In the winter of 1993, a young man moved to Prague with the idea of finding a pro or semi-pro basketball team and convincing them to let him join. It was a dumb idea, partly because the young man didn’t know if they even had pro or semi-pro basketball teams in Prague, partly because he didn’t speak any Czech and partly because he was, in the grand scheme of things, just okay at basketball. But fortune favors the dumb sometimes and it all worked out. The young man played the 1994-95 season with Sokol TJ Kralovske Vinohrady, a team on the fringe of the Přebor, the Czech basketball federation’s third tier. He didn’t get paid and in fact had to chip in club dues, which makes it seem more like volunteer basketball than either pro or semi-pro. Nonetheless, he led his team in scoring, traveled the country with a lovely young woman, drank his weight in dark Czech beers, and made some lifelong friends. His team won maybe five games and got in more fights than that, but improved enough that by summer they were able to place third in an international tournament held in the south of France.
I was that young man. I kept a journal of the season and eventually turned it into a book called Expatriate Games: My Season of Misadventures in Czech Semi-Pro Basketball. Someone called it “a great sports book in the same vein as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch,” which, I mean come on, that’s crazy. Another called it an entertaining read if you could get past the lengthy basketball game descriptions, which is a weird thing to say about a basketball book but I’ll take it.
We met under the statue of Jan Hus in Old Town Square and went to a subterranean pizza place called Kmotra, where I’d had a bad experience on a previous trip by confusing the meanings of the Czech words cesnek (garlic) and zeli (sauerkraut). Dejda took a while to start talking. I got a beer and she got orange soda, ordering in staggering Czech. Our pizza came and had green beans on it. She laughed through her nose and said she’d meant to get mushrooms. She switched to beer and we talked about where we were from and what we hoped to get out of the time abroad. I told her about Vinohrady and the CEU. She said she’d heard that there might be a pool at the Hotel Olšanka. I said I’d heard there might be a school there. A couple of times, she smiled so wide that I thought she might have multiple rows of teeth, like a shark. At the end of the evening, I said I’d ask about the pool. We made a plan to reconvene a few days later under the ornate awnings of the Obecni Dům, but when the time came she didn’t show. I waited for half an hour before trudging back to the madhouse of the Hotel Olšanka, whose pool, I’d learned, was closed until spring, and would then be off-limits to students. Over the next couple of days, I checked the front desk, unsuccessfully, for messages.
We beat Sparta B by the score of 100–41 in our third scrimmage. Sparta B was the Přebor version of Superliga champs Sparta A, whose pennant had hung in Jan Wiener’s cafe, and their players were tall but very young. Poli and Ludek Pelikan pushed them around, and even though Tomas struggled with his shot, Robert Vyklicky broke out of what he swore was just a preseason slump and dropped in several threes in the loose second half. Kratcha tried to go behind his back on a breakaway and threw the ball into the stands.
Afterward, Bob, Slava, Tomas, Radek, and I went out for burcak, a cloudy Czech wine that was available only during certain weeks in the fall. The Czechs showed burcak a healthy respect, as its sweet, fruit-juice taste masked the high alcohol content. Slava waved it off and switched to rum. The burcak was stronger still on an empty stomach after a basketball game. We were at a hospoda called U Sudu, and I was quickly too drunk to wonder what it meant, although it sounded a little like an indictment. The September evening was warm, and the crowd had spilled out across the sidewalk.
After two rounds of burcak, the pub ran out of its stock. Apparently, burcak was not mass-produced. The rarity added to its allure, patrons trying to drink as much of it as they could before it vanished again for another year. When the pub staff announced the end of the burcak, mini-revolts spread across the sidewalk. Bob suggested we head to “a real Czech pub” for a beer. I nodded and followed them down the cobblestones. Bob led the way, quickly and without much talk, to a bar called The Konvikt Klub, on Konviktska, behind the old Prague prison. There were bars on the window and the wait-staff wore striped shirts. Bob got a table in the corner and ordered three tmave pivo. The beers arrived quickly; they were dark and sweet and malty. Radek ordered himself palacinky and a dish described on the menu as “bloody headcheese with onions and vinegar.”
Radek was the informal historian of Vinohrady. Over his plate of headcheese, he told me about our teammates. Slava, who we’d lost somewhere along the way, used to play in the Superliga. At twenty-one he had been one of the best guards in what was then Czechoslovakia, but that was seven years ago. According to Radek, Slava’s descent from the heights of the Superliga began in 1987, when he started frequenting a student disco on the outskirts of Prague called Club 011.
That, Bob interjected, was “the start of the end of Slava.”
