I returned to Olimpia Park by the Danube in Budapest, ball in hand, around three in the afternoon. I knew that I was early and that play typically doesn't begin until the sun starts its slope to the horizon, but I was still disappointed to find an empty court. Now I could only wait. I walked onto the court to get a feel. The surface was made of a lawn-green rubber and soccer goals sat underneath the hoop. I went and got a nearby coffee.
Though I had only just walked around the block for what felt like ten minutes, eight young men were playing when I returned. I sat in silence on the cement bleachers on the west side of the court and watched them compete. The tallest and sole shirtless player pump-faked his defender, drove to the lane and reversed dunked the ball. This made me involuntarily correct my posture. It was the first dunk I had seen on my trip and it was a hell of a dunk to boot. I felt my confidence wane. All the players, young as they were, were excellent passers and dribblers. They could shoot pretty well, too. I wondered if I was about to have my ass handed to me by some 17 year olds.
The ball was deflected out of bounds and rolled to my feet. I picked up the ball and handed it to the young blonde who dunked.
"Can I play next?"
He looked at me warily. I couldn't tell if he was sizing me up or if he didn't speak English. One of the other players, a thin Adrian Brody-looking guy with stubble and buzzed hair said that I could play next. They finished their game and I warmed up along the sidelines. When they had finished I picked the three best players from the losing team and I was matched up against the blonde super-athlete. When I first play with strangers I tend to defer offensively. I pass up open looks and try to establish a theme of sharing. When I finally did take my first shot, it was after I had rebounded a teammate's errant three pointer. I was nearly under the rim, and when I jumped, I realized I had reached the backboard sooner than usual. After scoring, I stood underneath the basket and found that the height of the rim not the standard 10 feet, but something closer to 9'6". While six inches may not be very much (depends on the level of confidence of the guy you ask), it makes quite a bit of difference in basketball. Christ, even I could dunk with relative ease, and I did.
The most frequently asked question of any person who plays basketball with some serious regularity is: Can you dunk? This question is asked by athletic philistines and hoop-heads alike because dunking most identifies the sport. Dunking is a feat on par with summiting a mountain. For me, it's a touchy subject because I'd prefer the question to be: Have you dunked. Yes--yes I have. I have dunked twice. And no, I have no proof.
The first time was the summer before my junior year of college when I trained daily to increase my vertical leap. I started at the three-point line and made my charge toward the basket while going left. I jumped with two feet (I've never been very comfortable with the single-legged leap). I lifted and stretched the ball in my right hand and clean stuffed it through the rim. The ball hit me in my sternum before I had even landed back on the ground. It was something I had wanted to do for a great part of my life, something I had fantasized and trained for months to accomplish and it happened so fast and so casually it was almost disappointing. The only other person in the gym was this kid named Frank. I looked at him for confirmation. He barely noticed, but he saw it in his periphery. But this Frank kid was an unknown and when I informed my friends that I had finally dunked, Frank and his testimony were nowhere to be found. Still, I can dunk, if only once or twice in a lifetime.
But here I was, dunking again…Though I hardly considered this legitimate. Even when I would catch an alley-oop and throw the ball with force through the net, it felt hollow. The inimitable joy of dunking was soured by forgery. Like getting an A+ on a school project that your parents did for you. Like playing scrabble with a dictionary. Like sugar-free cookies. Like writing a paper with Wikipedia as your primary source. Like telling someone else's story with yourself as the protagonist. Like watching a movie version of a book and feeling literary. Like having sex with a condom. It just wasn't the same. It didn't count. And it changed the way everybody played the game--it turned in to a sloppy dunk contest. And, truth be told, Hungarians don't play the game the way I like.
Don't get me wrong, the kids at Olimpia Park were talented, if only on the offensive end of the court. On defense, Budapest ballers are like matadors—they stand in the way for show and slip away from any and all contact. The best player of the bunch, another shirtless fellow with a short ponytail, heavy brow and severe back acne got rather upset at my style of defense. He was used to being mostly uncontested when he drove to the basket. I learned that in street ball there is no such thing as an easy bucket. So I challenged him. He gave me a dirty look and said some things in Hungarian. Everybody but me laughed. This was a passive form of play that does not exist anywhere else I have been.
A brief historical interlude:
Because of the country's central location in the Carpathian Basin of Central Europe, Hungary was a sort of nexus for the imperial jaunts of the latter half of the second millennium. In the 16th century it was the Ottomans. After 150 years of war, the Turks were replaced by the Habsburg Empire. When a Hungarian resistance revolted against the Hapsburgs and initially defeated the Austrian army. But then the Habsburgs convinced Tsar Nicholas I to invade Hungary. The Hungarians were defeated. Following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 the whole country was in a state of "passive resistance". There was a brief moment of success for Hungary when it was combined to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that turned out to suck because then Franz Ferdinand got shot and Hungary was thrown into the clusterfuck that was World War I. After the war and a few political uprisings, Hungary was carved up and lost over 2/3 of its territory and 66% of its ethnic population. Then the Nazis took over. Well, they didn't take over so much as they were given the keys to the country. Hungary declared war on the Soviets and that didn't work out so well. The Soviets Stalinized Hungary and sent hundreds of thousands to labor camps and/or to their death. There was a revolution in 1956 and things lightened up a bit and then the Soviet Union fell and now Hungary (really, just Budapest) is overrun with soused meatheads who roam the city streets drinking cheap beer and exploiting the free-market capitalism induced weak currency.
And there were invaders on this basketball court, too.
The basketball players were 20 strong at Olimpia Park that Saturday. Sitting against a wall at the corner of the court were nine soccer players. After a couple of games the leader of the soccer group approached the basketball crew. Words were exchanged, and though I could not understand a single bit, they seemed mostly polite. I asked the Adrian Brody-looking fellow what it was they just talked about.
"They want to play."
"And?" I said. "Did you tell them to go somewhere else?"
"No. They will play a game after us."
"But there are twice as many of us..."
"And they still get to play?"
I was shocked. This would never happen in the States. Though soccer is still more popular in Hungary as a whole, there were twice as many of us as them. Still, in a completely calm and non-confrontational demeanor, the majority gave way to the minority.
There is a new schism in Europe. It's between the old guard of soccer and the reforming ways of basketball. Budapest might be the new door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenburg, Saxony (where Martin Luther nailed his 95-Theses).
Of course, the soccer players took advantage of the kindness of the ruling majority and played games to 11. We played games to 11. It is much easier to score in basketball than in soccer. Still, the basketball players patiently waited their turn and let the ungracious footballers play their game.