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Globe Ball

How is it that an orange oblate spheroid—a basketball—can make an impression on kids that transcends time and space? From childhood to old age, the game becomes a measure of skill and desire that endures. And this is true everywhere in the world. A series of strange coincidences brought the writer to discover that maybe the globe is really just an immense basketball.

EVEN NOW in my mid-eighties, there are nights when before I drift off to sleep I remember days in the schoolyard of P.S. 32 in Queens. The other night, for example, I brought back the day Jimmy Nidds, Nick Petrides and I—high school players all—beat two guys from the Boston Celtics—Ed Leede and Joe Mullaney—and a six-foot-six college player from Dartmouth in a game of three-on-three. All of us were white. It was 1950.

I still dream of days on that court when the three of us were unbeaten from morning until dark when they brought cars inside the fence to light the place with their headlights. Days when no one could beat us—we knew all the dead spots in the metal backboards—and we were, snap, just that quick. There were some good days afterwards for me playing at Hofstra, for Nidds at N.Y.U., but finally in retrospect, nothing truly comparable to the memories of playing ball in that schoolyard in Queens. Of course, that was then; this is now…


Long Island to France

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Me / Photo by Olivia Toperoff

So here’s the story. It won’t be in a nutshell because it’s too full of surprises and unexpected hair-pin turns. Besides, both of us have signed up for The Sunday Long Read.

Having already established in italics that I am old, really old, let me introduce Mathieu Caillol, a sixteen-year-old French ball player, who lives on the Cote d’Azur in France and has the exact same passion that I had for basketball in Queens almost seventy years ago. We love the game, I mean really love the game.

By itself, that is not so amazing. What is so amazing is the story of how I came discover our mutual amour. It was either the result of a series of truly impossible coincidences or the work of planetary forces beyond anyone’s comprehension. I’ll leave it to you to decide which, or to come up with a more reasonable explanation of your own.
A great many years ago, forty-three to be precise, my wife and I decided to save our money either to buy a new car or to have an adventure and take our small daughter to live in another country for a year. We opted for adventure.

Sheer chance—could it have been something else?—brought us a small village in the French Alps, where we did not know the language or understand the culture. The year turned out to be exactly the experience we desired. We lived in a rented apartment amid imperious beauty surrounded by mountains under blue skies—the area boasts 300 days of sunshine each year–and we engaged ourselves in the challenge of changing seasons in a way no city-dweller ever could. That first year gave me a contentment I never imagined.

We were so happy that toward the end of the year we bought a piece of land on a hilltop to be sure we would return some day. I built a house in stages each summer over the next twenty years. The only flaw in this paradise: There was only one basketball hoop in town; it was badly mangled and no one ever played the game. So my sporting life became increasingly French—biking in summer, cross-country skiing in winter, mountain walks the rest of the time.
During those same years the N.B.A. was just beginning to go global, with France bringing up the European rear as far as professional prospects were concerned, young Tony Parker being the only notable exception. Parker’s great success in San Antonio has changed things dramatically. There are now ten French nationals playing presently in the N.B.A.

Every once in a while I’ll go on-line to check out the Celtics and the Spurs, look at LeBron’s and Steph Curry’s stats, and maybe see how some of the French players are doing. Curiosity more than true interest before I have to go out and stack the wood for the winter.

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Hofstra old-timers

 

 

The Photo

One morning last month I awoke to this old photo a college teammate e-mailed me. It is of a group of players in an Old-Timers game played at Hofstra College in 1984.

I did not recognize myself. But that’s actually me, the old-timer second row far left, mugging for the camera as was my wont. I calculate that I was 51 years old when the picture was taken and should have been ashamed of myself. ​

I recognized no one else at first other than my old back-court partner Curt Block, kneeling in a white tee-shirt. (I remember nothing at all about that game except that I threw in a desperation left hand hook shot to win it as time expired—no, just kidding.)

I scanned all the faces, chuckled and was about to press CANCEL when I did recognize someone else, the guy way off to the right. That’s Bobby McKillop, a really good point guard I saw play at Hofstra years after I was done. I did remember talking to him in the locker room after that game, one old-timer to another. He was coaching with great success at a private Long Island high school and hoped he’d get the chance to coach in college. ​

As I looked at the photo, I knew he had achieved that goal, coaching with even greater success at Davidson College in North Carolina for a great many years. Everyone who follows college basketball knows about the school’s Golden Age with the then-and-still-remarkable Stephen Curry, but McKillop has run a clean program at a very fine school with great success before and after Curry. ​

I decided I wanted to show my family what I looked like at 51. I hit SAVE.

