Two courts, two continents: Of basketball and bigger things

KOKOMO, Indiana, AP

On March 15, 2001, it’s a cloudy, gray afternoon when Marrio Bryant, sneakers scuffing the asphalt court of Foster Park, drills an arcing 3-pointer over Paul Stacey. “That’ll be the shot he makes all day,” says Stacey, who like Bryant is 17. And they’re just warming up. On the same day, on a hot, humid noon a world away, another game is unfolding. In Manila’s Tondo slum, at the end of a filthy alley about five yards wide, sits a single wooden basketball board braced by scrap poles and stabilized by large stones. Young Filipino men in rubber sandals shoot the ball around; each time it goes through the hoop, it gets stuck. “I didn’t finish college,” says Mandy Chavez, 22, jobless and married with two children. He has been playing hoops since age 10. “Maybe,” he says, “basketball could deliver me from here, give me money and a name.” Some things are nearly universal in the urban world. Cracked asphalt and ramshackle baskets seem to be among them. On a planet sewn together like never before, basketball is one endeavor that, since its very infancy, has been a harbinger of globalism. It was developed in 1891 by James Naismith and Luther Gulick, and within 15 years was being played in Japan, China, Germany and the Middle East. By 1904, it had been demonstrated at the Olympics. And today? “Best game in the whole world,” enthuses Jason Rush, playing at the Kokomo court. “It’s becoming universal,” Bryant says, panting from the game. Kokomo, a manufacturing-heavy city of 46,000, sits in central Indiana, the state perhaps most associated with American basketball — home to Larry Bird and, until recently, college coach Bobby Knight. The game is part of life here — recreation, yes, but also second nature to many Indianans. In Manila, it’s just as important — albeit in a different way. In the Tondo slum, where several thousand scavengers who used to live atop a nearby garbage dump were resettled in tenements years ago, basketball is a respite, however brief, from the grinding poverty and the desperate, repetitive effort simply to get through the day. “In every corner, there’s a always a game. You can’t miss it,” says Dong Soria, 23, a rail-thin young man who dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford it. His idol: Bal David, a local player whose name is often invoked in a war cry as a player drives to the hoop. Soria is small but fast; they call him “The Flash.” He has played since 1991, when he joined a shantytown team. He likes how tough it makes him. “It also helps me keep my mind off problems,” he says. “Sometimes, I think, `Will I always remain in this place? Won’t my life improve?”‘ As he speaks, the smell of burning plastic wafts from unseen places where scavengers burn scrap electric cables to get at the copper inside. The players in Indiana and Manila share an admiration for Michael Jordan, the most famous player ever. “Oh! Oh! I’m Jordan!” Bryant shouts as he cuts inside. Across the world, Chavez agrees:”He can do everything.” In Kokomo, as dinnertime arrives, Jason Rush says the NBA’s international diversity is growing as the game spreads. “In about 10 years, the league is really going to look different,” he says. But could a foreign team — one from, say, the Philippines — ever beat the Americans? “It would take a long time,” Rush says. “Basketball was founded here.” “You fly ’em over here,” Bryant boasts. “We’ll take ’em.”