There were some things I knew I would find when I landed for a winter weekend on the island of Eleuthera. Bad roads and beautiful beaches. Pink sand and pineapple rum. Balmy breezes, a Bahamian sun and blessed solitude. But nothing had prepared me for Hitler. Nor was I ready for his museum. And I had no idea what to make of his basketball court.
It was a week before Christmas, and I had come to the Bahamas on a free ticket—a major airline's reward for yielding my seat on an overbooked flight earlier in the year. I had chosen Eleuthera on a hunch. I knew it was one of the country's Out Islands—a far cry from glitzy Nassau. The guidebooks told mc it was little more than a speck on the map, a sliver of coral and limestone 100 miles long and two miles wide. Brochures described bougainvillea and hibiscus bushes drooping over picket fences, palm trees lining dirt paths to un-peopled beaches, small, neat homes painted the bright colors of fruit and looking out on a translucent turquoise sea. This is what I had hoped for, and this is what I found when I stepped off a water taxi onto the dock at Harbour Island, a three-by one-half-mile dot three miles east of the northern tip of Eleuthera.
The 1,500 people who inhabit this oasis call it Briland. The adults fish for lobster, conch and grouper, work at half a dozen small resorts along the beaches or commute to the main island to plant and pick in Eleuthera's pineapple and orange groves. The children attend the island's single 300-student school.
The schoolyard was empty when I arrived, late on a Friday afternoon. Christmas lights were strung on the palms, and poincianas lined the narrow lane that runs past the school's sandy front yard. Reggae versions of Jingle Bells and The First No�l drifted from the open windows of the houses nearby. A beat-up van sputtered past me with the words REGGIE'S 'NO PROBLEM' TAXI written on the side.
I noticed a purple Los Angeles Laker plate fastened to Reggie's rear bumper just above the Bahamas tag. I soon noticed that almost every vehicle on the island bore the Laker logo, in honor, I learned, of the Bahamian patron saint of basketball, Mychal Thompson. Thompson, whose nickname in his native Nassau is Sweet Bells, was the first man from these islands to make it to the NBA, and he spent the last third of his 12-year career playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. He is now a Seattle SuperSonic radio color commentator.
"Sweet Bells," explained an elderly shopkeeper, "made the Lakers the word of God in the Bahamas."
I saw a few Boston plates as well, and was told there had been a surge in Celtic green since Rick Fox—who also cut his basketball teeth in Nassau before moving to Indiana to finish high school and going to North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college—became a guard with the Celts last season.
"It's a small country, yeah," Briland school basketball coach Clayton Johnston, a 32-year-old transplanted Canadian, told me when I tracked him down in his tiny office. "But the kids here live on the basketball court. This game is their passion, their absolute passion."
Most play it outdoors. Johnston's kids—the boys and girls who wear the Briland Buccaneer jerseys when playing against Eleuthera's Windermere Warriors, Hatchet Bay Potcakes (potcake is Bahamian slang for a junkyard dog) or Governor's Harbor Rude Boys—practice on an asphalt court a hundred yards from the Atlantic. When the Buccaneers host a visiting team, the game is usually played under the stars, on that lighted court with a third of the island's population seated on the grass or sand. Occasionally a rooster will dash out of the darkness to interrupt a fast break.
There are only four indoor gymnasiums in the entire country, according to Johnston. One is in Freeport, and three are in Nassau, where Gladstone (Moon) McPhee, the Red Auerbach of the Bahamas, coaches the national team. When college scouts from the U.S. come to the islands, they rarely venture beyond those gyms. It was in Nassau that the scouts found Thompson. And it was there that they more recently came across Dexter Cambridge, who grew up in Hatchet Bay on Eleuthera. Cambridge became the U.S.'s leading junior college scorer at Lon Morris J.C. in Jacksonville, Texas, in 1989-90. He then transferred to the University of Texas, where he led the Longhorns in scoring and rebounding early last season before being suspended for two months by the NCAA for accepting money from a booster while at Lon Morris. He is now with the Dallas Mavericks.