Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Basketball Odyssey, from Argentina to Asia

Some 20 years or so ago, in the northwestern Argentine city of San Salvador de Jujuy (pictured below), my wife and I were conversing in English when a tall young black man approached us and also addressed us in English. It was more than a little surprising at first, as the country’s Afro-Argentine population – “forgotten but not gone," in the words of one historian – came mostly from the area in and around Buenos Aires, not from this largely indigenous region.
As it happened, the individual in question was not an Argentine nor a Brazilian nor any other Latin American, but rather a US citizen who had come south to play basketball in Argentina and was feeling a bit homesick. This memory came to mind last week as I stood in line to board a flight, from Lima to Los Angeles, in which there was another tall young black man who, as it happened, would briefly occupy the aisle seat next to me in coach (I had the window, but had hoped there would be nobody alongside on a flight that was not quite full).
The young man, whose name I learned was De Angelo Kirkland, stepped out to let me take my seat and then curled up in a near fetal position to prepare for takeoff. As we waited, I asked whether he had been playing basketball in Argentina and, indeed, he had – living in the provincial capital of Paraná (pictured above), about 500 km northwest of Buenos Aires. From Pensacola, Florida, the 6-foot-8 (2.03-meter) forward had played college ball at Columbus State, in Georgia, and then moved south until very recently, when a Japanese team bought out his contract from the Argentines.
In Argentina, he drew a salary in US dollars despite the “currency clamp” that reigned in the country until very recently. He apparently spoke very little Spanish, but his coaches spoke fluent English and, to meet living expenses, he could sell dollars to teammates at the so-called “blue rate.” He thought highly of Argentine players – several Argentines, of course, have been successful in the National Basketball Association - and the local level of play. Conditions, though, were rather like minor-league baseball – basic accommodations and frequent bus trips – in an eight-month season with two or three games per week.

The Japanese opportunity came about because his cousin, who already plays in Japan, recommended him to the coach there. To get to Japan, though, he would have to take a four-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Lima, a nine-hour flight from Lima to Los Angeles and, after a brief layover, another 12-hour flight to Tokyo followed by yet another flight to Seoul where he would have to apply for a Japanese work visa.

Shortly after takeoff, LAN’s cabin crew found him additional leg room in an exit row, and I had two seats to myself for the remainder of the flight. I spoke to him again, briefly, on arrival in Los Angeles, but would have liked to have learned whether he had further professional ambitions – a Google search tells me he went undrafted by the NBA and, at age 25, his window for doing so could be relatively brief.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Met a fellow like that once in Pergamino about thirty years ago. (Bob Hendley)

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