At St. John’s Prep., I was a relatively big fish in a small pond. When I arrived at St. George’s College, I realized that I was a rather minute tadpole in a significantly larger body of water. The pool of talent was deeper, hardier, and fiercer than anything I had experienced. It had been foolhardy to assume that I would easily make the top teams in any of the sports in secondary school. Tryout after tryout, I found myself firmly ensconced in a vast valley of athletic mediocrity.
I was the stereotypical black man when it came to watersports. I had little to show for the years of splashing about in the water that Bongai and I had enjoyed. I tried competitive diving at Saints. But my attempts more resembled a person flinging themselves out the window of a burning building than they did anything you would expect to see from an aqua athlete. In swimming, I was definitely able to do more than float – and I was strong in doggy paddle, but that was surprisingly irrelevant. Beyond that, I never quite grasped the techniques of any of the official strokes. Despite considerable effort, my pace and progress through the water was never better than casual and painstaking. I later became intrigued by water polo. The deal-breaker, though, was the requirement for players to tread water incessantly without a life jacket. The watersports were not for me. So I moved on.
I investigated the trifecta of small-ball games. Tennis was first. Although fun is not how I would describe being used as target practice by the more experienced players. Also, the sun was constantly in my eyes when I tried to serve. I found the hitting instrument to be far too small for what it was intended to do. Particularly when I endeavored to return the serves, volleys, and rallies of my opponents. Suffice to say, tennis was not my racket.
Cricket was next. But I discovered that my bowling was too slow and my batting too inconsistent. For fielding, the coaches placed me in deep extra cover, way out on the boundary line. As far away from play as they possibly could. I tried not to take it personally. Most of the time, I had nothing to do but daydream under the rays of the beautiful African sun. On occasion though, I paid dearly for my absentmindedness, as cover drives pounding off the bats of batters hurtled balls at sonic speeds toward me. They were unremitting projectiles that rudely kissed the bridge of my nose and thwacked the caps of my already misoriented, knocked knees. My teammates were of no help. I could not understand why they chose to shout, “Watch out!” only after I had been hit by the ball. Not before. But after. Not before, but after.
I found field hockey, the third and final small-ball game, to be plainly barbaric. Why any parent would allow their son to play this sport in secondary school was quite beyond me. Whose idea was it anyway to weaponize adrenaline-junky teenagers with solid wooden sticks? Why allow them to do their best to smash each other’s ankles and shins to brittle bits? This was not a sport. It was madness. I frankly found it unconscionable. I was also not very good. So I moved on.
I then gave effort to the cluster of big-ball games. Rugby was a good choice for me, surely. Especially since I had previous experience. I understood the rules and I had plenty of pleasant memories from playing the sport in primary school. Rugby should have worked. Alas, my participation did not last that long. I cannot not say that anything in particular influenced in my decision to leave. I just happen to think it was an oversight on the part of coaches and referees not to require certain boys to produce their birth certificates before they were allowed to play. I say this simply as a matter of fairness. Present your evidence and then happily join the rest of us whose claims to be under this age, or under that age, could easily be supported by our height, weight, and the dimensions of our quadriceps and hamstrings. If our officials had been circumspect in this way, perhaps players like me would have more naturally come to terms with being pummeled into the ground. Even if it was by guys who were built as though they might have teenage children of their own.
Along the way, I was lobbied by some of my black peers to diligently pursue soccer.
“Ziva kwa wakabva,” I was one day admonished by another boy my age. Know your roots. “Play the sport of your fathers,” he continued. “Not these games dzemavhet (of the white people).”
We did not have the convenience of Wikipedia back then, but daddy had a beautiful collection of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes. When I checked the reference books, they put the origins of soccer in ancient China or possibly ancient Greece going back at least two thousand years. The modern game as we know it, the books explained, was a product of England’s Football Association, which was founded in 1863. My nationalistic counterpart was clearly incorrect. Even accounting for western proclivities toward cultural appropriation and the whitewashing of history, I substantially doubted that any of our African forefathers had ever laid claim to inventing soccer.
Nevertheless, all desires for historical accuracy aside, I understood the message my colleague was trying to convey. 1986 was only a half dozen years into independence. The wounds of colonialism were still raw, and the gravitational pull of segregation was still strong. Even in sports, there continued to be a general racial demarcation in the nation. White boys played the sports of “gentlemen”, namely the small-ball games and the watersports. Black boys, on the other hand, played the sports of the “commoners”, namely the big-ball games, like soccer and basketball.
Rugby was the exception. By 1986, it was a shared enterprise in Zimbabwe. A white sport pre-independence and a rainbow one post, rugby’s status as an inclusive game is understandable for at least three reasons. Firstly, a rugby ball, constitutionally, is like an amalgamation of one big ball and two small balls. It is what you would get if you placed a soccer ball between a couple of tennis balls and then fused them into a single oblong shape. Clearly something both races could get behind. Secondly, the rules of rugby permit a degree of violence that is not available in other sports. The rugby field then was an uncommon venue where blacks and whites, or any groups at aught with each other, could work out their differences without fear of sanction or reprisal. Thirdly, I think President Nelson Mandela and the Springboks of South Africa demonstrated the conciliatory ethic of rugby at the World Cup Tournament in 1995. It has a unifying power, usurped internationally possibly only by soccer.
To my counterpart’s approval, I decided to fall in line and dutifully try out for the soccer team. I figured it was the best way to minimize my risk of ostracization. Foolish me. Not that the black boys turned their heels on me. They readily demonstrated camaraderie and good sportsmanship. It was my feet that refused to play ball.
It only took one tryout for the soccer coaches to conclude that I would not be much use as a striker. Placing me in mid-field would be disastrous too. So they allowed me to practice at the left-back position and play for the third-tier team in our grade level. It was kind of them to let me do so. But there was nothing kind about playing left back. You have to defend the right winger on the opposing team. A position known for its endurance, speed, agility, impressive footwork when dribbling. Power and precision when crossing the ball to goal. I felt like Sheriff Buford T. Justice, that character played by Jackie Gleason in the movie, Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Forever in pursuit, the boisterous bungler makes the chase but never quite catches the bandit. Nobody had to guess whether the sport was for me. If soccer was the game of my forefathers, they had forgotten to pass it down the ancestral line.
I suppose I should mention volleyball in this discussion. But only because it is an example of a big-ball game that was available at St. George’s. Full disclosure, I never tried out for the team. I could not generate any enthusiasm for the sport. I just disliked it. Innately. I found it strange. I mean no shade on beach volleyball though, which is the cool version of the sport. But high school volleyball in Zimbabwe was played on concrete, which is not so cool. There is a difference, you should know, between a sand burn and a concrete burn.
Nine for nine. My strikeout rate was one hundred percent. Or ten for ten, if you count track and field, which we will not speak of here. At that point, there was hardly anywhere left for me to turn. I was about give up. Then, in the eleventh hour, just before I resigned myself to a secondary-school life of athletic oblivion, I turned my attention to the eleventh sport on my list and put all my eggs in basketball.