Brazilian Pickup Ball as a Microcosm of My Experience in Brazil

Play at Redenção.
This post was originally published at my family's missionary website.

2016 has begun, my family is safely and securely ensconced in a new home, and it's time to start building up the ministry of OMI Reformed here in Brazil. From scratch, my brethren, from scratch. I bake the biscuit, you spread the jam, but it is the Lord who giveth the deliciousness.

It is our intent to start working with youth in the city of Porto Alegre through basketball this year, and our prayer that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will guide us, give us clarity of vision, and bless the work of our hands. 

It is time, then, to start plugging into the local basketball scene. The boys have joined a local basketball program. I look forward to seeing them develop in that, and I hope they can participate also in whatever work we build with OMI.

Yesterday I went to a local park, the Parque Farroupilha, unofficially and more commonly known as Parque da Redenção (Wikipedia article in English about the park). One of my two short-term goals is to get to know the streetball/pickup basketball scene in the city (I'll talk about the other goal in another post). I believe this will help me better decide the who/where/how of our first projects.

So for the first time in Brazil I went out and played a little basketball. I'm still very sore today, after pounding 330 pounds up and down a concrete court for a couple of hours, and one of my big take-aways is that I have to get in better shape if I'm going to get to know the scene through playing. Even out of shape I can keep myself moving on the rugby pitch, the basketball fitness is another animal. I need to bring a little more quickness and a little less weight to that party.

The basketball was of a decent quality. The men knew what they were doing, and had clearly been playing since they were kids, although there was a slight lack of the native flair you would have seen on an American court. I was told by one of the better guys there that Saturday would be when the really good guys would be there, so I'm looking forward to seeing what that's like. That being said, this dude, who was nearly as tall as I and much younger, kept hitting threes on me, so I'm going to have to up my game.

All of this by way of introduction to the theme of this post, which is a bloggy version of the breathless meditation on me and my attitude about Brazil and I sat against the chainlink fence, gassed and unable to keep playing (my team won every game we played, so we kept the court, but I had to beg out, because I'm so out of shape!!). I decided to read my first basketball experience in Brazil as an allegory of our time here, pre-figuring the years to come.

Knowing what you're doing makes you feel like you belong, makes you feel confident. You know how after a bucket or a foul in the U.S. you "check" the basketball up top to restart play? Here they restart by passing it in from underneath the basket, and if you're playing half-court you still have to get the ball out past the three-point line before attacking. This makes it so that there are fewer moments of relaxation, where everyone resets and the old men maybe hold the check for just a little longer. Instead, the ball is under duress the entire time. A lifetime's habit of facing back to the top after a bucket meant that I turned my back on the play several times; after each bucket I made I grabbed the ball out of the net and rolled it back up top, robbing my team of any momentum in the reset.

It goes without saying that there have been many things about our transition to living in another country that have been different just 'cause they're different. Not better or worse, just different. Of course, different does mean that there's a change in quality. For example, waiters are never in a hurry. Which, when you really want something, as an American, is frustrating. But then, it's really nice when you realize that no one's trying to turn the table for the next customers; they think you're not in a hurry either, that you're going to relax and take your time.

The differences can be sources of stress and frustration, of course. I realized the first time I sent the ball the wrong way that I was hurting my team, But force of habit being what it is, I kept doing it. By the end of the day I was better. Next time I go out I think I'll only look dumb a few times. As y'all know, I speak Portuguese fluently. Sometimes when I do or say something particularly boneheaded out in the great wide Brazilian world, I think to myself, "This guy might still think I'm Brazilian. I'd better play up my Americanness so he doesn't think I'm really dumb." Which is a really insecure thing to do, y'all.

One of the last times I threw the ball to the top of the key I got a friendly pat of sympathy from an opponent. Poor dumb gringo big guy. But the pat did make me feel better.

​Kimberly and I have really been enjoying our time here, our new church, our new home, the people we're meeting. But we've been praying (and you can to) that we'd not fall into a pit we've already kind of fallen into. Being in a new country has its endemic difficulties. Pile on top of that difficulties that you know go beyond just troubles of language or superficial culture, like the overwhelming bureaucracy, and the sinful nature just wants to complain. 

I am looking forward to what's on the other side of this transition and our whining about it. What's waiting on the other side is how Brazilians count the score in pickup ball. Allow me to explain.

In September of last year Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland wrote a fantastic piece about how to fix pickup basketball. It addressed the biggest problem of pickup basketball, a problem that has been a source of personal discontent for a long time, but which I'd never seen anyone else criticize in concerted and organized fashion. The problem is that the scoring of pickup ball, in order to be simplified, makes regular baskets worth 1 point and long-range shots worth 2 instead of 3 points. This means that "three-point shots " are worth twice what a normal basket is. Pickup ball often degenerates into three-point shooting contests. This ruins it as basketball, but you can probably see why this would be also personally vexing for a man like me, who stands at 6'9" and weighs in at 330.

Y'all. These dudes at Redenção were playing real basketball. Real. Basketball. And why?

Because the baskets were worth two and three points. 

So while I briefly allowed the awkwardness of the new rules and new basketball culture to frustrate me, this becomes clear. The way I've been made, and the way I do things, there can be no doubt: I belong here.