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Original Issue

An American-Born Sport That Unites The World

Big Game, Small World
A Basketball Adventure, by Alexander Wolff/Warner Books, 424
pages, $24.95

Wolff, a senior writer at SI, seems to have had so much fun
writing this book that it would be a crime for him to make money
off it--were his book not so much fun to read as well. He
traveled through 17 countries, seeking out basketballs,
bleachers and blacktops wherever he went. From that experience
Wolff has come to the conclusion that hoops has great potential
as an "intercultural epoxy," for even where people don't like
America, or Americans, they flat-out love this game. While
French farmers, Chinese students and British environmentalists
"have all rioted against McDonald's," Wolff notes, "it's hard to
imagine anyone rioting against the NBA."

This thesis might not impress the international relations
faculty at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, but even
those highbrows will get a kick out of Wolff's descriptions of
foreign hoopheads expressing their culture through their passion
for basketball. Fans in Israel, for instance, attempt to rattle
a free throw shooter by shouting an old Jewish proverb: "The
whole world is a narrow bridge! The main thing is not to be
afraid!" Italian fans, in contrast, taunt their rivals by
chanting, "You're thinking of taking a s---!" At an
international tournament in long-suffering Angola, rooters raise
a banner that reads with war and hunger, a fifth title will be
ours! Most delicious of all is a French newspaper's frustration
over its country's loss to the U.S. in the 2000 Olympic gold
medal match. "Very early in [the lives of American basketball
players]," the paper grumbles, "mothers pull forcibly on the
legs of their small boys. Then, when they have finished
stretching them on the clothesline, they force-feed them with a
funnel. French mothers do this as well, but usually to geese."

Yet for all the fun he had compiling this travelogue, Wolff
records two major disappointments. One is his failure to arrange
a one-on-one with His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the
hoops-loving king of Bhutan. ("His Majesty never takes twos,"
one courtier tells Wolff. "Only threes, it seems.") Spurned by
Bhutan's secretary of state, Wolff settles for a pickup game
with two members of the royal family, one of whom yells,
"Spiiiin doctor!" whenever a teammate makes a layup. Wolff's
other admitted failure is his inability to locate one Hirohide
Ogawa, a reputed Japanese spiritual master and author of a book
called Enlightenment Through the Art of Basketball. He searches
high and low for Ogawa but discovers to his chagrin that he is
the creation of a British satirist--one who assumed that the
idea of "basketball as a religion" was an obvious joke. How
little he knew.