This is where the story begins to get more than a little spooky.

Michel’s Grandson

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Mathieu Caillol / Photo by Michel Caillol

Back in the States, I had various careers—teacher, sportswriter, T.V. producer, novelist. Since I’ve moved to France permanently, I’ve only wanted to write novels. And I do it with some success, but I cannot for the life of me master the French language, so a good friend, Michel Caillol, translates my work into French.

The day after I received that “old-timers” photo, I visited Michel for a translating session on a just-completed manuscript. During an espresso break I noticed a picture of a kid in a uniform dribbling a basketball, something I’d never seen in a French household before. Foot maybe, rugby perhaps…never le basket.

I said, “Who’s that?” ​

“My grandson Mathieu. He plays for a junior team in Le Cannet.”

“You know, I used to play too.”

“Really?”

“Is he a good player, your grandson?”

“I think so. We drive down there to see him all the time. He loves the game so much.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Maybe you’ll come sometime?”

“Maybe.”

And that would have been an end to it if Michel hadn’t added, “One of Mathieu’s coaches is an American. I think he played at a school called Davidson, is there such a place?”

Stop the world right now. Right now, I say. This can’t be!

Michel and I are sitting in a small Provencal town six time zones from North Carolina and just yesterday I receive a photo of the Davidson coach years before he ever became the Davidson coach! I’m sorry, but small world doesn’t fully explain it for me. The space/time continuum has suddenly morphed into something unrecognizable, so please help me, Stephen Hawking, wherever you are, I’m about to be swallowed by a black hole.

“So what’s his name, Mathieu’s coach in Le Cannet?”

“Kenny Grant.”

When I get home, a quick on-line check reveals that Kenny Grant, who, like his father, is a long-time professional player in Europe, and, yes, he is now playing professionally in Le Cannet, near Cannes. And he was indeed a three-year player, often a starter, for Bob McKillop at Davidson. And like McKillop and me, he also played his high school basketball on Long Island.

Because of all these extraordinary coincidences, I send Kenny Grant—via my friend Michel—the old-timers photo of his college coach and of me mugging for the camera. Grant, most naturally, sends it on to Coach McKillop and before long Bob and I are e-mailing, all the time since our Hofstra playing days squeezed into basketball memories and personal histories flattened into texts on a computer screen in the French Alps.

This electronic world is a universe away from the schoolyard at P.S.32. And that’s not so bad.

McKillop

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Bob McKillop / Photo by Tim Cowie via Davidson

Bob McKillop graduated from Hofstra in 1972, twelve years after me, so he was a much younger “old timer” when we posed for that photo in 1984. He was already then a very successful high school coach on Long Island, winning the State High School Championship in his division five times. His coaching and recruiting ability at that private school earned him the job at Davidson College, a fine liberal arts school that also loves its basketball tradition.

At Davidson, McKillop did not disappoint. Since his first season there in 1989, his teams have won 554 games and made it to the prestigious NCAA tournament nine times.

Among his peers, McKillop is incredibly well respected. Early in his career he took advantage of the fact that basketball was going global and his reputation enabled him to recruit and draw very good players from Europe. They came to Davidson with qualities he particularly admired; technical excellence, the desire to learn, and the willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the team.

Through our correspondence, I learned that in his early years as a coach, McKillop spent a good deal of time in Italy. Coincidentally— clearly this tale is rife with coincidence—so did I. Sports Illustrated had sent me, in the ‘80s, on a series of assignments to Italy to report on the Italian game. Over there our paths crossed repeated, but Bob and I kept missing one another.

I do have to confess, however, that I’ve never eaten so well on assignment. Example: I visited Marco Baldi, a 6’11” center who played at St. John’s, and who lived in a tiny village in the mountains north of Aosta. I had no idea at the time that Baldi had also played on McKillop’s high school team on Long Island and that they remain close friends. I do remember that Marco’s mother cooked a fettuccine in a cream sauce I still dream about. His father gave me a bottle of grappa he’d made from his own grapes.

Then I was off to Montecasini Terme, a posh spa in Tuscany, where Mike Fratello, then coaching the Atlanta Hawks, was presiding over a basketball camp. A number of NBA stars—I recall Michael Cooper and Happy Hairston of the Lakers–were also giving clinics. Unbeknownst to me, McKillop had frequently taught at that same camp.

Then, in Treviso, I walked into a Renaissance castle to interview Luciano Benetton, who owned a clothing firm I had never heard of at the time. His company was starting a professional basketball team and what he called a “sports university” to train young players. We didn’t actually talk much basketball. We talked food and wine. He took me to a restaurant where he introduced me to the best carpaccio in my life. And sipped an incomparable Friuli.

