NOTHING BUT A BALL GAME

My father desperately wanted his first-born to be a boy – he even had a name ,Giacomo (I dodged a bullet there). He never really said that out loud but from many clues over the course of the years, I am convinced it was so. And I don’t resent him. I wouldn’t be here  right now having the time of my life watching ten dudes fighting to get an orange ball into a net – something that is not terribly new. The Mayans had a very similar game, with stone nets though and apparently they played for their lives, with the losers, or one of them, being thrown into a cenote and left to drown. At times it feels like the guys I am watching are also playing for their lives.

I was not athletic growing up but I sure tried: swimming, tennis, skating – I sucked at all of them. Where I excelled more was at reading books and spending Sunday afternoons with my father watching tennis, Formula 1 Racing and basketball. At age 13 my dad gave me my own seasons’ tickets to one of the best teams in the Italian league – Bologna is a big basketball town, with two teams, one of which, mine, consistently good. I didn’t part with those seats until after I graduated college and moved country. Those benches saw me growing up, were witness to fashion mistakes, change in hair length, even snogging with my impossibly cute bench neighbor. It was in that arena that I started cursing like a sailor, a habit I haven’t unfortunately lost but, above all, where I learned the intricacies  and the beauty of a fast, physical and technical game. I never missed a Sunday or a Wednesday night and, during play offs, I would get up at 5 to line up to get tickets to away games.  I was typically one of the few chicks on those buses or special trains headed into the lion’s den. It was immense fun, friendships were struck and in all those years I never managed to keep my emotions and my anxiety during the games in check. Still can’t.

All the while, I knew that American basketball was supposed to be better. American players who wouldn’t make the draft or who still needed to mature a little bit more before entering the NBA often played for Italian teams. But whenever I watched American games, I found them to be too offensive driven, too focussed on getting the ball to the basket with disregard for any tactical defense play.

It took the Lakers to bring me back to my first love. And what better team, really? Slightly pretentious at time, definitely Hollywood, with Jack court side at every game and tickets impossibly expensive. Still they are a great team – I learnt to read Phil Jackson’s intelligent game, I witnessed the rivalry between Shaq and Kobe with Kobe finally blossoming and becoming one of those players who will still be talked about 20 years from now. Derek Fisher’s heart, the arrival of the lanky Spaniard, Gasol, who changed for the better the dynamic of the team. Probably like every other ball game, it’s so much more than a ball being thrown around a court. Yes, it’s also about the commercials and the sponsorships and the gossip but, at the heart of it all, it’s five dudes fighting for a championship and, by the look on their faces, I would be prepared to bet that money, fame and endorsements play no part during those 48 minutes. It’s all about the game.

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