Basketball: It's the Same No Matter Where You Are
By: Kevin Josephs (University of Iowa)
My first bit of advice for anyone planning on embarking on a journey overseas is to talk to everybody. Preferably, not just Americans (because we already know we're fantastic ;P). But seriously, when I came to Spain I had a goal of immersing myself in the culture: not carrying a culture from America and trying to plant it here. Trust me, America does that by itself. My favorite sports are basketball and skiing, and while I haven't skied in Europe (yet...) Luckily, I met a basketball player one of my first weeks on campus. It is funny how one conversation with one stranger can cause such a huge impact on your life.
I met Daniel (who pronounces his name Danielle) on campus at University Carlos III de Madrid. My Spanish was still in the caveman phase: I knew basic nouns, verbs, and conjugation patterns, and was extremely unconfident with my linguistic skills. I am almost 6 feet 4 inches tall, and Dani was clearly taller than me. This was very rare to me because it made him the tallest Spaniard that I had ever met, by about 4 inches. One of, if not the, first questions I asked him was if he played basketball. He said yes, and graciously invited me to play with him and his friends. A couple days later, I met Dani on campus and we walked to the metro nearest campus to take it to his hometown, Móstoles. I thought we were just going to go straight there and play. Instead, I met Dani's mom, who is also unusually tall, but, like most Spaniards I have met, an incredibly hospitable host. She served us a snack; ham of course. Dani and I hung out in his room for about an hour. I suddenly felt like I wasn't in Spain at all, but my dream room as a teenager. He had NBA posters all over his walls. If a player got traded or changed numbers, he crossed out the team name/number and wrote in the new one on his poster. I am from Chicago and impressed him by naming 12/13 players on the 1996 NBA Champion Chicago Bulls poster he had. The gem of his room was clearly a newspaper cut out from when Spain won the world championships the year or two before. He then showed me his collection of basketball videos on his computer. He had everything. Literally. Hoosiers, Love and Basketball, Coach Carter, and SpaceJam. When he played the opening scene of Space Jam I nearly lost it. He also had a bunch of classic NBA and Olympic games that I could have spent all week watching. For that hour we were in his room, all cultural barriers washed aside, and we just talked about basketball, which was easy for me because I follow the NBA and know most of the players’ names.
Dani drove me to the Polideportivo. We listened to Cream on the way. I am an incredibly streaky shooter, but was having one of my on-days where anything I threw toward the basket found its way in. Its days like that that keep me going back to play basketball every time. My Spanish was still very intermediate, at best, but I really got lost on the basketball court. Not because the lane is 8 feet wider, but because I realized that sports are a universal language. In basketball, there are shots that are 2 points, and there are shots that are 3 points. You pass, the other player shoots. You foul him or you don't. There's offense and defense. Although there are different words for these terms in every language, the rules are universal. So is the love of the game. For about two weeks, I was able to communicate with them better on the basketball court than through verbal communication. The second time I came back, they invited me to play in their league. I made the sign up for the league by about 3 minutes, and had no idea how lucky I was at the time. Upon signing up, I was told by the team captain, Victor, in Spanish of course, "we take it seriously, we play good teams, and we are a good team, but this league is more of an excuse of having a good time with friends". This was the best thing I could ever hoped to stumble across in Spain. Although our team has a losing streak (during which my teammates have realized I don't always make every shot), we go to a bar after every game and laugh it off. I can't recommend enough to anyone studying in Spain to make a sincere effort to talk to Spaniards. They are generally nice, and if you are lucky enough to hang out with a group of them, you will realize that they really know how to have fun and have a very unique zest for life. I have never seen a group of people consistently laughing so much in my entire life. I hardly understood a word my first days with them, but now am confident enough to give directions on the court. Better yet, I can understand (some of) their jokes. They are always making jokes. They'll make fun of one thing then hop to another, and it's always in really good fun.
I have been hanging out with these guys for about two months now and have learned a ton. The first thing that I had to learn was to laugh, especially at myself with my mishaps in learning the language. With this, I learned to appreciate their zest for life, and I think some of it has rubbed off on me. I never expect someone to pronounce my name correctly. I also learned how to understand a foreign dialect without enunciation. Most Madrileños, especially our generation, don't enunciate. When I finally worked my way past that, the next roadblock was the slang. I understood the sounds, but not the words. I told a guy in the group this problem and he immediately took a sheet of paper, and wrote 22 synonyms for 'penis' and 18 for 'vagina'. It was clearly a huge joke, and the whole group joined in, but I now recognize these words, the meanings of which I would have never guessed. Hanging out with them, my Spanish has improved immensely. I walk down the street and I understand conversations going on around me. Best yet, I understand my new friends enough to know that they are great guys and a lot of fun. Like most Spaniards, they see nothing unusual with staying out until 6a.m. and frequently beyond.
Had I not met Dani that day on campus, I definitely wouldn't be in near as good of a mood day-to-day as I am today. I love basketball, and it is my sole form of exercise. It makes me feel at home even though I'm a million miles away. Had I not been welcomed into this new group, I would miss home a lot more and I probably would have spent a lot more time hanging out with the CIEE group speaking a lot of English. I still hang out with the group, and love every minute with them. We have a great group that I will miss come next semester. I just didn't come to Spain for that experience. I came here with the intent to learn another culture first hand and assimilate, and I accidentally found that opportunity through basketball. I am really excited that I have another semester to spend in Madrid to get to know my friends better. My Spanish will no doubt continue to improve, although every time I use it i literally surprise myself with how good it has gotten. Anyways, I'm off to Móstoles now to get my shot back and hear a lot of men yell curse words in Spanish. My favorite part of every week.