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Anywhere else in the world Wilt Chamberlain may be the player who comes to mind when American basketball is mentioned—but not in Yalalag. The name they drop there, I like to think, is El Gringo Grande. They called me that after having watched my stuff in only one game.
Yalalag is a Zapotec Indian village to-hell-and-gone back in the mountains of southern Mexico. I had been living in Oaxaca City, which lies in a valley some 230 miles southeast of Mexico City. The rugged peaks of the Sierra Madre del Sunrise beyond Oaxaca. The valley and adjacent highlands have been the home of the Zapotecs for some 2,500 years.
Some people I knew were going to Yalalag, and I went along. We traveled by train, by truck and finally by donkey-back and foot, until we reached the central plaza of Yalalag.
We had not been there long before I realized I was being followed by a squad of young men. Every now and then they consulted in whispers, poked each other in the ribs and giggled. After we had all had more mescal and beer than will set easily on an empty stomach one of these boys stepped—or was partially pushed—up to me. His name was Fermin, and he had picked up half a dozen words of English in the Oaxaca market.
"Hallo, gringo, goodby," he shouted, and the whole crowd turned to watch and listen.
"Hello, hombre, adios."
"You like? Good?" he asked, making a strange gesture, holding his hand horizontal to the ground, patting the air rapidly.
"Good, very good," I said politely and patted the air as Fermin had done.
As if they had been waiting for this cue, the other boys began shouting "Basketball, basketball!" and leaped forward like a ballet corps, each wildly pantomiming the game, dribbling in the air, simulating center jumps and shooting.
"Hallo, gringo, basketball is agreeable with you, yes?"