|Basketball in Morocco? Who knew? Here is yours truly in hot pursuit, as Hajj watches on.|
Since we moved to a new neighborhood and the temperatures dropped, my attendance trailed off. But I wrote an article about the game and some of its main characters, which was published yesterday in The B, The Baltimore Sun’s free daily. While it emphasizes the hometown angle of my experience, I hope readers everywhere will find the article enjoyable. It is currently in print around town and will remain available on the paper’s online blog, or you can read it below:
Basketball Traveling: St. Paul’s School Grad Finds NBA Fervor Imperfect But Strong in Fes, Morocco
Each Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday afternoon, a cluster of Moroccan teens gathers beside an unmarked wooden door in a quiet, dead-end alley in Fes's old city. Most wear outfits of the gym class variety, but each day at least one arrives in a shimmering knockoff NBA jersey ferreted out from the markets.
About 3:30, a stocky, gray-bearded man approaches, his weathered face broken by a smile. "As-salaamu 'aleikum, ya al-Hajj," the kids greet him with reverence, calling him by the traditional Arabic term of respect "Hajj." He shakes hands and greets them warmly while fumbling out his keys to unlock the door.
The players tumble in behind him to a wide rectangle of cracked and uneven pavement. The court is adorned with two rickety backboards and hoops, from which tattered nets dangle.
Hajj fishes around in a shed and produces several worn basketballs, and the warm-up begins.
* * *
In May, my girlfriend learned she had received a Fulbright scholarship and asked me to accompany her to Morocco. Why not? I thought. I had taken a few years of Arabic in college, lived in the region before, and my desk job in D.C. had lost its luster. I packed up my life to join her in Fes, carrying little more than vague plans to teach English.
When we arrived in September, the first Fulbrighter we met was Ryan Farha, a Gilman graduate. Almost 4,000 miles from home, Charm City was still with me. Putting aside our high school rivalries, he and I accepted an invitation to shoot some hoops.
* * *
At the court, our fellow players are all guys, except for one brave girl, Mariam. They range from middle school to college age, but share a universal adolescent ego, as evidenced by their game. Warming up, the players shift quickly from launching jump shots to fumbling through elaborate behind-the-back-roll-and-lay-up moves.
"Where did a bunch of Moroccan kids learn this stuff?" I ask myself the first time we joined them. For that matter, where did they even learn to play basketball at all?
Lotfi, a reserved, lanky teen with spiked hair, tells me that they can occasionally catch an NBA game via satellite TV. Like all the others I asked, Lotfi told me he hopes to play in the NBA someday.
"Have you ever watched college basketball?"
He stares back blankly.
With college basketball unheard of here, and with the NBA as their only model, it's no wonder that these kids have little notion of defense or passing, and can't box out to save their lives.
* * *
After observing a few minutes of shooting around, Hajj organizes a four-on-four game, rotating players in continuously until dusk. While our basketball careers ended a decade ago, in middle school, Ryan and I hold our own here.
On the sidelines, Hajj regulates the match while coaching both teams. Over and over, he shouts, "Casse le poignet!" Snap your wrist! In the face of the kids' high-flying antics, however, his best effort to instill some fundamentals in them remains an uphill battle.
Though now a 60-something, Hajj is a former athlete himself. One day, I notice the poster for the 1983 Mediterranean Games in Casablanca hanging in his small equipment shed.
"I played three," he says, counting them off on his fingers: "Gymnastics, swimming, and basketball."
To imagine that this stocky figure—five and a half feet short—once ranked among his nation's top basketball champions is to really understand the level of talent in Morocco.
* * *
Hajj presides over the games with an unchallenged authority. His words—and whistle—are law. Unfortunately, Hajj's own understanding of the game is not perfect. He often allows the flashier players to carry the ball for five or six steps before shooting, but whistles a foul when a shot is blocked cleanly.
Nonetheless, his authority allows for something like basketball to occur in an orderly fashion.
And it does occur, three times a week, every week. Here in Fes, like at so many courts back in Baltimore, a motley pack of kids is dreaming big.
Andrew Farrand is a Baltimore native and graduate of St. Paul's School. He lives in Fes, Morocco, and blogs at ibnibnbattuta.com.