Street ball in Spain. Not at all what I expected, though I admit I figured Spaniards wouldn't be worth much under the boards. I thought that I, American aficionado of pick-up basketball, would dominate. I was wrong, at least twice.
The basketball bounces the same way. You still find pebbles all over the courts, which make for mean strawberries if you go diving after loose balls. The baskets hang the same 10 feet plus off the ground -- when the rim hasn't been warped by some wanna-be who can jump.
Just like in the States.
Still, after playing dozens of games (15, win by two) on courts near the University of Madrid, I am charmed, surprised and sometimes irritated by the differences and similarities between the way they play ball here and the way it's played in America.
The contrasts are worth noting. But first, imagine my joy at finding a game in progress just days after I arrived here. The air was warm, hot almost in the sun. Grass was green. Since when do I play basketball outside in January?
But there they were, 10 guys running up and down the court. I was especially happy for two reasons. Playing ball has become a necessary fix for my brain. My thinking becomes particularly sluggish if I don't play often enough. My body needs the workout. At 26, I'm no slouch, but a quick glance toward my belly and there's no denying I have a spare tire in the offing.
So when I saw the game, my pace quickened. I thought of how my jump shot was supposed to work. Thought, in fact, that despite years of feast or famine with my J, the shot had to dominate here.
I got to the court. Behold, the 18- and 19-year-olds dribbled, passed and shot. Not badly, either. For a moment, I cringed with embarrassment. Why did I think Spaniards would be unable to play as well as, say, people in Northwest D.C.?
The game ended. My guilt slithered away when I was asked to play.
I walked onto the court. A ball bounced my way. I snatched it out of the air. Gave it a good, two-handed squeeze, bounced it a couple of times (not too bouncy, not too dead). Raised it and flicked my wrist. Swish. Perfect, which always happens when I haven't played for awhile.
I leaned forward to receive a pass. The next shot would tell me if I was to go hungry that day. Then I saw the first big difference between the way people play ball here and at home. You see, when you make a warm-up shot in the States, you always get the ball back. Always. But here, the guy who got the rebound didn't even look my way.
Don't they know the rules?
Okay, so I was a little irritated. And I continue to believe that when you make a shot, you earn the second one; on good days, the third, fourth or fifth one. But I've resigned myself to the fact that they don't do it that way here.
Anarchy rules warm-up time in Spain.
In fact, anarchy plays an important, though quiet, role throughout the pick-up game here. That's not to say they play poorly or without rules. On the contrary. Many of the players have played basketball for years in junior leagues or on intramural teams. Some have played for years in pick-up games. There's a lot of hustle and in general a lot of passing.
Occasionally, you'll even get an elbow in the ribs from someone playing aggressively beneath the boards. (The key is wider here; naturally the three-second rule is all but disregarded.) But really, flying elbows are rare. For a simple reason: In Spain, they call wimpy fouls.
Yes, I said wimpy. Go to Adams-Morgan and chop any guy across the wrist as he drives toward the basket. Unless you knock him down (or it's the last point of the game), the guy doesn't say a thing.
Here a guy drives to the basket and bumps into you. What do you hear? Falta! Block a shot, clean as can be, and what? Falta. Simple as that. The thing that gets me: No one even questions the call. Ever.
As tired as I got of on-court diplomacy, not questioning a bad call is like not talking about the weather during a blizzard in July.
Anarchy tinges other parts of the game. For instance, ever hear of the Spanish four-step? No, not a dance. In America it's called walking, but it's never mentioned here. They don't "check" the ball either. They just start playing after fouls or after the ball has gone out of bounds. Ready or not, here I come.
The craftier players take full advantage of the freedom.
What's more, anyone can play. Even in the best games. As long as someone can make the requisite number of free throws in a complicated pregame lottery, they can play. Eight of the players might be well over six feet tall, wearing padded leather high-tops, sweat socks and T-shirts that say anything from Universidad de Madrid to Georgetown. The other two might be 5 feet 4, wearing worn-down running shoes, black dress socks and button-down shirts. They can't shoot and can barely dribble. But they're accepted without a hitch.
In the States, dress socks and shirts don't cut it. Here everyone not only plays, they get the ball.
The last time I played, a guy like that ran with the other team. A funny thing happened.
The guy's shot reminded me of the old, long Plymouth I occasionally see parked half on the sidewalks along the cobbled back streets of old Madrid. He used both hands, lofting the ball so high that it came almost straight down, like a missile. Sort of a relic, that shot. The thing that made me laugh was what he said after one of his bombs ripped through the net -- one shot in 20. It took me a minute to sift through his accent. Then I understood: Michael Jordan!
Just like home. Robert O'Harrow is a free-lance writer who is living in Madrid.