Rwanda Suite: Basketball

by Steven Gowin

Yup, I gave Coach a basketball. That's right, but don't worry, it was a pump with it too.

You make a wedding gift personal, see, otherwise you go on the register. I was new to weddings, so I'd looked it up, and even NPR said don't go on the register.

The invitation came after the Peace Corps. I was back in the states and driving as a car messenger. Sometimes I'd collect game footage for the Eyewitness News at 11 and drive it back to the station. Had a press pass and all. 

So I'm at the Oakland Coliseum court side waiting for halftime highlights one night before I'd figured out the gift. Anyway, Bill Walton drives to a corner in front of me so close I see the sweat sparkling and smell him — tea berry — and I see the scars and gnarled veins on his legs and ankles. Jesus. He set for his shot but missed. That's what reminded me.

We'd gone to Africa together, Coach and I, as English faculty for the Université Nationale du Rwanda. Once in country, they'd put us in a row of apartments called The Motel. Everyone there employed sentinelles to guard their places and keep fire under the 55 gallon drums that served as our water heaters.

Evenings, as they chopped eucalyptus for our hot baths, Coach chatted up these gents. We were Peace Corps, see; we were meant to contact the locals. So they'd listen standing there in dirty khaki shorts and wife beaters, and lean on their axes laughing when Coach repeated in Kinyrwanda the dirty words and jokes they'd taught him.

He stood six two, Coach did, same as me, but with curly blond hair and clear blue eyes. All Rwandans, the Québécois, the Belge, even the French, called him simply l'Américain, the American. They considered him some kind of beach boy or surfer, some California dream. Well in fact, he had grown up in San Diego.

His father'd loved basketball too, had shot hoops in the South Dakota barn on the farm where he, the old man, was a boy. You could stay out of the Arctic wind out there in winter, and it was enough height to practice top of the key jumpers. With the 250-watt flood, you could play into the night.

At 18, the father'd come West for Marine training, telling himself he'd prove his manhood. He'd fought in Korea and won a Purple Heart. Afterwards, relocating back to California, he landed a fireman's job, married a SoCal beauty queen, his best Marine pal's sister, and bought a flat house on a cul-de-sac facing the Pacific.

He'd tried to be a good dad, put up that basketball hoop, played horse with Coach in the driveway, taught Coach to feign and guard and make the long shot from the corner. He'd told Coach that Coach would be the man that he, the father, never would be, couldn't be, which Coach only understood much much later.

Then, in 1967, with the Santa Anas blowing hard off the Mojave, it was no stopping the Poway Ramona blaze. You couldn't pump enough water to even dent it. Who'd guess the scrubby chaparral could rage and explode like that? Coach's old man had suffered broken bones and serious burns, but survived while a lungful of flame had done for Coach's uncle, his father's best friend and true love. 

In the wake of disability and depression, and unable to extinguish his demons, Coach's father gave up playing horse in the driveway, and with no idea of how to handle his loss and ruined life, drank cheap liquor and gobbled morphine tabs into deeper and deeper pain and despondence.

He'd finally met his limit, and Coach'd found him on a clear day, at sunset. The father'd left the roll-up door wide open so the Western light of dusk blazed onto him off the Pacific, over the free throw line, past the backboard, and up under the garage rafters where he dangled by his fireman's suspenders.

It all left the boy puzzled and troubled but branded with a conviction that he'd must live out every second of his life passionately, a little wild if necessary, whether he understood the instant or not, and that he'd shine the same bright Western light his daddy'd courted into darkness.

Maybe that's what seeded the affair with our neighbor, the Frenchman, a bit older but urbane with wonderful British accented French, and clearly enchanted by the Californian. Their romance surprised me at first; I'd never known a gay couple, but the two were by far the most interesting people I'd ever met and my best friends.

We'd signed up for the Peace Corps like I said, me as the only way to quit the Midwest, and Coach for the adventure of it, the intensity, I think, a hedge against boredom. And so while I struggled to simply learn a few words of French, Coach had volunteered for the basketball team. The previous team skipper, Flemish and a pedagogue, had quit the job calling the kids non civilizé.

The new coach began first day's practice with a couple of dirty jokes certainly gleaned from the sentinelles and probably concerning cows. On sure footing with the team now, he was off and running.

As much as he respected the double stack and overload, set picks, screen strategies, and basketball tradition, he cared far more for fast breaks, stretched layups, slammed blocks, physical and blood pumping, house afire play with fragrant tea berry sweat, the kind of basketball the team was already playing.

They'd planned a six game season against several Catholic boys' schools, and a “big game” against rival Université Nationale du Burundi. That year, our star forward, Vedaste Baptiste Nkunda, a veterinary student, had been called home to Gitarama to tend his father's favorite bovine.

The boys practiced hard to compensate, and Coach practiced with them. A coach playing alongside his team was common there. On game day, our guys came on strong and kept the score close. But by the third quarter, when the Burundian coach, an ex member of the Belgian Olympic Team, went into the game, the Burundais had surged ahead six points. 

To answer, Coach took forward, Nkunda's position; we rallied, and were on the verge of regaining the lead when Coach intercepted a hot Burundi pass, faked left and slipped right, drove around his defender down court and in close. But when he jumped for the layup, he tangled with a giant Burundi Tutsi. 

Missing the shot, Coach lost balance and came down hard on his shoulder. Ligaments sheared between his collar bone and scapula, and I swear I heard something like a cellophane décollage; I heard it tear.

The local Belgian physician, Doc Shields, used mainly to treating clap in femme libres and French volunteers could do no more than stabilize the shoulder and suggest morphine tablets which I picked up at the pharmacy without prescription. Meanwhile the embassy sent a car from Kigali.

Whether malaria or mamba bite, whether your heart still beat or you'd already expired, the Peace Corps always sent you to Germany. From there, only three days after the injury and the required surgery, Frankfurt sent Coach home to La Jolla with a big jar of OxyContin and instructions to rest for a month. 

A couple weeks later, on a balmy Pacific afternoon, Coach surfaced from opioid limbo to someone repeating “Mwaramutse, mwaramutse, muharo!”  He'd fallen asleep during the Dialing for Dollars presentation of King Solomon's Mines and awoken to “Good morning, hello,” in Kinyrwanda, when the Mwami King welcomed Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr to his Tutsi village.

I would have quit the Peace Corps after that, but Coach returned, I think for the Frenchman who he followed to Paris at end of the academic year. That relationship ended in a few months though.

From there I know that coach went home to California, and then on to graduate school in Texas. That's where he'd met the fiancé, with whom he'd found preference and stability. 

By then I'd come home too, but had managed to quit the featureless white heartland with its twangy monotone English and come to California where I could hear Cantonese and Spanish and Tagalog and live on the hills by bay and ocean side. After the wedding invitation, I'd struggled over the gift, but you already know that.

In the end I did ok though, no register junk. I sent tea berry flowers for the ceremony, damned hard to find. And for the wedding gift, the basketball, a good one. And like I said, it was a pump with it too.