Overseas basketball and military tours of duty have their similarities.
by Kevin Owens
This week I’d like to slow it down for the ladies in the back. This past week I took part in a touching tribute while on assignment as a substitute teacher at a local high school. An alumnus recently lost his life in Afghanistan, so the school paid homage by aligning the students in front of the school as the military funeral procession passed by. It was a touching tribute to a brave former student. It made me think about all the service men and women I have come across throughout my travels.
Unfortunately in our current state of affairs, military personnel are required to be stationed in various countries throughout the world. Obviously the jobs I have taken, or been offered in the past few years, were located in the middle of so called “military hot spots.” Of the jobs I’ve accepted — Kosovo and South Korea — the military presence had an impact during my stay.
I arrived in Korea not knowing a word of Korean besides what I learned from my D-League roommate, Bang Sung Yoon. In the majority of the countries I visited, I knew I could find a few English speaking folks. But in Korea, I felt like I needed a translator for my actual translator.
One time during a timeout, my coach was yelling and cursing at me in Korean (this was a fairly common occurrence) and my translator was attempting to perform his duties. Before I continue I should tell you this: Besides the broken English, my translator didn’t seem to grasp the concepts of basketball. He would use phrases like, “Pass thee ball down to thee other player, and then sprint to that line where another player will divide you from your defender. Then turn to receive the ball and perform a jump shot.” Umm…what? In retrospect it seems like a very intelligent way to describe a simple screen.
So during the aforementioned timeout, my coach was attempting to tell me I needed to rebound better in his native tongue…at least I think. Our bench was located directly in front of a loud raucous crowd that drowned out his instructions. My coach was yelling something along the lines of (this is my attempt at writing the sound I heard) “HAWSINGWAAAAAA.” I looked to my translator who apparently also had a hard time hearing. Again, “HAWSINGWAAAAAA.”
Now we had about 10 seconds remaining in this timeout and all I was hearing was HAWSINGWAAAAAA. This time my translator, still unaware of what was being said, decided to ad-lib: “Put the opposing player out further.” Not knowing what matter of the game he was referring to, I yelled out, “What?”
My coach, infuriated at this point, threw out a few words I recognized as swears. My response…”What?” At this point the lid was officially blown off the situation. The coach was livid, while the translator stood on the sidelines repeating the phrase “PUT THE OPPOSING PLAYER OUT FURTHER!!” My coach was glaring at me like I just pushed over his mother. Eventually I just shook my head in agreement and continued playing. Still to this day I am not sure what transpired that day, or what was trying to be conveyed. The one thing I took from this experience was how much of a problem a language barrier can make.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘But Kevin, What does this have to do with the military?’ Absolutely nothing. You see sometimes I get sidetracked when I talk about Korea, but due to legal issues, I can’t elaborate anymore on my whole experience. Basically I am trying to establish how far away from home you feel, when you don’t speak a lick of the native language.
During my time in Korea, I was secluded from the outside world, staying in isolated dorms without a car to go out and explore. The one place we were allowed to visit was Songtan, South Korea, which housed a large US Military base. This was an amazing reprieve from our normal stressful lives. It was like being back in the United States. As an American, they had everything you could possibly want. American food, American clothing, bootlegged American films…sorry Hollywood, but it happens.
Despite us living drastically different lives, I still felt a connection to those soldiers. We were (sorry for the cliché) strangers in a strange land. Only my life was spent playing basketball, while they stood as the last line of defense between the good people of South Korea and the North Koreans.
I had a similar experience in Kosovo. Just over 10 years ago Kosovo was involved in a major war. Their country was ravaged by violence, and is only now starting to be pieced back together. Since the country is still unstable, we would often see American military. Even if you didn’t speak to them, seeing the American flag on their sleeve gave you the feeling of home.
No matter where I’ve traveled throughout the world, knowing that American soldiers are close gives you a sense of comfort. I am just a basketball player. I get paid to play a game. The soldiers who defend this country are not part of a game. They put their lives in danger every single day. This is why I feel relief when I see a proud member of the United States military in a foreign land.
Kevin Owens is a veteran of overseas professional basketball. His career has spanned over six years and four continents. With a degree in journalism, Owens writes for the blogs Waiting For Godunk and Hugging Harold Reynolds. You can also catch him on Twitter @Waiting4Godunk.