Every time I step on the basketball court, there’s only one thing on my mind. Winning. I’m not there to make friends, win over fans or allow the other team to feel good about themselves; I’m there to put the ball in the hoop and get the ‘W.’ I play basketball because it’s fun – but I don’t play to lose.
There are no friends on the hardwood. Challenge a competitive basketball player to a game of 1 on 1, H-O-R-S-E, or 3 point contest. The moment the ball touches their hands, their demeanor changes instantly. Whether facing a sibling, boyfriend/girlfriend or best friend – a competitive athlete only thinks of victory. Though the match may start out as somewhat of a joke, when the game is on the line, the beast will reveal itself. And that beast only wants to win.
In college, a good friend of mine played for the Washington State Cougars. We chatted on the phone and exchanged emails weekly. But in the 7 days leading up to the Apple Cup (instate rivalry game: UW vs. WSU) we cut off all contact. It was as if our friendship didn’t exist. For that week, we weren’t friends - we were rivals. We were enemies. We were out for blood. Every time we stepped on the court for a jump ball, we didn’t make eye contact when when we slapped hands. Of course it was only fitting that we were assigned to guard each other, testing our friendship even further. Neither of us batted an eye when accidently hitting the other with an errant elbow or fouling the other hard on attempted shots. We were both on the court to get the win, not to build our friendship. Once the final buzzer sounded however, we were the first to embrace and congratulate one another on a hard fought game (which I will point out…UW always won – sorry KB, I couldn’t resist! ☺)
It’s strange how sport can affect your emotions – from no emotion, to too much emotion; it’s very difficult to find that middle ground. From the moment I started playing college basketball until now, (3rd season abroad) never had I intentionally befriended an opponent. As stated earlier, opposing teams have always been the enemy and no competitive athlete is looking to make friends on the court (unless of course you knew each other prior to college – this is an exception to the rule). Every season when my UW team and I attended the PAC-10 tournament, every other team would cluster in their own little area, glaring at opponents while making catty remarks just out of earshot. We all had our own friends at our own schools and were more concerned with winning, than complementing someone on how cute their shoes were.
However, post college my mindset has changed somewhat. I still only think of winning when on the court – but now a bit of me always wonders if the opposing American is ‘cool.’ I know, it’s strange. But when you’re a foreigner in a foreign land, you look for almost anything to remind you of home. Since graduating I’ve run into past rivals, some of which I've become friends with (off the court). Most notably Casey Nash, my teammate last season in Portugal. Casey played for Oregon State the same 4 years I played for Washington. We battled each other every season without ever exchanging one word. And now, I consider her to be one of my close friends.
This season in Luxembourg has brought down my barrier somewhat. With only one import on each team, (read: North American player) you’re literally by yourself. Most countries allow 2 or 3 imports and in some cases even more. But here in Lux, it’s only one. You’re all you have as far as a connection to home. At least that was what I thought…
As this season has progressed I find myself surrounded with more and more rivals as friends. It’s a weird feeling, knowing I have to be extra professional when I step onto the court to face my ‘rival.’ In addition, 90% of the time the (North) American players guard one another all 40 minutes. And it can get heated. As the only import player, you are expected to produce every single game. That doesn’t just mean points and rebounds – it means shutting down the opposing American. Talk about pressure and pushing a friendship to its limits. However, the girls I’ve befriended have found ways to somewhat diffuse high emotion situations. It can be as simple as helping you up after a hard foul, patting you on the back when a bad call is made, or even making a sarcastic remark or rolling the eyes when they know they got away with something. It’s nice. It’s different. And I’m learning to accept it.
I definitely have a great group of Luxembourgish friends, but I also have my American friends who help keep the homesickness at bay. I don’t hang out with every import in the league, but I do have an awesome crew that spends a lot of time together. There are about 8 of us – guys and girls included. Five days a week we shoot together in the mornings at a rival club’s gym, meet up Monday nights to eat wings at a specific sports bar in the city, go to each others games and on the weekends and rendez-vous in the evenings to enjoy the nightlife together. As the season heads into playoffs, I’ve found I’ve made some really good friends, who also just so happen to be my opponents. I don’t hang out with them just because they are (North) American. I hang out with them because I enjoy their company.
Sunday was the highlight of my month. As the only Canadian in the league, I put myself out there and organized an event at our gym bar for the Canada vs. USA Olympic gold medal hockey game. I invited almost all the Americans I’ve conversed with during the season and told them we could all watch the game while wearing our country’s colors. Outnumbered more than 8 to 1, I managed to survive the night thanks to Sidney Crosby! It turned out to be a fabulous evening that led into the wee hours of the morning.
As the Olympic Games come to a close, I recommend you check out the two 5 minute clips below. Since the topic of this post was ‘frenemies’, I think it's only fitting to listen to Tom Brokaw explain Canadians to Americans (prior to the Olympics), and enjoy a tear jerking Olympic Montage by the Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt.
Round 3 of playoffs Sunday…ironically against my closest rival/friend here in Lux…