Radek himself was one of those hustling players destined to be a coach. He finished his beer in three long sips, and his bald head glistened like a turtle egg. On Vinohrady, Radek didn’t get to play much, as there were four guards ahead of him on the depth chart. Still, he was the last player to leave the gym after practice, having run a series of wind sprints and tapping the backboard twenty times consecutively.
Radek told me that he had a 65-centimeter vertical leap. I had no idea what that meant. Even if I’d been sober, the conversion would have been tricky. Radek said Charles Barkley had a 120-centimeter vertical leap, something he seemed to expect me to know.
Bob said that, because of his ankle problems, his vertical leap was only 60 centimeters. That still sounded quite high, I told him, but he frowned into his beer. Sometimes, he said, he wondered why he kept playing at all when Barkley could do such wondrous things. I reminded him that Barkley was not in the Přebor, and asked him about the play at Spravna Mira where I drove and dished to him for a layup that he shoveled in while being fouled. He shook his head, uncomprehendingly. After games, he said, he could never remember individual plays. That sounded weird, and a little wonderful. Sometimes I thought I could remember, in detail, nearly every significant play I’d made since middle school. They only got better.
Kosire: October 26, 1994
Kosire played up in the hills outside of Prague near a pocket of housing developments. The developments all looked the same: thin, drab high-rise apartment buildings with yellowing grass in the squares between them. They were called panelacs and looked ready to collapse at any moment. I’d heard Skee lived in one of them, but nobody knew where.
Kosire had a bunch of older players, but they could shoot the lights out. The final score said we lost by five, but it felt like a hell of a lot more than that. I finished with thirteen points on six-for-ten shooting, not counting a forty-footer at the half time buzzer that got waved off. Ludek Pelikan played like a monster, but Kosire hit everything they threw up.
Late in the game, I was pressuring their point guard, a barrelchested thug with a weak handle, and he turned the ball over. I took it in for the layup. We’d been going back and forth all game, fouling each other, driving on each other, so he came right back and took a pass off a screen for a jumper. I’d seen that play already and got around the screen to swat his shot—Tobe do oci!—into Peli’s hands, who shoveled the ball to Kratcha. On his follow-through, though, the point guard—Number Eight—swung his hand into my neck, on purpose, like a slap.
I didn’t think much of it at the time—we had the ball, and I jumped out on the break. Number Eight had other ideas. When I leapt out, he lowered his shoulder into my chest, like a hockey cross-check. I hadn’t seen it coming, and it was like running into a fire hydrant. I stumbled; Eight turned to run downcourt.
Motherfucker. My ribs ached. Plus, he had ruined my chance to get a layup, and points were how I was measuring my self-worth.
He had his back to me and I spent about a second considering my options—dialogue, appeal to the referees—before plowing my elbow and shoulder into his back. If I hadn’t been so mad, I’d probably have thought better of it. He turned around as if to fight, but play was still progressing down the court, and I didn’t really know what to say in Czech to convey the appropriate level of affront. After a second, he turned back around and kept running. So I cracked him again.
There was a break in the action, and we squared off. He said something in Czech that I didn’t understand. I called him a motherfucker and then a punk. He appeared to understand me, and balled his fists. We began to shuffle toward each other, sort of fumbling into a fight. One of us pushed the other in the chest.
Big Bob appeared between us before I’d fully mentally committed to throwing a punch, and did it for me. Eight stumbled back and the other players jumped into a scrum of arms and jerseys. The referees rushed over and threw us out of the game. Bob stayed on the court. I walked to the bench, ejected and dejected, as my teammates shouted Tobe do oci! at Eight, who looked confused at what they were saying. It was probably a good thing, as I hadn’t thrown a punch in anger in about twelve years, and I was pretty sure that the last one had been at my sister.
On the bench, Mondy cautioned me. “Daveed, don’t fight him. He is—how you say?—crazy man. He has karate.”
Shit. Just what I needed—to get my ass kicked in a foreign language. Still, some things could not be tolerated. With thirty seconds left, Kosire’s other guard leveled Robert Vyklicky with a forearm to the throat. Benches cleared. There were more exchanges of epithets and more finger-pointing, but nobody fought. I came off the bench looking for Number Eight, but he was off to the side holding someone else. Slightly relieved, I helped Vykli up. Solidarity! I’d been in three shoving matches in the scrimmages and games so far, and I thought people were just picking on me because I was American, or because I was walking around with a giant chip on my shoulder, either of which might have been true. Still, the solidarity felt good, especially if it came with Robert. We still lost, 68-63.
Excerpted with permission from Expatriate Games: My Season of Misadventures in Czech Semi-Pro Basketball by Dave Fromm (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).