But even here McKillop hovers over my global tale. One of Benetton’s great coaches was Ettore Messina, who became one of McKillop’s best friends and confidants in the profession, a man who now sits next to the inimitable Gregg Popovich on the San Antonio Spurs’ bench as his Assistant Coach.

During his coaching career, McKillop has scouted and recruited young players from Rimini, Reggio Emilia, Trieste, Treviso, Milano, Bologna, Napoli, and Venezia. And in virtually every country in the European-Union and beyond. He commutes to Europe three or four times each year, and even when he’s not completely successful, he can take some solace in the cuisine and the vino. But three or four members of his team each year are foreign players.

McKillop has scouted and recruited young players from Rimini, Reggio Emilia, Trieste, Treviso, Milano, Bologna, Napoli and Venezia.

And here is our exact exchange about what he admires about most European players:

Me: What do they bring to the game that’s different, if anything?

Bob: …no entitlement and a thirst to learn.

Me: What is a sense of entitlement among college players?

Bob: Entitled to playing time, entitled to a specific position, entitled to a certain amount of “touches,” entitled to basketball gear…That‘s not part of the youth basketball culture in Europe.

Which brings us finally back to Kenny Grant, the ex-Davidson player, ten years a professional in France, one of the youth team coaches of Mathieu Caillol, my translator’s grandson.

It’s fair to say that for a guy who recruits so extensively in Europe, McKillop actually had Kenny Grant fall into his lap. As he tells it, “I played against his dad (Kenny Sr.) in parks, playgrounds, and I knew he had a son who he sent from Europe (where Kenny Sr. and Mia had raised their children) to attend St. Mary’s HS in Manhasset.”

Grant, by the way, is one of more than three hundred American players plying the trade professionally in France this year, and there are well over a thousand in Europe as a whole. A great many more American players are now extending their careers playing the burgeoning game in China. So in a sense, I have been discovering a global basketball free-trade system.

It works like this: Desirable young foreign players come to American colleges. They bring their cultures and their games with them and learn about a new culture and a new game, while older American players take their games and their culture off to see the world while they make their basketball livelihoods.

Clearly, this is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s success means the other side loses. There are potential benefits for everyone involved.

Mathieu’s coaches

Now I have it in my head that I must see the boy play.

This was inevitable, perhaps the hidden point behind the series of improbable coincidences that began with that old-timers’ moment captured on Long Island in 1984.

Yes, I want to see this sixteen-year-old French kid play ball. I want to see for myself if the passion for the game now means to him what the schoolyard meant to me when I was his age. I want this basketball circle to be completed.

Le Cannet is a town that has been absorbed to a great extent by greater Cannes. The professional team there is officially called Le Cannet Cote d’Azur Basket. A confession: Although I hate to leave my mountain aerie for any reason, I especially hate going to Cannes. Many years ago I went to the Cannes festival to pitch a wonderful documentary I had made. I got dismissed tout de suite. The bad taste lingers still.

The Le Cannet professional team also sponsors a cadet team, of players under 17. That’s Mathieu’s team. The official coach is Travarus Bennett, a former star at the University of Minnesota, who has played in the NBA development league, the ABA, and professionally in Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, and for a number of recent years, with some very good teams in France.

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Kenny Grant

Bennett’s professional Le Cannet teammate, Davidson’s Kenny Grant, volunteers his time coaching. As a shooting guard, he has been especially close with and helpful to Mathieu, who plays the same position. Both coaches can be called basketball ‘journeymen’ because they have plied their trade far and wide. For me, the term is not in the least pejorative; it means they were good enough for a very long time to be paid for their skills. I hope someday the same can be said about me.

Kenny Grant is now 36 and has had a fine career in Europe. He was a member of the Swedish National Team—his father met his mother in Sweden; Kenny was born there–and has played variously in Poland, Russia and Romania. If anyone is equipped to embark on a coaching career now that his playing days are winding down, it is Kenny Grant. And he has Bob McKillop’s unequivocal support:

“Kenny Grant was ‘coach on the court’ when he played for us at Davidson. He was smart, tough and insightful. Frequently, he would come to the bench for a timeout and offer a suggestion about a strategy for defense, offense or to capitalize on a certain mismatch.” And then, finally and definitively, “He is destined to be a superb coach.”

Grant, for his part, would like to coach in France, and he is actively pursing the various diplomas and certifications, all the various credentials this bureaucratic society requires. Having grown up in France while his father was coaching professional teams, Kenny is bilingual, an essential qualification.

