"Wait, so do you know Damian Lillard?"
I had been waiting to ask that question for what felt like hours. We were standing on the side of the basketball court in between games chit chatting. I was visiting my friend Jesse, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique, who had brought me to this small island town off the coast. Essentially a tropical paradise, Ilha do Mocambique not only has white sand beaches, world class snorkeling and old colonial buildings, it also has a concrete basketball court tucked away behind the school. Charmingly simple and beautifully located, center court was painted red with the words "Basket" and "Ball" where a logo or team name would normally be. If you stood on the bleachers and found a gap through the surrounding buildings you could catch a glimpse of the ocean.
Jesse and I had been invited to play pickup earlier in the day and I had proudly worn my Brandon Roy jersey, excited to see if anyone had heard of my beloved Blazers halfway around the world. Unfortunately, the national language of Mozambique is Portuguese, of which I know approximately five words. Up to that point, my expressive gestures and inflection had been unable to successfully cross the language barrier. "Brandon Roy?" I ask, pointing to my jersey and looking at the kid in the Carmelo jersey. Blank stare.
So when I met Dullas, an English speaking, university educated point guard, I could barely control my excitement.
"Damian Lillard? Yes, I know him," he replied.
"He plays for the Wizards right?"
Dullas, whose full name is Muhammad Cassimo, was one of the better basketball players there. At one point, I set a pick for him and he hit me rolling to the basket with a beautiful behind the back bounce pass. I, of course, screwed up the layup but it was an impressive sequence nonetheless. He played with a calmness that only comes from studying the game, learning to appreciate its nuances.
Dullas developed this understanding by playing basketball in seemingly every corner of Mozambique. He grew up on Ilha where he played for the youth team before moving on to Nampula, the provincial capital, to finish high school. This is a frightfully common story for a variety of reasons. Many rural areas in Mozambique don't provide education through 12th grade and families sometimes struggle to pay for uniforms and school supplies. As a result, kids often spend the last few years of school in a larger city living with extended family who are better off.
Stories like this make it clear that the education system is nothing like it is in the states. Beyond the lack of availability, the schools themselves function very differently. At one point, Jesse taught a high school math class with 90 kids and a single desk. He tells a story of the day it rained during their final exam. There was a five foot by five foot hole in the ceiling and the rain had created a lake-sized puddle in the middle of the classroom. All the kids were seated on the floor, huddling around it as Jesse passed out the test.
Already an absurd scene, the situation was even more challenging than it seemed. Cheating is rampant and many students will flip through their notebooks to find answers. The problem is that their notebooks double as a hard surface to write on since they're sitting on the floor. How do you make sure kids aren't looking through their notes to cheat when each one has a notebook and there are 90 of them huddled around a puddle as the rain pours through the ceiling?
Giving tests is Jesse's least favorite part of his service but it's hard to blame the kids when the teachers set a similar example. Teacher absenteeism is perhaps the biggest problem facing the entire country. Jesse's house is right by the school and we'd often see swaths of kids walking to class, only to turn around and walk past us again half an hour later because their teacher didn't show up to work. The school directors, who should be holding teachers accountable, might be the least reliable. They're politically appointed, judged on how well they campaign for the party, not how well they run a school. These behaviors aren't considered unethical or shameful. It's just normal. The culture is simply different and institutions operate with very different rules.
In many ways, institutions are kinda like Wesley Matthews: you don't really understand how important they are until they're gone. Of course, schools in the states aren't perfect, far from it in fact, but there's a level of accountability and structure that we don't even think about or appreciate. The same could be said for the medical system as well.
Daisy, a health volunteer at Jesse's site, gave us a tour of the hospital. The maternity ward had just two delivery rooms, one of which was currently being used for storage. The blood lab was a small house originally meant for parents of sick kids who had to stay at the hospital. It had no windows, a tin roof, and was 10 feet from the tuberculosis quarantine area. As we walked away, we passed a small construction site where they're building a new office building. Strung up on the fence surrounding the site were bed sheets blowing in the wind as they air dried. You could literally see the wind blowing the dust from the construction site up against the previously clean sheets which would soon be used in the emergency room.
