He describes the success of a 6'8" kid named Ernest Nzigamasabo as an indicator of Burundi's basketball possibilities. A previous U.S. ambassador to Burundi was a basketball fan. Nzigamasabo's mother worked at the embassy and told the ambassador about her tall, athletic son. The ambassador arranged for Nzigamasabo to attend high school in the United States. The kid eventually wound up on those Top 150 Prospects lists and now is on scholarship at the University of Minnesota. Two of his brothers also are in the state—one in high school and the other in a Division II college.
"I coached last year in Waterford, Ireland," Madzinski says. "The Waterford Glass Basketball Club. I guess that's about as far away from Burundi as you can get, although the rolling hills in Burundi remind me a little bit of Ireland. In Waterford, things were the other way around. We had the equipment. We had the same practice times every day. We just didn't have the athletes. Here...."
"Who would win?" you ask. "If your team from Ireland played against your team from Burundi, who would win?"
"The Irish kids, if you asked them to run through a wall for you, they would keep running through any number of walls," Madzinski says. "They were terrific kids to coach. They just didn't have the talent. The Burundi kids.... They pick up something in five minutes that it would take you two weeks to teach in Ireland. Burundi. Burundi wins."
You hear Madzinski's words repeated in various forms throughout the tournament. You talk with coaches, players, officials. You watch a lot of very ragged basketball that is saved only by a rebound here, a slam there, a touch of grace inside a badly choreographed dance. You watch a kid from the Ivory Coast shatter a backboard only to find that it is not made of safety glass. He suffers cuts on a shoulder and a leg. You listen to tribal chants by the players before Cameroon goes on the court, tribal drums from a corner of the stands when Senegal plays, a cheering mass of soldiers in fatigues in the end zones when Egypt plays. The soldiers are led by a character you call the Cairo Chicken. He stands on top of a railing and directs everyone with waves of his hands. He seems like the biggest fan imaginable.
"You have to remember that basketball is an expensive sport," Bile says.
An expensive sport?
"You need the rings, the backboards, the shoes—even the ball is very expensive," he says. "That is why football, soccer, is so popular in the Third World. I can pick a melon out of a tree and take it to a field, and we can play soccer."
An expensive sport.
"We have no coaches," Victorino E. Silva e Cunha, the Angolan coach, says. "And most of the ones we have...arrrgh. There are coaches here, a lot of them, who believe in...what's the word? Mysticism. Fate. They will go into games without strategy, saying only that something will happen. God will provide. Arrrgh. They're talking about mysticism when they should be teaching a zone trap."