You go to your local gym to play basketball. Some enormous foreigners arrive. They play very well. So do you. They tell you they are professional basketball players from Denmark, and that you should fly to Copenhagen for a tryout.
You have, they think, what it takes to be a Danish pro. What would you do?
When it happened to TrueHoop reader Kirven Blount he decided to get on a plane. Here is his account of what happened next:
There is something about the need to be a sports hero that can be hard to shake. Even when you come to realize that it's not going to happen - either because you don't have the tools or you can't see sacrificing more intellectual or cultural pursuits - a part of you never gives up. It was exactly that part of me that jolted awake and started madly requisitioning extra doses of adrenaline that cold Wednesday night when I met Jens Laulund.
Basketball is the only sport I still play regularly, the only one I'll still choose over less healthy but more urbane engagements. I play in a couple of weekly games, and it was at one of those that I found myself one night not too long ago, knowing I'd gone as far as I ever would as a player but able to entertain more elaborate fantasies in my weaker moments, on a hot shooting streak in a game I hoped would never end.
Enter the Danes. Two guys " big guys who look like athletes " appear and ask if they can join our game. It's not an open game: we pay for the gym and work to keep the game at a certain level. But there is something about these guys, something about their Field of Dreams emergence. And they can play. They toy with most of us, and can clearly take the rest. I feel good about how I match up against them, about the fact that I don't fold in the face of their talent like I see some other guys do. It gives our little game, which suddenly seems highly amateur, a major charge.
Afterwards we discover they play professionally - a surprise to none of us. Then comes the sentence. The germ. One of them, Jens, tells me I should come to Copenhagen and try out, that I might just have a shot at getting signed. I don't jump out of my seat and embrace him, don't begin to weep, only because it is too wild a thought " maybe the Danes just like to make people feel good. But he persists. There are varying levels of professional ball in Denmark, he says, and probably one at which I could play.
Over the next few months we exchange emails, and Jens remains steadfast and generous. I can stay with him and his pregnant wife; he'll set up some tryouts. I talk to a coach who asks that I try out for him before I contact anybody else (Jens has apparently talked me up). I start telling the story to everyone who'll listen, and answer questions like: "Are you good enough to do that?" and "What if you make it? in an ever-wavering multitude of ways. Finally, I use some frequent flyer miles and board a redeye bound for Copenhagen.
I must say I expected a chance to decompress, maybe even sleep, before being asked to perform, but we go straight from the airport to Herlev Hallen (hallen meaning gym), an elephantine facility. We wend our way past a few locker rooms, me carrying my bags and wondering where I packed my basketball stuff. Then we are on the court, where a game is already in progress. Confused as to why we had passed all those perfectly nice-looking locker rooms, I tell Jens I'll change and be right back.
"Why?" he asks. "You can change right here."
Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I am now faced not only with an athletic test but a cultural one. I am willing to lay bare my basketball skills, airplane-affected though they may be, but I can't handle standing naked before strangers in a strange land. Nudity is handled differently in Denmark, and I tend to think their approach beats ours by a mile. But I have been conditioned to believe that, at least on the field of play, no one wants to see my ass. I murmur something and head back toward the locker room.
Small awkward moment, cultural disconnect placed in relief, time to move past it and become as one on the basketball court. Jens and I take a few shots and I watch out of the corner of my eye as an apple-cheeked monster with a faux-hawk throws down gut-rattling dunks from every conceivable angle. Not a problem: my ever-reliable jumper is still in my pocket. It is what defines me, what equalizes the ground this dunker will be shaking when he eventually lands. Time to step up.
Ken Smith, who toiled alongside George Gervin for the ABA Spurs in '75-'76 and was called Grasshopper, is hanging around, apparently so as to assess me, although this is not stated. He tells me about the monster (Peter Johansen " F/C Team Sjaelland), for whom he recently wangled a full ride at SMU. Peter, though, blew off the opportunity, preferring to play right away for BF Copenhagen, which was handing out fat contracts (until it abruptly went belly up under the weight of its own largesse). Ken can scarcely conceal his disappointment. I find out later that Peter's temper is renowned, that he almost lost a recent championship game when he was ejected for a screaming tantrum.