Unfortunately, these failing institutions are the reason more people don't have stories like Dullas. After high school, he went to university to study architecture. The college didn't have a basketball team so Dullas started one. The way he tells the story gives it a very Bad News Bears vibe.
"Our first game we lost like 50 - 10. We had only four or five players. But we kept practicing and got more players. By the end of the year, we were holding up the championship trophy."
An amazing story, it highlights something I often forget: Basketball has its own set of institutions and kids wouldn't have a chance to play without them. There were no youth leagues where Dullas grew up, no AAU, little to no funding for high school or college programs, and a general lack of basketball experience or expertise. This isn't surprising considering Mozambique is just 23 years removed from a brutal civil war but it highlights all the things we take for granted. Dullas only had one coach his entire playing career. That was when he was 10 years old.
But he's determined to make sure the kids of Ilha have more opportunities to play than he did. To that end, he's started the Moz' Island Basketball Association (MBA). He coaches the youth team and plays for the adult team, informally organizing games against other towns. Today is their home game against Nacala, a much larger port city to the north. Nacala's team is called Craques do Futuro, which translates to Stars of the Future, and they show up in snazzy yellow, red and black jerseys. The MBA is dressed in blue and white practice jerseys Dullas bought from a second hand clothing shop. So far, he's financed everything on his own, including repairing the court itself. A few years ago, a group of soccer players had torn down the hoop after a disagreement over who got to use the court and Dullas had to hire a metal working crew to fix it, literally getting the basketball program off the ground.
As the game starts, the difference in ability is obvious. Nacala's guards are quicker and their bigs are bigger. They have one player who, I swear to God, is skinnier than Will Barton and must be over six feet tall - a monstrous size for Mozambicans at that age. He gets several offensive rebounds giving Craques an early lead but the MBA has plenty of positives it can build on.
Juni is their best player, a forward with a solid all-around game. His jumper is sweet, his head is always up and he's smart timing his drives and cuts. Both teams run zone so it's hard for one player to really take over but, even so, it would be nice if Juni were more aggressive.
This is especially true when Nacala starts trapping in the half court. The MBA's guards look flustered and you can see Dullas desperately trying to restore order.
"Calma, calma", he says making the same gesture I've seen every coach I've ever played for make. He's holding his arms out in front of him, palms facing down, urging his point guard to relax.
The next time down, his forward, who has no business handling the ball, dribbles head down into a double team and gets stripped.
"Levanta a cabeça. Levanta a cabeça."
I don't speak Portuguese but I think I understood that one.
Bento is the other standout for the MBA. A little bit taller and with a flare for the dramatic, he grabs a rebound and starts dribbling through the crowd. I cringe but he miraculously splits two defenders and goes coast to coast for a layup. Of all the people watching, Bento seems the most pumped as he stomps and screams his way back up the court.
But it's not enough. Way too many turnovers, way too many offensive rebounds and the final score is 35 to 23 in favor of the bad guys. Dullas will say later that it just shows they have to keep working and he's no doubt saying something like that in the huddle. His dreadlocks hover above the heads of his players as they gather around him, listening intently. It's likely that Dullas is one of the few positive male role models in their lives.
As they break, he turns my direction and tosses me a jersey.
The adult game is about to start and I'm their new recruit. I lace up my trail running shoes and pull the jersey over my head. They're blank so someone writes the number five on my shoulder in black marker to keep track of fouls. Game time.
At face value, the gap between the adults looks just as big as between the kids. The Nacala side has two players 6'6" or taller, one of which is built like a truck. At 6'4", I was nominally put at center and tasked with trying to get a rebound. This proved exceedingly difficult since the adults played zone as well. With the language barrier, coordinating rebounding assignments was nearly impossible and we ended up just trying to out jump their big men. You can guess how well that worked out.
