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(Photo by TJ Dragotta on Unsplash)

“Again.”

Salty streams of sticky sweat slipped and swept along my brow. Dripped and dropped their drenching dew, down my eyelids and through my lashes. They irritated with their splashes the saline surface of my corneas.

“Again.”

Muscles trembling. Breathing fast. Hardly sure how long I would last. Sneakers sliding to and fro, still were many drills to go.

“Again.”

Suicides were aptly named. Behind the baseline we would wait for Coach Admire and for his signal. Then we would sprint. Near free throw line, and back. Half court, and back. Far free throw line, and back. Far baseline, and back. Far free throw line, and back. Half court, and back. Near free throw line, and back. Suicide.

“Again. You may not be the most talented team in the world, but if I have anything to do with it, you will become the fittest.”

After all other sports had exiled me as some unwanted stranger, basketball came and called me home. How exhilarating it was to rotate the ball between my fingers as I discovered the game for the very first time in 1987. I felt instinctually compelled to hold the rock up to my nose that initial day. I closed my eyes and imbibed with my nostrils the evocative scent of its leather coating. It smelt like effort, and fun, and challenge, and work. Like history, and friendship, and triumph, and loss. Like life. The game had an odd familiarity to me. When I first stepped with purpose across the lines of the court, I was captured by the same sentiment I had back in 1979 when my family and I first arrived in Zimbabwe from Zambia. Playing basketball felt like finding my roots.

Just as there were teething pains in my transition to Zimbabwe, I discovered that I would have to fight to get a grip on basketball. My play at first was clumsy and inelegant. Instead of dribbling, I slapped at the ball hardhandedly. As for my shot, it was not a thing of beauty. More of a fling, I think, or a toss, or a throw that made backboards shake when it hit them. My defense was pure thuggery, flatfooted and violent, more a mauling than protection of the basket. Yet, over the two years leading up to 1989, I found myself substantially improving. Daddy watched my progress.

“You see how I’m coming along?”

“Of course. You are doing well, son.” Daddy’s responses were only ever confident, expectant, and encouraging. His belief inspired me. It magnified my love for the game and reinforced my zeal to hustle and grow.

Basketball has a rhythm and a flow, a sequential exchange, and a come and a go. Offense and defense, forward and back. Five-on-five players staying on track. The ball, like a drumbeat maintains the tempo. It bounces pa-ta, pa-ta-pa as it goes. Like an out and out a battle, or a dance to a score, there are plays to accomplish what they’re choreographed for. How to wit, how to thrill, how to shine, how to win. Every effort is made to make the ball go in. Such influence has basketball on the life of its players. It changes their gait from just strollers to swayers. Like the ball with each bounce, every player with each ounce of his being crosses the floor and explodes through the air. He expresses his art and displays all his flair. When five become one and one becomes five, individuality dies, and the team comes alive. In sync and in synchrony pursuing one goal, the game of basketball is a charm for the soul. Indeed, in this game, joy one never should lack. If you learn to love basketball, basketball will love you back.

Finding this love, however, was not a straightforward path for me. The body I brought into secondary school was the exact one I inhabited when I left primary school. The same lanky, uncoordinated frame that moved awkwardly. Pigeon-footed and knock-kneed, and, to my deep regret, the same one that continued to run like a duck. Not ideal, clearly. But what could I do? Nothing. Except struggle, handicaps and all, to find a way to become an athletic asset at the College.

In primary school, sports were games played by children. But in secondary school, they were contests and rivalries whose competitors were expected to be warriors. St. George’s was not the type of institution to leave the cultivation of warriors to chance. The school understood that warriors are best forged by warriors, of course. So they hired one. Someone to turn boys into winning machines. His name was Mr. Lambourn.

The man was a gladiator, an athlete with the proportions of a bodybuilder and the strength of a professional wrestler. He oversaw the physical education classes at St. George’s. He was a stickler for detail who ran a tight ship. We had to be on time and ready for our workout within minutes of the bell that announced the start of our session. Mr. Lambourn would inspect our attire before he allowed us to build up a sweat. Our shorts had to be brilliant white and our vests clean and neatly tucked in. We had to stand to attention and be presentable. Heads up, eyes forward, and only speak when spoken to. The way he marshalled us, we were more of a regiment than a class. Mr. Lambourn had a rich catalog of stretches, exercises, and drills he required us to perform without fail on every single occasion.

