SI Vault
An American-born Sport that Unites the World
Charles Hirschberg
March 18, 2002
Big Game, Small WorldA Basketball Adventure, by Alexander Wolff/Warner Books, 424 pages, $24.95
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March 18, 2002

An American-born Sport That Unites The World

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Big Game, Small World
A Basketball Adventure, by Alexander Wolff/ Warner Books, 424 pages, $24.95

Wolff, a senior writer at SI, seems to have had so much fun writing this book that it would be a crime for him to make money off it—were his book not so much fun to read as well. He traveled through 17 countries, seeking out basketballs, bleachers and blacktops wherever he went. From that experience Wolff has come to the conclusion that hoops has great potential as an "intercultural epoxy," for even where people don't like America, or Americans, they flat-out love this game. While French farmers, Chinese students and British environmentalists "have all rioted against McDonald's," Wolff notes, "it's hard to imagine anyone rioting against the NBA."

This thesis might not impress the international relations faculty at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, but even those highbrows will get a kick out of Wolff's descriptions of foreign hoop-heads expressing their culture through their passion for basketball. Fans in Israel, for instance, attempt to rattle a free throw shooter by shouting an old Jewish proverb: "The whole world is a narrow bridge! The main thing is not to be afraid!" Italian fans, in contrast, taunt their rivals by chanting, "You're thinking of taking a s—-!" At an international tournament in long-suffering Angola, rooters raise a banner that reads WITH WAR AND HUNGER, A FIFTH TITLE WILL BE OURS! Most delicious of all is a French newspaper's frustration over its country's loss to the U.S. in the 2000 Olympic gold medal match. "Very early in [the lives of American basketball players]," the paper grumbles, "mothers pull forcibly on the legs of their small boys. Then, when they have finished stretching them on the clothesline, they force-feed them with a funnel. French mothers do this as well, but usually to geese."

Yet for all the fun he had compiling this travelogue, Wolff records two major disappointments. One is his failure to arrange a one-on-one with His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the hoops-loving king of Bhutan. ("His Majesty never takes twos," one courtier tells Wolff. "Only threes, it seems.") Spurned by Bhutan's secretary of state, Wolff settles for a pickup game with two members of the royal family, one of whom yells, "Spiiiin doctor!" whenever a teammate makes a layup. Wolff's other admitted failure is his inability to locate one Hirohide Ogawa, a reputed Japanese spiritual master and author of a book called Enlightenment Through the Art of Basketball. He searches high and low for Ogawa but discovers to his chagrin that he is the creation of a British satirist-one who assumed that the idea of "basketball as a religion" was an obvious joke. How little he knew.