Episode 1: Falling Iron curtain, rising leather ball
I was first introduced to the game of Basketball in 1989, a few months before my 11th birthday; by then, it only brought me confusion and disappointment, little did I know that this strange game, played by abnormally tall people, would define the person I’d become and be so instrumental to building my character.
Growing up in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia under the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was a unique experience full of paradoxes. Without exploring the intricacies of the regime and its implication on the day to day life of the citizens, I will sum it up by saying that it was like a walled-garden, a golden prison. Foreigners had privileges, but were purposefully kept separated from the local population. Aside for professional and public places, I hardly recount the intimate interaction that should exist between the local and visiting population. I remember stores such as “Victory” where only foreigners could shop, the absence of Ethiopian license plates cars on the streets on Sunday, besides taxis, and words like “curfew” that didn’t make sense to me at the time.
I can only assume that for the adults, there were probably ways around it, but for us kids, most of us, social life was centered around 3 locations: Home; School (Lycée Guebre-Mariam) and Church (Nazareth school for the Catholics).
Outside of house parties and visits, church attendance and school, the chances of meeting your friends were seriously limited. There were of course the lucky coincidences of Saay pastry, the premier Ice cream spot that parents hardly liked, Sangam Indian restaurant or the Ghion hotel, which is partially responsible for my Injera addiction.
Like most kids my age, staying and playing in the house was paramount to punishment, we needed to be outside, and every tree sturdy to withstand our weight was fair game to be climbed on. My passion at the time was football aka Soccer for those who feel like being different…
For as long as I can remember, I had played football, I loved the game, sometimes wore my cleats in the house and cherished the moments when my older brother Cedric will put me between two reference points and kick penalties with me. Whenever the chance presented itself, we’d play football. But something changed…
During the mid-80’s, Cedric went to boarding school in Cameroon with my older sister Nadège, they returned in 1988 with a thick Cameroonian accent a new passion for Cedric; one night, he broke the news to me, his new favorite sport was Basketball.
In 1990, Basketball was still an emergent subculture; at least for those geared towards the U.S, for the rest of us it was just another physical activity to diversify from football. In 1990, nothing could suggest that Basketball would rise to a level where it'll become a viable alternative to football, after all in 1990, during the World Cup in Italy that Cameroon shocked the world by beating the defending champion Argentina. Italia '90 is when and where Roger Milla, already a star in Africa, cemented his legend internationally and introduced us to the post goal celebration, African style. Cameroon made it to the quarterfinals, going toe to toe vs. the English titan, a first in the history of African football. That year, we all asserted our African identity in unity. 1990 also marked how suddenly the world was becoming, with the DERG losing its grip on the Ethiopian society, the window of the world was opening to Ethiopia, no longer was it the privilege of a few to expand their universe, the world was coming to Ethiopia.
1990 is the year Mike Tyson lost his title in one of the biggest upset in boxing history, 1990 is Mandela being released from prison, and 1990 is the fall of the Berlin Wall.
With the world changing around them, it is only natural that the youth around the world adopted the fervor of the emerging counterculture. Emboldened by the fervor of social revolution, even our little Lycée was witnessing the stylistic changes that reflected the global mood, Public Enemy t-shirts, Do the right thing pants, etc…the natural progression toward the non-conformist Basketball was only a matter of time.
At that time, we lived in a neighborhood called "Old Airport", in a 3 residence compound placed between the embassies of Cameroon and Saudi Arabia. By then Cameroon had a new Ambassador, his wife and his five kids became friends with our family. Their oldest son, Eric stood at 6'4" and quickly made an impression as the tallest kid in Lycée. Eric loved Basketball and naturally bonded with Cedric over their love for the sport.
One day, on what seemed like any other Saturday afternoon, I heard a weird bouncing noise that did not resemble the all too familiar sound of a football bouncing. I rushed to the kitchen and saw Cedric with an orange ball…a basketball!!! He had gone to Piazza, an area that seemed to me like another county to buy it. The feat in itself carried a double meaning, for one, Cedric was the first in our family to roam the city by himself via the local taxis, it was rare for any teenage foreigners back then; furthermore, supply and merchandises were so tightly controlled, it seemed unthinkable to just pick a store, get in and find what you want…Addis was changing before my eyes.
Soon after that episode, I began to hear some nonsense about putting a team together…with whom, where, how? I soon learned that there were other convert of that Basketball cult in my city…a clique mainly from Lycée, and including figures such as Amadou Cissé, Bienvenu N'tula, the Mailli brothers, Rufai Ado, Ismael Ahmed, Eric Yong, and others patrolled the city in search of courts to engage their newfound passion. They used to get kicked out from most locations. From what I heard, they also challenged people, I cannot recall who they played against but they lost most of the times…I recall Cedric coming back home, I'd ask him how it went and more often than not, the answer was: "On a perdu" (We lost). I didn't know much but those were the growing pains of a soon to be unstoppable force in our basketball landscape.
Amidst the "Concerto of the desperado" from my big brothers, I occasionally accompanied my father to Lycée on Sundays where he'd play football with his colleagues from the OAU and the ECA…this was my way of avoiding going to Church, unfortunately Mom didn't always allow it. Depending on the time he'd arrive, my father often had to wait the end of the ongoing game or for someone to be tired and be substituted in. While waiting for his turn, he'd sometimes veer to the basketball court right next to the soccer field and shoot a little. There, he would often meet a young Ethiopian kid who also hung around there on Sundays. The young boy was a Lycée student looking to participate in any of the activities. While my father shot the ball, the young boy would recover the ball and pass it back to him. Shortly, they would alternate and shoot together; my father would help him with his form and assist him with the mechanic of shooting. Soon after, the young boy took the exercise to heart and dedicated himself to the task. He would later become one of the best shooter I have ever seen in Lycée and the one who shared this story with me. His name was Yohannes.
By 1991, the climate in Ethiopia had changed, war was at the door of Addis-Ababa, and the attention of everyone was centered on the growing insecurity around the city. Manifestations were more frequent, curfew was on and off, water and electricity were intermittent. The DERG will finally fall on May 1991. Instability prevailed for the rest of the year until we were finally evacuated. The Republic of Congo sent a plane to pick up its citizens, while the OAU and the ECA managed to evacuate its employees and their families shortly after.
In 1991, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls won his first NBA championship, by then his reputation, his fame were reaching global levels. NBA VHS cassettes were already circulating within Lycée, and via Cedric, I became familiar with the NBA game. I was now teetering between football and Basketball. Fascinated by the acrobatic aerial feats of the player, I was mesmerized by the flavor of this game dominated by black athletes, Americans who had already hypnotized me with movies and Michael Jackson.
When the 1991-1992 school year began, Cedric announced to me that he and his friends would start a Basketball Club in Lycée…Lycée would have its own basketball team.