Jens and I join three other guys and we're off and running; I'm in the flow of Danish basketball. Time to show them how we do it in America.
Where is my jumper? For that matter, where are my legs, why does the floor feel like Play-Doh, why is there no air in the ball? Things are not going well. I shake off the fact that my game is at the British Airways lost luggage counter and look to pride to find something in reserve. Pride responds and I juke a guy out of his shoes and forge a clear lane to the basket. But this is not my day. I hit a wet spot on the Play-Doh and go down, my moment squandered, the silence deafening.
Jens, who has been feeding me the ball with ever-increasing obviousness, begins to ensure that I am never without it. I'd love a shot at redemption, sure, but maybe one that feels a bit more organic. Or maybe rested. But excuses are for losers, so I battle on.
In the end I make a few shots and strip the ball from Peter (to which he responds with a petulant roar, to which Ken responds with a mild scolding), but I am far from impressive, at least not in a positive way. I am a bit shaken by my lack of production, but I chalk it up to the jet lag and try to shake it off.
I can't help but be compelled by Peter's story, especially after seeing him display such impressive skills on the court. He has already tossed off several derogatory comments about the Danish refs and taken some ribbing about the championship game incident. You can't play much basketball without encountering the player who is forever being wronged, forever held down, forever blaming somebody or something else (OK, I've been him). When there are refs, there is a quantifiable excuse source in an easily recognizable whistle-toting package. This syndrome is powerful enough to make a failure out of a wunderkind, a benchwarmer out of a freakishly talented specimen (insert Derrick Coleman here). And it's all easily traced back to a neurological reality/fantasy imbalance. Ballers who play to play, who love the feeling of competing and performing and achieving, end up surpassing those who have a gauzy, boyhood-bedroom-wall, Dr. J blueprint in their brain. Basketball is a fluid, improvisational, and often discordant enterprise " if you're constantly referring back to your inner Dr. J game, you lose track of the one that's unfolding on the floor.
I end up in the locker room, trying to stay present while the Danes shower and gab in Danish. Jens, who played two years of high school ball in Colorado, executes a few towel snaps. I decide, based on the confused reactions, that it is something he's trying to import. Peter says his new plan is to get signed in Spain or Italy, where the money is considerably better and the Danish refs can't ruin his game. In most of Europe, businesses hoping to sponsor a team can write off the expense and everyone's happy. But Denmark, with its straightforward socialist tax code, doesn't allow such arrangements. BF Copenhagen tried to work around that system, handing out big contracts and hoping a superteam would draw revenue. It didn't happen. Now all the talent is flowing toward the big contracts south of Denmark. Martin, with whom Jens came to the gym in Brooklyn on that fateful day, recently signed with a team in Spain.
The next day Jens and I take a walking tour of Copenhagen, a lovely, unhurried city dominated by bicycles. We see a group of students on trash detail, un-insulted by the job to the point of picking up individual cigarette butts. It turns out to be their school's gift to the Crown Prince, whose much-anticipated nuptials are set to consume the city the day after I leave. Apparently all good citizens (which in Denmark basically means everybody) are encouraged, in a friendly way, to give His Highness a wedding gift. Some have written songs that are played on the radio, some send more traditional gifts, like china. We wander through a beautiful park and see a raggedy guy engaged in a very odd (not to him) repetitive-motion ritual involving rye bread, a leaf, and a small container of water, but there is little sign of homelessness, no spare change entreaties, not much desperation beyond mine on the basketball court. Danes are taxed at about a hefty rate to provide money for things like free health care, and those that can't or won't work need only apply for assistance to be cradled within the system. The only impediment to receiving financial aid is one's hesitancy in asking for it.
Next up is Amager Hallen, where the BK Amager team will be holding practice. I notice this game looks far less intimidating than yesterday's. I see mostly younger, smaller players and I wouldn't mind a chance to re-jigger my jumper against some manageable competition. I see Espen, a pacific, sturdy six-foot forward who played the day before. The coach asks if I can guard Jens, I say absolutely, no problem. Now, Jens is the one and only player on the floor that I would have any trouble dealing with. He is bigger than I am, he has a deadly outside shot, and he plays the sneaky grab-your-shirt-and-shove-you-in-the-small-of-your-back game to perfection. OK, no problem, a challenge always makes me play better. Right?
