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Big Trip, Wolff's World

Sports lllustrated writer Alexander Wolff set out to find out whatever happened to that game which Dr. James Naismith conjured up as a learning tool in 1891 but which over the course of a century, enshrined itself, not only in North America, but on shores far removed.

Over a year, Wolff circled the globe in search of basketball's new roots, in places as diverse as Bhutan, Cork and Bosnia, uncovering the people and places who have translated slam dunk into their own language and given it a native twist. spoke to Alex about his experiences en route.

Britball - What made you decide to write this book?

AW: I'd dreamed of writing a book like this since the late 1980s, by which time I'd started to do a fair amount of travel covering international basketball for Sports Illustrated. But it wasn't until 1992, when the Barcelona Olympics sent the game into the far corners of the world, that I could do so with real credibility. Yes, the game was already in Lithuania and the Philippines and Yugoslavia--but through the 90s it would touch China and Africa and every corner of Europe as never before. Still, it took me another six years to get off the dime. 

What finally got me on the road? Well, Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy showed me that thoughtful sports fans will read about sport and culture and the process of chasing them down; my employer grants a six months at half pay sabbatical after 15 years of service; and I'd just gotten married and my documentary filmmaker wife and I wanted to extend the honeymoon. She has a great eye and ear and was a huge help in making sense of the entire experience.

Britball - What brought you to Ireland?

AW: For years I've known an Irish-American named Dan Doyle, and from him, in dribs and drabs, I'd heard tales of his work in Ireland--on behalf of Irish basketball and many other, for sports-related, causes. I collected contacts and stories from Dan and lit out for Dublin and Cork. Soon I could see that most of the stories fell into the category of places to play, and how the tale of the game in Ireland was essentially one of the quest for a roof over one's head. 

I had only a dim idea that so many anecdotes and characters would follow. Charlie Haughey, Edward T. Hanley, and some anonymous guy who's only the world's richest man ... who could make that up? It's one of the reasons I'll never waste my time with fiction.

Britball - What were your impressions of Irish basketball?

AW: Well, it's not all that highly developed, I'd have to say. But those who play it do so with gusto. And the spirit of the Hibernian game is perfectly in tune with Ireland's new self-confidence and eagerness to engage the E.C. and the world at large. I know a bit about the sectarian divide and how it breaks down according to sport, and hoops in Ireland is completely free of that noxious baggage. I think that's to basketball's great credit, actually. The Irish are great travellers. Island people often are - and Gaelic football doesn't travel very well. Hoops does.

Britball - You spent some time in Britain. What did you learn about the game in the UK?

AW: I did spend a few days in Britain . . . caught a huge game between Sheffield Sharks and Manchester Giants, at Manchester, in their huge arena. Big crowd, lots of hype--and the home team lost, which seemed to suck all the air out of the Giants. My impression of English basketball--from watching that one game and from talking to players, coaches and journos over a couple of days--is that its appeal is stylistic and cultural as much as athletic. 

It seemed to me that a lot of the players, even the white guys, were also into urban styles, music, etc. I thought that was fascinating, although it probably cuts both ways: It means that, as Britain becomes more and more ethnically diverse, basketball has a good chance to grow. But it also means that there may be intractable difficulties in making inroads among the white middle class that's totally in the thrall of soccer, rugby, and cricket.

Britball - Would Dr. Naismith be pleased with the state of basketball?

AW: I think Doc Naismith would be appalled at a lot of the things that have attached themselves to basketball, esp. some of the edgy stuff. He was a very serious adherent of "muscular Christianity." He believed in modesty, not braggadocio; in amateurism, not professionalism or commercialism. 

On the other hand, he'd look at Allen Iverson's way with the crossover dribble and surely be impressed. (Naismith LOVED clever dribblers.) He'd look at Michael Jordan's aerial contortions--all in the name of avoiding contact with the defence while obeying the rules against running with the ball--and react the same way. (Remember, Naismith said the game was meant for his athletic beau ideal, a cross between the brute and the greyhound--i.e., MJ.) The cult of the coach, of course, he'd deplore. 

And I must say I agree with the Good Doctor: Coaches get far too much of our attention, and more credit, generally, than they deserve.

Britball - Among everywhere you visited and everything you saw, what was the highlight?

AW: Bhutan had to have been the highlight. It's just so marvellously exotic yet, in basketball, there was this familiar thing everywhere I turned, just there, handy, for me to grab hold of. Plus, the story I stumbled upon there was amazing. A murder mystery, basketball's role in repairing the breach in the royal family, etc., etc.--I couldn't imagine finding such a story when I set out. 

Not actually getting to meet the King, much less to play him one-on-one, wasn't nearly the disappointment I thought it might be. The experience was in the going, in the trying. As Cervantes said, the journey's better than the destination.

Alex Wolff's book: Big Game, Small World is now available. Click here for the Review or to purchase the book.

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