“Nobody’s going to pull a muscle on my watch! Get yourselves all stretched out and limber. We’re going to go to work. Let’s go!”

In transforming us into warriors, Mr. Lambourn was concerned, not only to hone our physical abilities, but also to teach us how to survive in an antagonistic world.

“Boys, when it comes to staying alive, this is the most important lesson you will ever learn. Who among you can tell me the best way to get dressed?”

“What do you mean, sir?” We were all puzzled.

“I mean, what order should you get your clothes on? What should you put on first?”

“Obviously you have to put your underpants on first, sir,” one of the boys volunteered. “Right? I mean, that’s right isn’t it, sir?”

We all nodded in agreement. Almost all of us. Mr. Lambourn was shaking his head.

“No. Don’t be naive.”

From our faces, you could tell that every boy was thinking the same thing. If underpants were the wrong answer, then Mr. Lambourn’s riddle must have been a trick question. Only superheroes wear their underpants over the rest of their clothes.

“Maybe you mean our undershirts, sir?” chimed in another boy, fishing for what Mr. Lambourn might be getting at. “Perhaps, those go on before our underpants?”

“You’re being foolish!” Mr. Lambourn retorted. “Think harder, man”

It is entirely possible that norms were different in the world where Mr. Lambourn grew up.

“Anybody?”

“We don’t know, sir.”

“You’re all cretins. A bunch of soft-minded, tender-bellied mother’s boys. Aren’t you? Every soldier knows to put his socks and shoes on first. Everything else comes afterwards.”

“Socks and shoes before underpants, sir?”

“Socks and shoes before underpants.”

“But sir, that’s weird.”

He must have been having us on.

“No, it’s not weird at all. It’s called survival.”

“Survival, sir?”

“Survival.”

“What do you mean by that, sir?”

“What do you mean what do I mean? I mean what I mean. Survival from possible attacks, of course. What do you think I mean?”

“Attacks?”

Okay. We were totally lost.

“Yes, attacks. Attacks can come from anywhere, at any time. If there’s an air raid, or a ground assault, you have to be able to escape. You cannot escape if your feet are not protected. Put your socks and shoes on first so you can escape if you need to.”

Our class started to snicker.

“What’s so funny?”

We all had images of ourselves running out from the school grounds in a panic stricken manner. Darting along the street. Butt-naked from the ankles up. Of all places, past the President’s house which neighbored our school. We might successfully escape a raid, but we would probably get locked up. Indecent exposure and all.

“But sir, if there was a raid, and we put on our socks and shoes, and then ran away without our clothes, everyone would see our stuff. You know, front and back.”

“Front and back? Front and back? Who bloody cares?”

A few of us raised our hands.

“Rhetorical question.”

We put our hands down.

“I would rather everyone see my dangly bits than scrape me off the concrete. You boys have the wrong idea of what it means to have respect. Better a live dog than a dead lion. Isn’t that Biblical truth?”

Then again, maybe Mr. Lambourn was not crazy. This was 1986 after all. A year before Zimbabwe’s two major political parties would come together and sign the Unity Accord of 1987. There was still considerable agitation and conflict within the country. It manifested, not in Harare, but in other parts of the nation. Perhaps Mr. Lambourn anticipated that there might be a spillover at some point into our otherwise safe, suburban, and oblivious neighborhoods. Whatever the odds of this actually happening, it was apparent to some of us that Mr. Lambourn’s concerns reflected an important reality. Namely that Zimbabwe’s transition to an equitable multicultural society – in which all citizens felt vested ownership, freedom, and participation – was still a work in progress.

“As long as I’m in charge, you will put your socks and shoes on first.”

We did what he demanded. Obeyed because we had no choice. But, we respected Mr. Lambourn for his dedication to our development. I just wish he could have done more to help me master the many of sports we played at school. It was not for lack of him trying though.