On the other end, their zone bottled us up faster than the Widmer factory bottles Hefeweizen (mmm I miss Portland beer). We couldn't hit anything from outside and they drifted closer and closer to the rim with each clanged jumper. Eventually, it was just a swarm of arms and bodies within 15 feet. Since shooting over them wasn't working, we were forced to try and pass and dribble between defenders. You can guess how well that worked out as well.
Turnovers led to run outs which led to easy buckets. When Nacala didn't score in the first three seconds they were getting offensive rebounds for even easier shots. I airballed my second consecutive jumper and the writing was on the wall. The exact score escapes me but we were down something like 20 points going into the final quarter and I was pissed. What had started out as a fun pickup game on paradise island had turned into an embarrassment.
And then everything changed. Our defensive intensity picked up and they were the ones turning the ball over. A steal here, an errant pass there and we were off to the races. They couldn't rebound shots they never took, so we were finally getting some stops, not to mention easy fast break layups on the other end. This broke the seal on the bucket and our jumpers finally started falling. The momentum had shifted and the crowd was going nuts, jumping up and down cheering. After another steal and bucket Dullas turned to me with a big grin.
"The difference is just four points"
We had ourselves a game but time was running out. They made a tough runner in the lane, then we missed a gimme under the hoop, and the whistle blew. That was all she wrote. As with so many comebacks, this one stalled just before the finish line.
Exhausted and disappointed but at least not embarrassed, we shake hands and enjoy a glass of kabanga, a traditional drink made out of corn. Dullas introduces me to Nacala's coach, Joao Mucopela, and tells me that he has been doing great things. Turns out, Craques is in their eighth year and some of the adult players have been playing for Joao since they were 12 years old. More recently, they attracted a sponsor. Ferroviario de Nacala, the local railway company, now provides balls, and occasionally assists with transport. I suspect this is the future Dullas envisions for the MBA but he knows there's a lot of work ahead.
"It is very difficult to start things in sports here" he says.
I have no doubt they can get there but it's a shame it will be so difficult. I remember my middle school jerseys said "Round Table Pizza" on the back with our team photo proudly displayed in their dining room. This wasn't anything special as every team was sponsored by a local business. Coaches didn't have to put this together on an individual basis, it's just the way the league worked.
The difference between youth basketball in the US and Mozambique is even greater if you consider elite AAU programs. This is perhaps a better comparison for Craques whose players were extremely talented and dedicated. Instead of uniforms and occasional transport, they would be receiving shoe deals and flights to the biggest tournaments in the country. Instead of playing on concrete outside, they'd get gym time and maintain a regular weightlifting routine. This lack of established basketball institutions has a real cost. A kid in Mozambique doesn't have the same chance to become the best player he can be or create a future for himself through basketball.
But it also made that night so much simpler and, in some respects, so much more beautiful. These kids weren't playing to get somewhere else. They weren't jockeying for position on the ESPN Top 100. Their handlers weren't sitting courtside, talking with college programs and making who knows what kinds of deals. The youth coaches weren't making six figures, hobnobbing with shoe company executives in between games. There was no fish bowl, no scouts littered around the gym taking notes. There was just a bunch of kids playing for the fun of it and a coach who simply wanted them to have a better life than he did.
That image of Dullas addressing his team is one that will stick with me for a long time. It's not just a symbol for the love of the game but an example of the incredible spirit I saw in the people there. Whether it's Daisy's colleague who works tirelessly in the HIV clinic, Jesse's best English student who's decided he wants to become a teacher, or Dullas himself, they are all inspiring examples of what so many Mozambicans do everyday. Faced with the lack of adequate services or support structures in so many facets of their lives, they stand up, succeed anyway, and start building an institution one person at a time.