Travarus Bennett, at 38, is at the end of the line as a player. He played his college ball in the Big Ten, where as he says, “Basketball is football on the court.” He is a tall, wide-body who can still bang and rebound, play tough defense and make threes. But after kicking around European courts for fifteen-or-so years, that big body is feeling the pain. He points to his knee, his groin, his back: “Man, seems like everything is breaking down.”

Like Kenny, he, too, has a coaching plan, not in Europe but back home in Memphis, Tennessee. “I can coach this game and I love kids. So I’m going to look for a high school coaching job near home and see if I can build something there.”

I have the distinct feeling that if he ever gets that chance, Travarus Bennett, with his enthusiasm and wealth of basketball knowledge, would win the Tennessee State Championship in five years.

Mathieu and the game

The cadet game is scheduled for 10:30 on a Sunday morning. The gym is huge, more like an airport hangar. This is the same venue where the professional team plays. There is seating for perhaps 500 but as the teams are warming up, there are maybe 50 people in the stands, parents mostly, siblings and friends. And one ancient American sportswriter.

The Le Cannet cadets are decked out in dark green uniforms with the name of a national sporting goods firm on the back—”Decathlon.”

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Me and Tavarus Bennett / Photo by Michel Caillol

Travarus Bennett—Coach T., everyone calls him—stands on the sideline watching the shoot-around, shouting encouragement, calling an occasional player over to remind the kid of something or other. He towers over all his player but one, a very tall and very strong boy with glasses. Clearly a prospect.

Mathieu Caillol surprises me. He’s taller than the photo of him suggested. I’d say maybe 6’1”. He’s wiry but muscular and surely destined to fill out. During lay-ups he’s easily over the rim. There’s no doubt he’ll be able to dunk next year.

Mathieu Caillol surprises me…There’s no doubt he’ll be able to dunk next year.

The opponent today is the cadet team from Grasse, which is the perfume capital of France, and therefore of the world. When you drive on the Cote d’Azur you never need a map to find Grasse; you simply open the car window and sniff. Unfortunately, today the team from Grasse smells up the place.

Grasse starts the game in a zone defense. Coach T. immediately spreads his offense and Mathieu hits an open three from the angle. On the next possession, Mathieu fakes a three and blows past his man for a lay-up On another play, he dives for a loose ball and is called for a foul, but it gave me pleasure to see him go to the floor. It reminded me of me. Clearly, the kid can play. What his future holds, no one can know, but he can play ball.

Before you know it, the score is 16-0 and the result is never in doubt. The level of play is that of a good high school game on Long Island. No doubt, if this were Long Island, a few of the Le Cannet players, Mathieu included, would be of interest to mid-level college recruiters. Here, these kids’ goal is to make the under-20 team next year, when it will become clearer who will have the possibility of a basketball future, whether in France or the States. I honestly think Mathieu can be one of those young players.

But I also know that Mathieu Caillol is a serious and successful student, so it is not at all clear if basketball will be the path he chooses. It occurs to me, as Coach T. takes Mathieu out of the game, that for so many American kids, basketball will not be not a choice but their only path. Sometimes, though, if they’re lucky, that path can lead them to a wider world as it did with Grant and Bennett and the thousands of players for whom basketball has become a passport to the world. Their life’s adventure.


So I’m sitting in that huge gymnasium in Le Cannet watching the game and jotting notes. Yes, it’s on the other side of the world, but it still smells like a gym and the ball bouncing on the floor reverberates in the same old way. The rim still rattles on a missed shot. Basketball is still basketball after all. And I’m transported back to the court at P.S. 32 in Queens those decades ago, where three school-yard kids are playing against some Boston Celtics and they’re more than holding their own.

I look up from my notebook and see Mathieu Caillol dribble out of the left corner after a huge first step and soar across the lane toward the basket. A terrifically athletic move. The pleasure is all over his face. His hand is at the rim as he is knocked to the floor. The whistle blows. Two shots. He’s smiling. How the boy loves this game!

As did I. As do kids in Nairobi and Beijing and Milano and Goteborg and Rio. The American game, when played with this kind of passion has become timeless, universal. It can no longer be contained within artificial borders. Like so much else in the world, it’s gone global. We’d better get used to the fact, and try to appreciate Globe Ball.

Of course, there will be those who would selfishly and foolishly try to turn back the clock and keep what was once American exclusively American.

But, tell me, how in the world can you slap a tariff on a jump shot?

 

Sam Toperoff has been, in his various incarnations, a writer at Sports Illustrated, a producer/director for PBS, author of thirteen books, and a professor at Hofstra University. He now writes novels in Les Hautes-Alpes, the High Alps of France.

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