The magic is eluding me still. The level of play is indeed several degrees lower than yesterday's, but somehow so is mine. Some of these guys look to be under twenty, and they zip around like water bugs. The undersized point guard on my team moves like the kid from the Incredibles; I feel like I'm playing with Kathy Bates on my back. At home I am always the guy coaxing and cajoling when everyone is too spent to play one more game, and everyone has learned to be patient about it. Now I find myself wishing that maybe I could be matched up with some palooka instead of Jens, because Kathy is snoring away and I need a shot of courage. Jens, ever protective, is having similar thoughts, and switches off me. Now I'm guarding Christoffer, a very physical player who seems to have something to prove to the American who Jens says can play. He fouls me hard a few times, then waits for me to say something, knowing he's overdone it but wanting to see how I'll respond. To my way of thinking, I have no choice in the matter. Jens will later disagree with me, but I just don't see how I can call anything but the outright bloodletting fouls in this game. It's hard to explain, and maybe it was a little too Michael Bay, but I felt like a stiff upper lip was in order. During a brief stop in play, Christoffer nudges me and says (basically everyone in Copenhagen speaks English):
"You from New York?"
I tell him I am and he shoots back: "I hate New York."
I'm not sure what to say, but there's no time anyway because play has picked back up and I'm trying to run him off a pick so as to break his death grip. We have developed that testosterone-cut-with-camaraderie kind of relationship peculiar to competitive sports. There is undeniable menace flowing back and forth, but it's protectively coated in the joy of competition. At another play stoppage Christoffer is talking to Jens and I hear:
"Danish Danish Danish Danish Danish Danish Danish Danish Danish Danish New York."
I ask if that was about me and he says, "Just the last part," and laughs challengingly. I go back to trying to dislodge both him and Kathy. "Where you going, New York," he says, enjoying himself.
The point guard is slashing, scoring; a light-skinned guy called Quick who looks about seventeen is playing above his head (and mine); I can't find my way. Everything still feels wrong. I want desperately to break out of this slump, but in pressing to do so I let it metastasize.
When we're done the coach pulls everybody together for a meeting conducted in Danish. Jens tells a story about a coach who screamed at him every time he dribbled. Jens got his height early, and he was coached to be a one-dimensional big man. He had to develop what is now an automatic jumper on his own. Last year he led the league in 3-point percentage.
In the locker room afterwards, Jens continues to pursue his towel-snapping campaign, the response still cool. I talk to Espen about the time he went on a snowboarding trip to Switzerland, broke his leg in a ghastly way, then got it fixed up and was flown back home, all on Denmark's unconditional dime. Several people I talk to on my trip speak proudly of the compassion inherent in Denmark's welfare system, but they tend to be concerned about what it does to the level of motivation. As Jens says, "It's like everybody has a trust fund." But there is more to it than just welfare. There is also Janteloven, a term derived from the novel A Fugitive Crosses His Own Tracks, by Aksel Sandemose, and its set of commandments that may or may not have lost something in translation:
1. Thou shalt not believe thou art something.
2. Thou shalt not believe thou art as good as we.
3. Thou shalt not believe thou art more wise than we.
4. Thou shalt not fancy thyself better than we.
5. Thou shalt not believe thou knowest more than we.
6. Thou shalt not believe thou art greater than we.
7. Thou shalt not believe thou amountest to anything.
8. Thou shalt not laugh at us.
9. Thou shalt not believe that anyone is concerned with thee.
10. Thou shalt not believe thou canst teach us anything.
Somehow this philosophy has taken root in Denmark to the point that lauding oneself in any way is frowned upon. Anja, the Dennis Rodman of Denmark (she would welcome the comparison; she quotes him on her website), is a one-time team handball superstar, currently the coach of the national team. She is an outspoken (some would say unhinged) proponent of the idea that she amountest to something and that it's OK to say so. She goes so far as to market t-shirts bearing the slogan Fuck Janteloven. Because she was a spectacularly talented player who revolutionized the sport, it can be hard to ignore her, but she's butting up against an inveterate ethos. Even Jens, who is careful to maintain open-mindedness, turns grandfatherly when she comes up.
