of running up and down the mountain between short periods of actual game time, my friend and faithful teammate Steve Gratz and I hitched a ride back to Kamares. On the seat next to the driver was a newspaper with the headlines that 850 people had died in Athens. "From what?" I asked the driver in Greek. "From the heat wave of course. Haven't you noticed?" I really hadn't. Sweating and being out of breath was a relatively new phenomenon for me. I attributed it to my aggressive play, not to the fact that it was so hot that people were dying.

But even this tragedy could not stop us and we continued our relentless play. When we weren't playing, we were recruiting. In the old days we would go to the harbor and meet the daily boat to welcome any beautiful new tourist girls to the island. Now we stood on the dock, scanning the disembarking passengers for tall guys who we would claim for our team.

Perhaps my most memorable game is the one when I almost drowned. There was going to be a religious festival at the monastery in Vathy and there would be food and wine after the service and dancing throughout the night. The boats would be going back and forth from Kamares all day ferrying pilgrims, and old Manolis was planning a big feast, roasting lambs and goats and whatever other animals he could find. It seemed to us the perfect day for basketball and we informed everyone we met that this would be the game to end all games.

Earlier that day my brother and I had met the captain of a sailboat. He was on the way to the Philippines with his wife and child and offered us a ride to Vathy, which was sort of on the way. It was a beautiful trip and I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time as we sailed into the bay. But when we dropped anchor, my brother and the captain got into the conversation that every non-nautical person with a game to get to fears most: A discussion of the technical intricacies of sailing. They discussed rope gauges, anchor weights and bilge pumps, subjects I would have been fascinated with had my mind not been so focused on the upcoming basketball game. As the minutes painfully dragged on it became apparent to me that my brothers love for basketball was taking a back seat to this new and no less worthy sport. I was trapped at sea, a hundred meters from the basketball court.

There was only one thing I could do. I excused myself from the conversation and jumped into the sea, swimming in the general direction of the big game. I had not gone more than twenty meters when the first pangs of panic struck. It seemed to me that I had either misjudged the distance or I was not as good of a swimmer as I had thought, or more likely: both. I tried a nice relaxing side stroke but I was hyperventilating and it became more of a spastic sink-stroke. Next I tried the frantic race to shore approach. I even tried swimming underwater. One thing was certain: I did not want to suffer the humiliation of having my bloated body pulled from the depths or washed up on the beach, and I did not want my brother to have to explain to our parents over the phone that I had drowned trying to get to a basketball game. No. I had too much to live for, I thought as I saw my friends arriving on the passenger boat, one of them clearly holding a basketball. With the superhuman effort that comes to us when we most need it I made one last valiant attempt to swim the remaining distance to the shore, where I collapsed in a state of shock, my head pounding and my muscles completely drained. A few moments later I was aware of the crowd of people that had surrounded me.

"Where's the game?" asked a tall blonde English girl named Jacquie.

I mumbled something incomprehensible, pointed in the direction of the court, and returned to my state of shock as they continued walking down the beach. I lay there hallucinating, dreaming I was a beached whale.

After half an hour I was able to stand up and stagger to a flat slab of concrete that was warm from the sun, where I collapsed again, trying to build up my strength and perhaps get in some playing time. I realized I had developed a serious problem. Because of my life threatening situation, being snatched from the jaws of death, as they say, my state of awareness had changed to one of profound awe and wonder at the beauty of the sky, the sea and the mountains. Very enjoyable but completely unsuitable for the game of basketball with its multiple offenses and changing defenses. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and it took three shots of ouzo before I could make any sense of the suntanned bodies running up and down the court. Needless to say I didn't get into the game, but I marveled at the grace and agility of guys who a week before had never played the game but were now slam-dunking, high-five-ing and dribbling behind their backs and between their legs. Then again, I might have still been hallucinating.

Eventually my brother left the island, leaving the ball in the care of a young Englishman named Steely who disappeared with it and was never seen again. New experienced players turned up but without the ball, perhaps the most essential part of the game, the spark was gone. We became more and more lethargic and spent our days moving slowly from cafe to cafe. Our only exercise was lifting our coffee cups and retsina glasses to our lips, or smoking cigarettes. Our court perceptions dulled, our coordination shot to hell, clearly had we even the desire to play we'd be flirting with serious injury or worse. This we accepted like men who had grown past their prime, still harboring the feeling that one day, we would pass through this period of lifelessness and begin to play the game again, if someone remembered to bring a ball.

But we never did play again. Not even the summer when we arrived to find they had built a new court just a few steps from the grove of trees where we pitched our tents.

As we got older we stopped staying in tents and moved into the hotels and rental rooms that had sprouted up all over the port, and even as our waist-sizes begged us to play again, somehow we could never get motivated or energized. Now I hear the sound of the bouncing ball and it reminds me of old friends who haven't returned to the island in years. They probably imagine us huffing and puffing, running up and down the court in Vathi, not realizing that despite these backboards being so close, we haven't even attempted to go out and play. I guess when things become too easy they lose their appeal. Back then basketball was an adventure. Now it's taken for granted and we are all experts, though so few of us actually play anymore. But I swear that if I come back next year, I am going to bring a ball.

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