It was six hours before my flight would leave for Portugal, and I was finishing my packing, searching for a spot to stuff my basketball. Actually, my Wilson Pro 1000 hardly looked like a basketball anymore. Bled of its air, smashed flat as a Frisbee and squeezed between my shirts and sweaters, that poor piece of rubber made me wonder if it would ever bounce again. I also wondered if the inflation needle tucked in my wallet would set off the airport's metal detectors. And I wondered how I would explain if it did.
Allow me to try to explain now.
I'm a 36-year-old man with a fairly respectable job—newspaper reporting. I've got a wife and a daughter, a new car and an old truck, a mortgage and a few other odds and ends that should indicate I'm pretty much of a responsible grown-up.
But when it comes to street basketball, I'm still the kid I was at 12. I can't resist the sight of an open net and a decent run. It's playground ball I'm talking about, on an asphalt court under a clear sky, where the game is shirts and skins, where winners stick and losers sit and all men are created equal until separated by the sureness of their jump shots and the grace of their give-and-gos.
This is basketball at its purest, the universal pickup game. It is social—there is no better introduction to a stranger than a swift feed for an open layup. It is constant—a lot of things have changed in my life since I was 12, but rims are still 10 feet high. And it is fairly portable—all that's needed is a hoop, the bodies and a ball. And my ball has been around: on the beach at Laguna, where the backboards sit by the sand and the full-court runs are as fierce as the Southern California sun; in the shadow of downtown Chicago's John Hancock building, where the game is half-court, the body banging is brutal and the wind whipping off Lake Michigan turns the truest jumper into a sick joke; at the foot of Colorado's Summit County ski slopes, two miles above sea level.
But Portugal—that would be a challenge. What I knew of Portugal amounted to scattered snippets, images of ancient sea explorers and leather-skinned fishermen speaking what I had been told was one of the more tongue-twisting languages on earth. This would be the place to test my notions of the playground game's essence—if I could find a playground and if I could find a game.
Lisbon looked like a place in which to find both. From the air, the city was a sea of sun-soaked pastel houses, whitewashed apartment buildings with flowered balconies, tree-shaded squares and medieval stone battlements, all spilling down steep hillsides to the wharves on the river Tagus. More than two million people live in Lisbon. Its pro basketball team is considered competitive in its league. Surely one could find a game.
But I wasn't headed for Lisbon. I was flying north to the city of Porto, then driving up the coast almost to the Spanish border, where I would vacation for two weeks, using as my home base a friend's sister's villa near the fishing village of Caminha. This northwest corner of the country—the Minho province, named after the river that separates it from Spain—is the nation's most rugged region, and its most unchanged. This is where the Portuguese come to see how they used to live. Busloads of native tourists hurtle up the narrow oceanside highway to the Costa Verde, or "Green Coast," to get a glimpse of the old way of life that is kept alive in rural Minho.
And that is what I saw as I made my way north. I watched old women, draped in black, driving huge oxen that pulled the same type of wooden-wheeled carts used a thousand years ago. Ancient granite walls lined the cobblestone roadways that snaked through the vine-covered hills, and grape arbors were everywhere, held aloft by slabs of that same granite. At nearly every bend there were roadside shrines, small stone altars festooned with fresh flowers where people could rest and pray.
The people work hard, tending their vines with sickles and saws, mowing their fields with scythes, fishing in colorful wooden boats powered by muscle and oars. And they know how to rest, retreating for an hour at noon to the closest bar—bars are nearly as numerous along the roads of the Minho as shrines—for a cup of espresso laced with a shot of moonshine made from the skins of the grapes.