On the way home we finally bring my faltering play out into the open. I'm so bound up by it I don't know what to say, but Jens waves it away. He goes on to tell me about an American who was highly touted, starred at Fairleigh Dickinson (which Jens calls "Fairly Ridiculous"), then couldn't hit the broad side of a barn when he got to Denmark. Halfway through the season the coach had to opt out of his contract and send him home. I imagine the stories he must have told his friends and family when his great overseas adventure went bust, and begin to work on my own. That night I can't fall asleep to save my life, the devilish team of altered schedule and obsessive re-playing of games dancing around the room clanging pots and pans.
Jens' friends Jeff Kotila and Pete Hoffman, who both hail from Michigan and have children with their Danish wives, are the coach and assistant coach, respectively, of the Danish Federation Team. Over the weekend we go to watch Jeff and Pete lead the team, made up of kids under twenty who are showing promise, through a practice and scrimmage. Jeff has sort of a reformed drill sergeant air: he's in his 40s and awesomely fit, squared away and friendly, but you can see he's still got the spittle-spraying scream ready if he needs it. He and Pete both speak fluent Danish but coach in English (the better to communicate the nuances, they say, though at one point Jeff hollers to a slow-moving kid that if he doesn't hustle, "I'm going to get in your pants.") Pete played at Michigan Tech, recognized his lust for basketball late in his career and looked to Europe to continue playing. He excelled in the Danish league until back injuries forced him to retire. Both men are clearly embedded, as evidenced by their easy rapport with Jens about who wears the pants in a relationship with a Danish woman (the Danish woman) and the repeated joke that Jens' life is over now that he's got a kid on the way.
Jeff bemoans the spirit of Janteloven as it pertains to Danish basketball. "It's so hard to get a practice together; if the kids don't feel like showing up, they don't show up," he says. "Basketball in Denmark is basically a hobby." Jeff runs a tight ship, including pushups as punishment when the kids slack off, but he sounds somewhat defeated. He talks about trying to change things, but if Anja can't do it I don't see him being able to.
Friday night we go to some clubs with Peter and Jeffrey Markray, a 37-year-old American who's been playing in Copenhagen for 13 years. He went to Kansas State and then Washburn, went to a couple of NBA and CBA camps but didn't draw enough interest, and found himself at a crossroads. An agent suggested he try Europe, and after some prodding from his coach he gave it a whirl. Now, with a Danish wife and kids, he's here to stay. Basketball doesn't support him, though - he works as a house painter during the day to make ends meet. But being an American basketball legend in Copenhagen does come with benefits. To hear Jeff (and corroborators) tell it, the women have always been plenty willing to behave like groupies. Although he professes to be happily married and off the market, he is more than a little wistful when he talks about how easy the pickins used to (and still could) be. He says these days he goes out to the clubs so he can "work up an appetite and go home and eat." So to speak. And then there is Bo, an odd, almost mute presence who was on a team with Jeffrey years ago and has since settled into a role as his Danish "assistant". Bo has always been a throw-in in sexual negotiations: if you wanted to get with Jeffrey, you had to bring along a friend for Bo. According to Jens this symbiotic arrangement is not uncommon.
Jeffrey invites me to an informal practice his team is having in Norreboro, which Jens calls Norre Bronx, because it's the ghetto section of town. This is the Danish version of ghetto, of course, which means there might be a few more pieces of trash but you can still leave your bike out.
The Norreboro Hallen, with its rock climbing wall and snack bar, has the most frills of any of the gyms I've seen so far. Where every other place has had a dismal Soviet bloc feel, this is Chelsea Piers. Jeffrey is there, holding court. I start talking to a guy who's wearing one knee-high sock and one ankle-length. His name is Sandy Lundberg, but he understandably likes to be called KD (for Kweku Darku, a reflection of his Ghanian heritage). We talk a little about basketball in Denmark; he agrees with Jeff Kotila that the sport is treated like a hobby, and he's fed up with it. He tells me he's looking for a junior college in the States that will take him. He's not big, but he's got prodigious hops and his tattoos tell you all you need to know about his desire. TRUE BALLER is emblazoned on one arm, alongside THE ONE. On the other is a basketball jersey with the word GAME below it. He explains that he hasn't gotten the GOT to go above it, but it won't be long.
