Prologue: I’m six-foot four-and-a-half. I’ve been that way since college. My roommate was six-foot seven. Neither of us played basketball, and we tired of answering questions about our height. We joked about making special t-shirts. Mine would read:
I’m 6’ 4 ½”, and
I don’t play basketball
I weighed into high school at 88 pounds, was five-foot-four, and wore size 13 shoes—not exactly the coveted frame for an athlete. Always undersized growing up, I had earned, among others, the nicknames, “Bones,” and “Toothpick.” I was actually an above-average swimmer, though I quit the swim team simply because I couldn’t stand all the skinny jokes. I never even attempted high school basketball.
My sole foray into the sport occurred in sixth grade. Four or five matches into the season, I made my first basket, and the parents celebrated so loudly, I felt like melting. Stung with humiliation, I never returned to the game.
Thirty-three years later, I was teaching English at a growing technical institute in Bandung, Indonesia, looking for ways to better relate to my students. A notice on the gym announced, “Open Hours, Fridays 3-5.” The following week, I tossed aside my sense of doom. I packed my running shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt from home. Being white, tall, and 43, my entrance onto the court created a stir.
Noticing several talented athletes, I proposed starting a campus team. The players asked me to speak to the university’s dean. The dean agreed to fund the team if I managed it. So, within three weeks, I went from English teacher lacking basic basketball skills and knowledge, to university basketball manager / program coordinator—still lacking basic basketball skills and knowledge.
We hired a coach, I began having lunch with the players every Tuesday, and within two months we had come in 2nd place in West Java’s entry-level division of inter-collegiate basketball. The following year, we won the Division 2 championship. This is about when I stopped playing with the college players. Any continuation of the activity ensured revisiting the humiliation of my early years.
In early 2009, we won the Division 1 championship. Teams feared us because of the tall American sitting on the bench with the coaches—our inside joke. In late 2009, we won the qualifying tournament for the national league. In late 2010, we went to the national finals, finishing second, and in early 2012, we won the national championship, giving us the privilege of representing Indonesia in the bi-annual Southeast Asian Intercollegiate Olympics.
The unprecedented achievement—rising through all five levels of competition in just five years—was a fun ride, making headlines, but my true achievement was earning lasting friendships with the students. My highlight of every week until July 2012 was Tuesday lunch with the players.
Epilogue: From 2011 to 2015, the team has made it to the national championship title four times, winning it twice. Oh, and by the way, I still lack fundamental basketball skills.