Baghdad Diary: Basketball at the Border

Prashant’s Note: This blog post was published by AFP on December 17, 2009. It can be found in full here.

by Prashant Rao

One of my favourite books is ‘Big Game, Small World’. In it, the author, a columnist for Sports Illustrated, travelled the world just playing basketball, meeting people and interacting with them by shooting hoops.

Imagine my elation, then, when I got to experience my own such basketball moment just the other day, playing a game of H-O-R-S-E in a remote US military outpost a short walk from Iraq’s border with Iran.

First, some context: I am embedded with the US army in southern Iraq, along the border with Iran, hoping to learn about security measures along the fronter, and find out a little about the kinds of measures being taken to prevent smuggling and the transfer of weapons and munitions to Iraqi insurgent groups from Iran.

It was with that mission that I arrived at Joint Security Station (JSS) Wahab, which houses around 80 American soldiers in a facility that was voted the most “austere” in southern Iraq in a military-sponsored poll earlier this year. How austere? The soldiers shower just once every three days, and even then are restricted to “combat showers” (i.e. use as little water as possible). They have weekly limits on how much water they can use to clean their clothes, and recently had to hold on to their disposable cutlery because the base had run out of its supply.

There are, however, a handful of amenities — a couple of Xbox 360 consoles hooked up to flat-screen TVs, a well-regarded dining facility, some computers connected to the Internet, a recently-upgraded gym (a reward for being voted most austere) and a basketball court.

The “court” features a metal rim attached to a wood backboard, supported by a weighted metal frame. Because the ground is covered in gravel, the floor is made up of large metal planks attached to each other but with gaps in between where feet can accidentally get caught. It is surrounded on all sides by blast walls. Madison Square Garden, it is not.

So after a day spent travelling between a couple of JSSs and a larger Contingency Operating Base that acts as a logistics centre, I left my bags at my cot and headed over to the court where, by coincidence, five soldiers were shooting a basketball. A three-on-three game ensued, followed by another, and another. Our team won three consecutive games before finally losing a hotly-contested fourth (we lost by two baskets). Having only arrived a few hours earlier, none of the soldiers knew me, so they referred to me simply as “the reporter”.

Little by little, as it began to get dark and the generator-powered floodlights were turned on, various soldiers began filtering back to their tents or to the Xbox/Internet stations, leaving just me and the sergeant who heads the JSS’s dining facility (or DFAC). After shooting around for a while, I suggested we start a game of H-O-R-S-E.

For the uninitiated, the game involves players mimicking each other’s shots. If one player made a shot, his competitor would have to make the same one from the same place, or face receiving a letter. The first person to spell out HORSE loses.

I started out promisingly enough — I made a shot from the very edge of the metal floor, in the corner parallel to the backboard. Unfortunately, the sergeant matched. From there on, he dominated me, making one shot while facing opposite the basket, another rolling left-handed hook, and a long jumpshot. I only managed to give him one letter — a shot from in the gravel, behind the backboard (swish). The one shot I kept getting close on, balancing myself on the incline of a blast wall before I jumped off to shoot, only went in after he’d beaten me and I was trying it for fun.

Was it annoying to lose? Sure. But afterward, I started thinking about how incredible it was, to be playing basketball on a make-shift court in Iraq, just a short distance from neighbouring Iran.

Big game, small world? Yup.

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