Though I know nothing about the virtues of fishing, I like to think that finding good ball has some similarities with this patient and noble pastime. Like the rivers and oceans and the fish that live there, public parks and the people who play there sway by weather and temperament. And, lest the best spots become overfished by amateurs and assholes, many courts are purposefully unadvertised and tucked away. Even after you've found the best spots on one of those perfectly sunny and crisp late spring Sunday afternoons when you most expect the fish to bite, you'll discover teenage boys and girls chain smoking cheap cigarettes underneath the hoop. So how does one find this elusive gathering (the narrator said in his best David Attenborough voice)?
When you are a stranger you can only wander.
In Budapest, I got off the metro at Déak Ferenc square at the heart of the city center. I prepared myself to wander, but not before a little help from our Lord and Savior, Go(d)ogle, peace and blessings be upon its name. Because I cannot afford to purchase temporary phone plans in each country I visit, I am entirely dependent upon Wi-Fi. I found a café that displayed the clam-shaped symbol for Internet, sat down and ordered an espresso. Before the waitress could put in my order, I had another request:
"Um, excuse me, but what's your Wi-Fi passcode?"
Her chin lowered but her eyes disdainfully focused on me. I never feel so small as when I ask for those passwords.
I logged in and brought up Google Maps and with my electronic Apollonian eye, I scoured the cityscape for squares and triangles and nebulas of green. Somewhere in those public lots would be basketball courts, and, hopefully, basketball players. I wrote down the cross streets and made a mental map.
I first walked through the Jewish district of Budapest. There were bars and a few blocks of sex clubs that advertised Glory Holes as though they were kebab specials. Soon I saw the forest green iron of a park fence.
I could see a court on the far side of the mostly empty Klauzál tér (square). There were miserable-looking basketball hoops that sat atop a net-less soccer goal. They were conspicuously unused. The other basketball hoop was without backboard, its rim hung in the air like a still and rusted halo. I watched two young brothers boot a soccer ball at each other, completely unaware of the other sport at their disposal. So I continued to wander.
It rained for a moment and I ducked into the old opera building. I wandered the ornate halls, but was not welcomed because of the basketball shoes that dangled from my bulky backpack. When the rain stopped, I headed back to Déak Ferenc where another park, the Erzsébet tér, was located.
There, in the shadow of a 200-foot-high Ferris wheel was a basketball court. Only two played: two Israeli brothers of Georgian descent (why is it that everyone I meet now is Israeli?) shot on an 11-foot rim and tried not to slip on the wet court. I walked up to the brothers and made the one request that no basketball player can deny.
"Can I shoot around with y'all?"
He passed me the ball. I took a shot and made it.
"Where you from?" Mishel, the older brother, asked. "Oh, New York, eh? I better watch out—this guy's a pro."
Mishel, who was round and thick with one of those perpetual five-o'clock shadows, challenged me to a game of one on one. Unable to turn down this request, no matter the circumstance, I didn't change out of my plainclothes so that I wouldn't take the game too seriously. We played and I handled him without breaking a sweat. We chatted about basketball in Israel and Hungary. We quickly ran out of things to say about basketball and Mishel changed the topic to girls.
"Girls here, man, SO easy. You buy them one shot and then you get whatever you want! I mean, look at me, how short I am. In Israel, I could never get a good girl." A devlish grin lit up his face. "But here, I've got a girl that is like you!" He gestured at my height. I nodded, if only to acknowledge that I heard the words that came out of his mouth. Now that we had sufficiently bro-bonded, I saw an opportunity to find a new play to stay for the night. I told him about how the person I was staying with was a guy who was trying to hook up with me. Mishel was repulsed. He said he'd see what he could do about it, but that he lived in a small flat. We agreed to play basketball again tomorrow and parted ways.
As I left, I shamefully recognized that I had used someone else's homophobia to my benefit.
I walked until I ran up against the Danube, the river that splits the city in half. I was on the working-class, 'Pest', side. Across the river was 'Buda', which is more posh. I followed the river, occasionally looking up at the tops of buildings to orient myself. There are no skyscrapers in Budapest. The skyline is low and baroque, and the buildings peak at four stories. As I trekked north, I followed gold spires piercing the skyline. It was the Parliament building. It was extravagant. I took a selfie. An older Asian couple stared and I felt the cold sweat of selfie-shame. I walked through the Parliament's wide and open courtyard and stared until I could stand to admire it no longer.
A few blocks further, I saw a park that took up an entire city block. Perched above the riverside entrance to the park were the five rings of the Olympic symbol and inside was a basketball court. It was called…Olimpia Park. I was elated until I saw it populated by shirtless teenage soccer players. I walked in anyway.
“Does anyone ever play basketball here?”
A blonde boy with the faint signs of a mustache answered in lightly broken English.
"No. Nobody plays basketball here. Football only."
"There must be basketball," I said. "This court is too nice to not play basketball on."
He didn't budge.
"There's a park down the street. They play basketball there."
I said thanks, even though I figured they were just trying to get rid of me, and went to see the other park.
This park was heavily wooded with a playground and Ping-Pong tables and there was, in fact, a basketball court. Through the leaves and thin wire fence I saw two 20-something boys shooting. I walked through an opening in the fence and set my backpack down.
"Can I shoot around with you guys?"
They both looked at each other with an unsure expression. I repeated myself, this time more clearly. The shorter of the two, Peter, who spoke decent English, tossed me the ball. I made the first shot. At first, we shot around in silence. Everything about the hoop was metal. The backboard, the rim and the net. I love the sound of the ball going through woven metal—urban wind chimes.
I started to pry about finding some competition.
Peter, who donned a well-worn t-shirt with the Looney Tunes' Tazmanian Devil inside of a basketball hoop, told me that the weekends were best.
"Football (soccer) rules here. That's what everyone plays. But people play over at the Olimpia Park on the weekends."
Peter shot the ball. He had good form. Tom's shot was a little quirky.
"Where are you from?" Peter asked. "Ah, nice, so who do you like: the Knicks or the Nets?"
"Neither. I don't really have a team anymore...What about you?”
I never thought I would hear mention of this Midwestern city abroad. Peter listed the players from the 2004 Championship team: Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace.
"I also like the Patriots," Peter continued. Apparently, the NFL has a bit of a following in Hungary. They broadcast games and Hungarians watch. Peter explained to me that this was because the Hungarian national soccer team has been dismal for decades.
While Peter and I bonded over the Patriots and the NFL, I asked him where he lived. He pointed to a building around the block with a salmon pink exterior. I dropped hints that I was looking for a place to crash, this time omitting my current living situation, but either my subtle suggestions were lost in translation or Peter did not want to host me.
We shot around some more and then parted. On this particular day there were only nibbles, but maybe I'd land a big fish this weekend at Olimpia Park.
I found a café nearby with Wi-Fi. D.C. had left me a message asking what time I would return to his apartment. I guessed I could spend one more night at the awkward Bed & Breakfast.