The first mistake I made when I joined the basketball team in Germany was admitting I spoke the language. It would have been weird not to – it would have been very weird. But sometimes over the course of the year, I imagined what it would be like for people around me (coaches, players) to talk naturally with each other in the expectation that I couldn’t understand them. It would have given me an edge.
Part of the reason is that in my league (the second division of the southern Bundesliga) foreigners were the real stars. There were quotas for the number of non-natives who could play on any team: in our case, only one, and the slot was filled by an American who played his college ball in New Mexico and liked to think that he was just a few unlucky breaks from the NBA. But there were also a lot of players from around the world who had European grandparents and got a passport so they could play. That’s where the real talent was, and maybe I could have passed myself off as one of them. But speaking the language aligned me with the less gifted locals.
It also put me in the position of sometimes translating between different factions. That gave me a kind of power or control, but not the kind that meant something on court – it turned me into a useful administrative type. Plus, my German isn’t good enough to let me win conversational games with native speakers. It’s my first language, but I stopped speaking it full-time when I was four or five and started school, and somehow my German personality and vocabulary had lagged several years behind; I’m a simpler human being in German.
The second mistake I made was to ask my teammates a lot of questions. I had landed in a curious world and I was curious about it. Tell me about that player, that coach, that team. When did you start playing basketball? Why did you end up here? What do you want to do when your career is over?
The trouble with asking questions is that it turns the guy you’re talking to into the guy with the answers. It raises him up a little and lowers you down. (At least in this context. There are other worlds where asking questions is itself a kind of power play, because it forces other people to reveal themselves while you stay hidden.) Maybe all this sounds a little too theoretical or abstract but in practice – I mean the literal kind of practice, where you show up at the gym every day and compete with and against your colleagues – if you’ve put yourself in a position where you ask the questions and they tell you the answers, then if a disagreement arises on court you’ve established the habit of deferring to them.
We were once running through our offensive sets and I was guarding a Croatian with a German passport named Grescho, who played my position and was ahead of me in the pecking order: he started while I sat on the bench. I pressed him defensively and he swung his elbow hard across his body into my face. The right play would have been to punch him, but he told me coolly to back off. ‘This is just a drill,’ he said, ‘take it easy,’ and because I had spent the past several weeks listening to him pontificate I listened again and let it go. On the next iteration, Grescho caught the ball and knocked down a jump shot, and the coach stopped practice to give me a dressing down. ‘What the fuck kind of defence do you think you’re playing?’ he said.
All of this is partly why I quit, but it also left its mark. Once you’ve learned to view these casual encounters the way a ballplayer views them, it’s hard to shake the sense that even in civilian life these sorts of games are being played all the time. For an athlete, every virtue is relative and all success is zero sum. There’s no point in being good if somebody is better than you, and that basic principle governs every interaction – everything turns into a potential form of leverage. But who wants to live like that?