I have always wondered at the modern Greek obsession with basketball. Having always associated the game with the Americas, I would often ponder its relevance to the motherland - that is until I discovered that basketball was founded in 1891 by a Canadian physical education teacher in Massachusetts, as a way of "occupying a class of incorrigibles." All of a sudden, the epiphany arrived and the causal connection with the motherland was well and truly made.
Καλαθοσφαίριση as a title for the game has never really been accepted into vulgar usage. Most probably because it lacks brevity and carries with it, connotations of throwing things in the trash. «Μπάσκετ,» on the other hand, bears with it authoritarian connotations, sounding very close to the Turkic-derived «μπασκίνας,» meaning policeman. And yet this may possibly have been the aim of its inventor James Naismith, intent as he was, in pacifying the masses. Nonetheless it is a harsh and strange sounding word in Greek.
One of the even stranger things about the Greek basketball league, is that with a few exceptions, its' teams bear the same names as those of the National Soccer team, causing divided loyalties and no end of confusion, though one can expertly use this as a method to navigate through the howls of disapprobation accompanying the provision of the wrong answer as to which team one supports, at any given Greek kafeneio - the excuse to be proffered is that you meant that you support AEK in the Basketball League, thus buying you time to consider which soccer your interrogators (and of course your own sufficiency) support. Of course the cardinal error here and this is where everything unravels, rests on the fact that AEK is no longer in the National Basketball League.
Greek Basketball is a genteel game, as compared to its football counterpart. There are no anarchists in motorbike helmets rampaging through the city streets carrying clubs and throwing flares to light their way to the stadium. Nor do basketball fans have the propensity to uproot plastic seats in the stands and try to propel them at the players. There is a hearty amount of cheering and that is all. The first Greek basketball match I went to left me cold and indifferent, a feeling of malaise that was only overturned when I was informed that I had been spectating the legendary Nikos Gali, not to be confused with his Egyptian counterpart Boutros-Boutros and I had in fact, basked unwittingly in the presence of basketball divinity. It was then I realised that Greece displays noteworthy dexterity and measured presdigitation in its ball handling skills, especially as against other nations, and therefore, Greek basketball constitutes one of the many facets that make up the Hellenic mosaic of striving for greatness and is thus, demanding of respect.
It is in this vein that I approached a recent welcoming held by the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, for the players of the Greek National Basketball B' Team. From the moment the young players walked in the door, everyone, from the grizzled old community powerbrokers, to the aspiring restaurateurs, the self-satisfied bankers and businessmen, the disaffected and disinterested academics, the benign and ever observant journalists and the effervescent politicians, everyone was charmed and disarmed by their enthusiasm, friendliness and general goodwill. Ingeniously, the sagely president Bill Papastergiadis distributed the young men evenly among the tables of their well- wishes, so that they could get to know a representative cross section of the community. The result was a good deal of effervescent banter and copious amounts of humour, that is after the rather closer to the ground than the ceiling Greek-Australians were able to finally unlock their jaws and shut their mouths, left open in wonderment as they considered how these Titanic in stature young men, (some of whom surpassed two metres), could possibly be Greek and off course after certain of the middle aged women wiped the dribble (pardon the basketball pun I should say drool) from their ecstatic lips, and rightly so, for these are, to employ the term in its Huxleian sense, rather pneumatic young Adonises.
There is a perception, sadly fostered by other members of Greek delegations previously visiting our climes that modern Greeks are unfriendly, arrogant and unapproachable. The smiling lads from the Greek National Basketball team, each of whom went around each table in order to personally greet their well-wishes, take as many photos as were requested of them, supply an inexhaustible amount of jokes and even impart some of the bawdier Basketball chants, totally put paid to any suspicion of a lingering negative stereotype. In an address that soon came to resemble a Greek version of Brownlow medal night, president Bill Papastergiadis aptly put into words the pride, love and brotherhood Greek-Australians feel when meeting or hosting any of their compatriots in this country. Heart-warmingly, everyone, from the head of the Greek delegation, a humble but eloquent teacher from Agrinio, the rough and ready coach and the players themselves all responded in equally effusive terms, to the tune that they feel totally welcome and at ease with the Greeks of Australia and that if anything, it is a love that they share and will sustain them for years to come. This time at least, for the evening has progressed and much wine had been poured as a libation to long-lasting times, the words were discerningly heart-felt, as was the side-splitting speech then delivered by an elderly gentlemen, who, with a startlingly dead pan face, declaimed that he had watched the Greek team train and that he was pleased to state that they had managed to "get all their balls into the hole." This was a stroke of timing genius, especially as sausages had just been served to the choking audience.
Quite apart from playing host to visiting delegations as is the GOCMV's duty, in so involving such a broad cross -section of the community in its welcome of the Greek basket-ballers, president Bill Papastergiadis and his committee are actually undertaking something as revolutionary as it is important. Whereas to paraphrase poet Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek community functions have hitherto been characterised by many as pertaining to souvlaki and Greek dancing, the GOCMV has presciently noted that sport, especially in this country, where it assumes the form of a religion, is one of the most effective ways in which to foster community involvement and develop a sense of inclusion. After all, sport requires neither language skills, nor a detailed knowledge of Greek history or politics, in order to permit participation. On the contrary, it is a game where cultural and communal bonds are forged through friendly competition and it is symptomatic of the GOCMV's sophisticated approach to addressing the needs of the Greek community at large, that it seeks to target the wider interests of its grass-roots members, in a specific but at the same time all-encompassing manner that has not been attempted, at least for a generation.
The Greek National B' Basketball team may not have won its recent friendly match in Melbourne. Nonetheless, it succeeded in winning the hearts of the Greek-Australia community with their unaffected enthusiasm, gentility and generosity. It succeeded in hammering away at the language divide that often separates Greeks and Greek-Australians of the same age, as sport, humour and fun speak in a language of their own. And the diatribist can verily say, that he has taken on the tallest of the tall basketball Titans in an arm-wrestle and was resoundingly vanquished. Until next week then, time out.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 July 2012