You are struck by a few similarities to the U.S. game as the play unfolds. The Arab teams, especially Egypt, are studied and precise. They are coaches' teams, running plays, working for stationary three-point shots. They resemble U.S. white suburban schools, or parochial schools heading into the state tournament. The teams from the black African countries are inner-city-style tornadoes playing a free-form version of American basketball. Their games are played in the five feet in front of the basket and the two feet above it. Shots are rejected and tried again. Hands reach, feet leave the floor. The rest of the game is a mess—balls thrown everywhere on the other 87 feet of the floor, turnovers occurring at an astonishing rate, jump shots taken from the worst places—but those final five feet are dramatic.
"You are watching the past of African basketball against the future of African basketball," Bile says. "Egypt is as good as it can get. These other countries.... You can't coach someone how to jump. You can coach the rest."
The past? The future? You watch. You listen.
"I took my players on an 11-game trip to the United States," a 24-year-old guy named Craig Madzinski says. "It was the first time most of them had been on an airplane, the first time most of them had been anywhere. The first day in the U.S., we practiced at George Washington University. The kids just stood there, amazed. They looked at that gym and could not believe we were there. The glass backboards. The hardwood floors. The leather basketballs. We were going to practice...here? It was like we were in a palace. They never had seen anything like this."
You sit with Madzinski at some of the games. He is an American, a former assistant coach at Loyola Chicago, to which he will return after this competition. For now, however, he is the national coach—indeed, the only coach—in Burundi, a small country in the center of Africa. He heard about the job from friends. Burundi. You get some ideas from him about African basketball. You get some realities. You find yourself talking about tribes, about civil war, about small snakes that can strike a man today and the man knows he will die in exactly 18 days, no known antidote to the poison.
"The possibilities for basketball are unbelievable," Madzinski says, "but there is so much to overcome. The talent? I've seen women in Burundi who are 6'10". You have these kids...you throw the ball out there, and it's like throwing a ball in with a bunch of greyhounds. They run all day. I have kids who jog four and five miles to practice. We don't even have warmups. We just get going. They jump over the rim without a thought. They're in amazing condition. They also have no idea what to do. There isn't one indoor court in the country. The court we use, outdoors, isn't even regulation. There are no high school teams, no youth programs. There are no coaches."
The country is the size of Maryland, but it contains six million people. The players come mostly from the large capital city of Bujumbura, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The players are divided between the two major tribes, the Tutsi and the Hutu. A long-standing feud exists between the tribes, and often there has been violence. There are also problems with Rwanda, a neighboring country. The main language in Burundi is Kirundi, but French is taught in the schools, and Swahili is used in trade and commerce. Madzinski speaks only English.
"So many problems," he says. "We came back from the U.S., and as I was getting my baggage at the airport, an embassy official comes up to me and asks if I have heard about the coup attempt. What coup attempt? I go home and can't leave. I was in the house for 12 days. There was a curlew at dusk. I could hear gunfire all the time. I would sit on the porch at night and watch firelights. We did all this work in the U.S.—we lost all 11 games—and I haven't seen all of these kids together since we said goodbye at the airport."
He has two kids who play their basketball barefoot, unable to find shoes. There are problems with anything that involves money. Where to get some shoes? Where to get balls? There are problems simply arranging games. Who is there to play? Every road game would be a plane flight. There is virtually no road system.
"When you get to the countries below the Sahara," Madzinski says, "there is very little infrastructure. You might have a road, but it will go to the border of the next country and simply stop. You have to fly, and flying is expensive. We had the trip to the U.S., and we don't have any more games, really, until a tournament in Angola in April. Even that...you're never sure of anything in Africa. I had kids, the night before we were going to the U.S., asking me if we still were going. They believe in nothing until it happens."