Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I’m not a huge basketball fan. I don’t especially mind watching it, but if given the choice, I would prefer to watch pretty much any other sport (and no, I’m not including golf and car racing in my definition of sport). As for actually playing basketball…pure torture. It involves a lot of running and…well, that’s really all it takes for me to try my hardest to avoid something. Despite that, I have, at times, played a little basketball. From those experiences I’ve learned that it is actually possible to enjoy the game. All you need is beer.
I learned this during my year in Seoul, South Korea. A lot of the rivers in Seoul have been turned into little recreation areas, with jogging and bike paths running along the water and public exercise equipment and courts for badminton, tennis and basketball installed at various spots along the riverbanks. One of these rivers flowed near my apartment and the section closest to me had some interesting and puzzling exercise equipment that fairly closely resembled those old drawings of medieval torture devices, as well as a badminton and a basketball court.
Of course we were initially drawn to the weird exercise equipment and spent a few minutes trying to figure out what possible use it could have apart from getting terrorists to spill information about their cells, but once our curiosity had passed, we really only made use of the basketball court. Badminton might have been fun, but this being Korea, that court was always crowded.
We would often head down to the river for some hoops after work. We realized after the first time, that basketball really isn’t all that fun on its own and from then on, we would always stop by a convenience store and buy several plastic liter bottles of beer-flavored water (known simply as ‘beer’ in Korea, the only country I’ve ever been to where Budweiser can be considered a high-quality brew) and a bunch of small paper cups. In hindsight, these convenience store stops are probably the only reason I ever agreed to ‘play basketball’ again after the first miserable experience.
Once we got to the court, we would fill up our paper cups and get a game of ‘horse’ going. I would have been happy to stop there, but the others always wanted to follow up with an actual game. Luckily for them, there was generally at least one group of Koreans on the court at any given time, usually high school students. They were always thrilled at the opportunity to play a game with foreigners and we were always thrilled to play against people half our age and often half our size.
When it came to match-ups, I insisted on a number at least one smaller than the number of people. So for example, if there were four of us, a game of three on three would be ideal; if there were five of us, four on four sounded good. This way I could play until I was ready to collapse—a length of time known as a minute—then sub myself out and roll myself off the court to enjoy my beer in peace.
Apart from not dying of a heart attack, sitting out much of the game had another huge advantage: I could stay out of the water. Let me explain. When you first see a court next to a river, it might seem like a great location for one, but once you actually play for a while and one ball after another sails off down the embankment and into the water, you realize why most courts are not located directly adjacent to a body of water.
Luckily, the river was shallow, so most of the balls that went in would eventually get stuck in patches off grass that sprung up in little clumps to form small islands. That still meant someone had to wade into the water to retrieve them. That wouldn’t be so bad in other places, but the only reason I’m calling the stuff in this river ‘water’ is the fact that a bunch of it has come together to form said river, much like actual water does. The look and smell of this particular liquid suggested something very different. Every ball we fished out of there was forever imbued with an odor only a dung beetle could love. The same was true for the person who went after the ball. By staying off the court as much as possible, I ensured that I was never the cause of a lost ball and thus never the one to wade around in the river to retrieve one.
Even though I was usually done with any form of exercise after a few minutes, my friends were in much better shape than I—they even went jogging in their spare time, the lunatics—so they always played a whole game. Then they usually played another game and another. In the first one they would destroy the Koreans; in the second, they were much more evenly matched—that might have had something to do with the beer. By the third or fourth game, the Koreans would win. That’s when we knew it was time to leave the court and head to an actual bar.
Despite all the running and other forms of exercise involved in basketball, I learned that I can actually enjoy the game…provided I’ve had the right amount of drinks. Too many and all the running back and forth makes me tired, dizzy and miserable; too few and I feel the exact same way. Somewhere in between, though, there is a magic number of beers where playing basketball becomes slightly enjoyable for up to a few minutes. It’s the same magic number that makes billiard fun or a baseball game exciting. It’s an elusive number, and no one knows exactly what it is, but once you reach it, it seems you can enjoy quite a few previously completely unenjoyable activities—even basketball.