I introduce myself to the coach, Tony, who looks nonplussed. I drop Jens' name, and he remembers that I'm here to try out. I add that I'm writing a story about the experience, possibly hedging against future failure. I realize I no longer feel like a legitimate candidate, and it is troubling. We choose up sides informally and the games begin. I'm playing with a guy called Boo, a 6'7" guy from Gambia who played at Illinois State but has fragile ankles that jeopardize even his Danish basketball career. Though inconsistent, he is fast and a phenomenal leaper. Before I'm even loose he's thrown down several scary dunks. He's also yelled at me and various other guys for reasons that are unclear. Jeffrey's best days are clearly behind him, but he has a reliable jumper and he's certainly cagey. He talks constantly, and reprimands frequently. He punctuates his own mistakes by yelling "PISS." Dean Thibodeau, who played in a NBA/CBA summer league and then for the Canadian National Team before landing in the Basketliga, shows up a few games in. At 34 he's big, shambling and avuncular beyond his years. At one point he says to Boo, "Don't go to the bar, drop your money on the floor and wait for Jeff to pick it up. Order that shit." Confusing, but somehow it comes across as a message to be more aggressive. Later he says he might be getting "too much Janteloven" in his old age. There's a little guy, about 5'7" who's cat quick and can grab the rim, but his athleticism doesn't translate into success, at least not today. He's all over the place. I ask him his name and I hear him say Stiggy. Jens later tells me it's actually Sticky, as in fingers, because if you ask him for something, i.e. a walkman or a watch, he'll have it for you by the next day.
I actually feel like I might be getting into the flow. I'm matched up against a guy named Nikolai Iversen, who's 6'9" and plays for the Tuebingen team in Germany. He's fast and strong and shoots well, but I'm playing pretty tight defense and getting some rebounds. I'm starting to feel something like my old rhythm return, and I have this sense that my shot may have finally gotten over its shyness. This is my last chance to do something impressive; there will be no more games after this; I had better start scoring some points. I feel it coming, just give me the ball.
Then, just as I'm beginning finally to feel like myself again, my back (which will sometimes throw a muscle spasm into the mix to remind me I'm not 23 anymore) decides to apply some icing to the frustration cake. I feel it tighten and I know right away it's over. I have to get a sub in the middle of a game, and I'm about as frustrated as it's possible to be. Here's what I would think if a new guy who seems to be struggling suddenly claimed back pain and pulled out of a game: bullshit. I hope I'm wrong, but that's what I see in the eyes of the Danes. Tony sends somebody in for me and the game continues without a pause. I lie flat on my back on the sideline, creating a pool of sweat and trying to send positive energy to my lower back.
That's it, it's over. When I try to stand up I'm hunched over like Tim Conway. There's not a chance in hell of me stepping back on that court. I pick up a ball and try a few shots. No. To distract myself I pull my notebook out of my bag and try to interview Tony. He's not sure what's going on - I remind him of the story and he brightens, then begins to bemoan the state of Danish basketball and the fact that everyone wants to play elsewhere. We're both relieved to avoid the whole trying-out topic.
Somehow I've generated a remarkable amount of stress by flying to Denmark to play a little basketball. Something about trying to assert myself as an athlete, perform as a journalist, absorb a different culture, and be a good guest to two lovely but non-expressive Danes has waylaid me. I'm counting the minutes until I'm back in my beloved home city, whose legendary level of angst is nothing to what I'm fleeing in the home of Hamlet.
Kirven Blount has written for Entertainment Weekly, Texas Monthly, Men's Journal, Caffeine Magazine, The Austin Chronicle, The Princeton Review, and The Clinton Chronicle. He once edited and published foot foot, an unassuming humor magazine. His new book, What's Your Poison?, is available now. He lives in Brooklyn and has never, to the best of his knowledge, pulled a muscle executing a crossover dribble.