I coached freshman basketball for a season before I came to Mongolia. I also started a basketball club at my school here (and by basketball club I mean me trying to teach a bunch of 7th, 8th and 9th grade non-English speaking Mongolians the fundamentals (in English), but usually just breaking down and letting them play what I like to call basket-rugby-ball). I love basketball, but when it comes to playing (especially in front of people), that has always been a part of my past that I would like to keep there. That is until last November.
I received a call from a fellow volunteer who was putting on a basketball tournament at his site. He was looking for players to play on an all-volunteer team, and some how, I ended up on his list. Now, I realize I'm lacking fundamental basketball abilities, but of course I said yes. So, four months later, seven other volunteers and I were on the train heading down south for an all-Mongolian basketball tournament, where we would be playing the role of the team everyone was shooting to knock down - Team America.
The day we arrived at the site of the tournament we went straight to the gym. The volunteer who set up the tournament, Jake, was taking it seriously (he had been playing every day for a long time to prepare and a friend of his from California was coming over for the week to play too). We arrived a few days before the tournament began so we could get some practice in. It turns out that after a winter spent sitting around in a ger, the lungs take a little longer to catch air. So seven still young (but not young enough) guys spent three days running up and down the court during the day and then spent the night rubbing themselves down with tiger balm and reminiscing about what their bodies used to be able to do.
During those nights of soreness (and bad memories) we were all packed into the same hotel room. Now, it is quite normal for volunteers to not shower for long periods of time. My personal record is two weeks. I know that's really nothing to be proud of but I would suggest that you try it, it's quite liberating. Warning: do not try not bathing if you are married, have children, have a job, have friends, want to have friends in the future, or live outside of Mongolia. If none of these apply to you, go for it. So if you can, imagine a group of guys who haven't showered for far too long, sweating all day long and then sleeping in a tight confined space for a whole week (that one I will leave to your imagination).
Three days after we had arrived, the tournament began. Now one thing to know about Mongolia is that schedules don't really exist like they do in America. In an American tournament there would be a set bracket with set times so if you wanted to duck out for a while before your next game, you could. Not so in Mongolia. Here, there are brackets, but nobody knows when anyone is going to play. I guess I shouldn't say anyone though, what I really mean is the Americans. All of the Mongolians seem to know what's going on, but if you were to ask me what time my next game was, I would tell you what a Mongolian would tell you, "It's one of the next games."
You get used to waiting here; it's just the way things work. You learn pretty quickly that when something is supposed to start at 5, you might as well show up around 6, so you have less of a wait. I will have to admit though, I'm a year in, and I still show up at 5 and then complain to myself about Mongolians never showing up on time.
The first day as we were all laying around our hotel room, we got the call (far earlier than we had expected I might add). Our first game we drew a high school team. You would think this would be easy right? Well, these kids were in shape. Running all over the court, making us chase after them and then I'm sure laughing behind our backs as we struggled to breathe. In the end though, experience won out (but my legs were definitely the losers).
After a couple more wins under our belts we came up against one of the best teams in the tournament. They were a team straight out of the MBA (Mongolian Basketball Association). At this point we weren't too worried. At the outset we had been a little nervous about getting beat, but after a few wins, and some playing time together, things were starting to click. This team turned out to be good. A huge crowd came to cheer against us so the odds were not in our favor.
It didn't matter though, we were Team America. We were getting a little cocky, but we felt like we had every right to be. Then we found ourselves down 15 points and quickly remembered how out of shape we were and found our cockiness turning to fear. It turned out to be a good game, but after a few big shots by Team America, we pulled another one out.
The win against the MBA team put us into the championship against another MBA team. In the Mongolian Basketball Association there are two different leagues. There is the Sprite league (which is the lower level players) and then there is the Sengur (Mongolia's popular beer) league which had the top players. The first team had been a Sprite league team, but in the championship we would be playing a Sengur team.
This time we were fresh out of cockiness, and it was a good thing too because we got down fast. Down 15 points the entire game, we made a big push the last five minutes of the game to bring the score within three points with 10 seconds left, and here's the call:
"Team America is down three points with 10 seconds left. It's Mongolia's ball out of bounds underneath America's basket. America is in a full court, man-to-man press. Everybody's ready. The ref hands Batbold the ball and we're off. He's running the baseline but can't find anybody. If he doesn't get this off quick he's going to get a five second call. But wait, Campbell's man gets by him and is running down the court wide open. Batbold lets it fly, but it's tipped. The ball lands right in Campbell's hands and he's immediately tackled. With seven seconds left on the clock, Campbell will shoot two free throws to try and bring Team America within one point. He walks up to the line. The ref throws him the ball. He takes his time. His first shot is up...oh and it's not good. He's got one more shot to bring his team within two. He gets the ball for a second time, takes his dribbles, aims and fires. Oh no, he misses again, but the ball is loose. Both teams are fighting for it. America gets it...oh and there's the buzzer. It's over. Mongolia has beaten Team America by three points in the championship game. Oh my, tragically it seems to be true what they say, Brett Campbell, the basketball player, is washed up."