Smells Like Teen Spirit

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The sound of kids playing in the summer: Growing up, that was the sound of basketball. Pick up games in the neighbor’s driveway, behind Mikey’s house, and in the park were played till we couldn’t see the basket anymore or that spoiled kid took his ball and went home.

It is undisputed that the international game of sport is soccer with the game being played from beaches to concrete parking lots. When I moved to Mongolia, I expected the same but perhaps not as rampant because the summer is short, limiting the opportunity to play outdoor sports. Curiously, I thought given their stature, the environment, and proximity to the former Soviet Union that Mongolia would be a hockey town. It is not.

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The soccer pitch is empty.

I was surprised in walking around Ulaanbaatar to hear the sound of a basketball being dribbled, shit being spoken, and that same whiny kid threatening to take his ball home. Every housing complex has a hoop, some with a net, some without, and a group of kids playing until the sun goes down. The absence of street lights didn’t diminish their drive to play one more game. More surprising was the level of skill these young kids displayed: posting up, driving, and shooting from the outside.

Since the 1992 Dream Team, the game of basketball has become increasingly international with this year’s NBA Finals being broadcast to a record 215 countries. However, just because the game has spread to countries like China, does not mean the skills has followed. As an ESPN 4 analyst walking around China and Mongolia, I saw better fundamentals showcased by young Mongolians than the university kids at Fudan in Shanghai who made my jump shot look Ray Allenish.

The love of the game hasn’t quite yet translated for wins on the international stage for Mongolia. Indeed, Mongolia is ranked dead last in the FIBA Asia zone and 112th out of 116th in the overall world standings. But, I conjecture that this has less to do with talent and more to do with infrastructure, resources, and the availability of the game to what is a small population in comparison to their leading counterparts: China, Korea, Japan, and shockingly Iran at number four.

Maybe it’s because kids were out enjoying the last days of summer or maybe it’s because everyone was playing game after game that today, in Mongolia, I didn’t feel like I was 6200 miles from Detroit. I felt like I was a kid back home.

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