Multi-colored smoke swept across the court. More than once I raised my jersey up over my nose and breathed into the dark sweaty space between the fabric and my skin to avoid passing out.
There couldn’t have been more than 800 people crammed tightly into rickety bleachers that surrounded three sides of the court, located in a small community health club that once a week doubled as a professional basketball arena. The fans spit at us, tossed debris and let off an outrageous number of flares, unconcerned about the dangers of setting off fireworks inside a crowded building.
The fans spit at us, tossed debris and let off an outrageous number of flares, unconcerned about the dangers of setting off fireworks inside a crowded building.
At least half of them were our own fans who had made the three-hour winding drive from the industrial town of Prievidza, where we lived in central Slovakia, to Zilina, a forgettable place situated at the conflux of three rivers an hour south of Poland. There were only a few seconds left in the game, but no one knew exactly how many. Three, maybe four? Five? We had just taken a two-point lead when we were gifted an extra possession after the scoreboard short-circuited and now flashed a string of zeros. The coaches came over to fix the problem, then some players, and even a couple of fans, all huddled around the scorer’s table, all tapping buttons at random until the scoreboard simply shut off.
The referees looked at each other and shrugged. No one knew what to do next.
Finally, as if they had a choice, they decided to let us play on. The last few seconds would be counted down in Slovakian by an official holding a stopwatch at one end of the court, while another man with another stopwatch would do the same in English on the opposite end, all under a hail of shrieking horns and a shroud of smoke.
This was not unusual, really, just another midseason game in Extraliga, the Slovakian professional basketball league. Or maybe, if we lost, my last game with the team. Or maybe not.
It was hard to tell anything for sure. In Slovakia I had begun to learn that every absolute I had ever taken for granted, every common standard of behavior and basketball norm — norms that had rarely varied from country to country, from basic personal morality to basketball practice attire — had to be reassessed almost daily. What was true one day was not true the next, what was right was wrong and what was wrong was right.
Living in the central European country of nearly 5.5 million people was like peeling back the layers of some strange fruit, each revealing some new part, sometimes ripe and beautiful, other times dark and rotting, but always something unique. At times, however, I learned it was best to just leave the fruit alone.
But for the moment I didn’t have that choice. I was at the mercy of the referees, the fans, and my own teammates.
The ball was thrown in to the opposing team’s shooting guard. He hesitated for a moment then skipped it across the court. My heart raced, the referee’s countdown drowned out by the suffocating noise. It must be four seconds, I thought. "Four seconds!" I finally screamed. Zilina made another pass, and set a pick. In the confusion we forgot to switch a screen, leaving their best shooter standing wide open on the wing. I ran out after him, too late, as he let the shot fly.
I turned and watched the flight of the ball, and a brief tinge of regret coursed through my body.
How on earth did I end up here, in Slovakia, enmeshed in a world of corrupt sports federations, front office fights, and busted dreams, with the future of my career so tightly wrapped around the trajectory of that ball?
How on earth did I end up here, in Slovakia, enmeshed in a world of corrupt sports federations, front office fights, and busted dreams.
"Slovakia?" I asked the stewardess "So where is that exactly?"
Normally, if you’re going to a place, especially for work and a six-month stay, this is the kind of question you want to ask before you step on the plane. Not that it would have made much difference. I needed the job.
The summer before, in 2009, I’d played for Great Britain in the European Championships. We had nearly beaten the Gasol brothers and Spain, even leading with less than three minutes to play, but that was the highlight of my tournament. Soon afterwards a nagging injury required surgery, my third in the last 18 months. Without a contract I’d have to rush back from injury seven weeks after the start of the European season, long after most rosters were set. Even as an eight-year veteran, any hopes of again playing for a top league in Europe were slim. In fact, my chances of playing basketball anywhere seemed to be dwindling by the day.
I anxiously waited in New York, eating up my savings and sending out emails to anyone I thought could help get me a place on a team. No one could seem to help, usually alluding to something about the old guard needing to make way for a new generation. Then, one evening in early November, I received an email from an unknown basketball agent in Slovakia with a contract offer and an airplane reservation for a flight that left the next morning.
I was hesitant. I’d heard the horror stories about players in Central and Eastern Europe who never got paid, or were fired after a single poor shooting game. By email, the agent promised me that it was "different" in Slovakia. Of course, he didn’t explain what "different" meant, but I knew I didn’t have a choice.
I wouldn’t say I had low expectations of Slovakia, because it’s hard to have expectations when I didn’t even know where I was going. I did know the Slovakian league wasn’t very good compared to some of the top countries; on the totem pole of European basketball it wasn’t too far from the bottom. I did however, expect the team to exhibit some vague sense of organization and cohesion, or, at the very least, have practice jerseys. Basketball was basketball, and this was still the pros.
When I arrived at the dimly-lit, '60’s-era box-style gym on the edge of Prievidza, two hours from the capital Bratislava, the coach shook my hand in near silence, and pointed to the far end of the court. The players were in various colored T-shirts and tank tops as if they’d just wandered in off the street, lazily tossing the ball over their shoulders and heaving up half-court shots at the rim to "warm up." It was like I’d flown halfway across the world for a really bad pick-up game.
It was like I’d flown halfway across the world for a really bad pick-up game.
During my first 3-on-3 drill, we split into random teams based on whatever color shirt we had on. It didn’t matter what position any of us played or if the three tallest guys ended up on the same team; if you wore navy blue, red, or black that day, you were on one team. If you chose white, off-white or neon green, you were on another team.
Eventually, I walked over to the coach and asked if we could play shirts and skins to even things up.
He tilted his head to the side and looked at me with a confused look, "Water?" he asked.
After the drill, Coach huddled us together to go over our deficiencies. He paused often, glancing up at the rafters, long awkward silences interrupted by bursts of some barely audible language that seemed to get caught halfway through his throat.
Finally he turned to one of our forwards, a Slovakian who had spent three years in America at an NAIA school half a dozen years earlier, to translate.
"I think he said … uhhh … we … uhhh, he probably wants us to play more defense," he said. The coach looked down meekly then whispered some more advice.
The Slovakian forward shook his head mildly from side to side. "I … uhh … yeah, I don’t know what he said."
Prievidza had started the season 0-7 under their hard-nosed, take no prisoners Serbian coach, Darius Dimavicius. He had been a star forward for the club when they won the last championship of Czechoslovakia in 1992, before the country was split apart after the communist government collapsed. But after the poor start, fans protested and he was let go. And with him, apparently, went any semblance of order.
Basketball, like most things, was taken very seriously in Prievidza, a town of 50,000 built on the back of one of the largest coal mines in the country. The Slovakian national sport is hockey, but without a top-level hockey team in town, much of the attention and disposable income of the sport-loving public was spent on cheering the local basketball team. Win or lose, fans in Prievidza often broke national attendance records. Passion was not a problem.
After letting Dimavicius go, management decided that, instead of paying an established coach, they’d try to save a little money by hiring a cheaper and therefore less experienced one. With the extra money they saved, they decided to bring in some veterans, myself included, guys who already knew the international game and could work in tandem with the new coach and the Slovakian players on the team. In theory, that was fine; all the coach would need to do was make sure everyone understood his role. Of course, this strategy only works when the coach can speak a language that’s intelligible by someone on the team.
Antonio, the new coach, was a middle-aged Portuguese intellectual who’d only recently moved to Slovakia in order to study Central European philosophy and marry his Slovakian girlfriend. His only previous coaching experience was with a Sunday league recreation team of 10- and 11-year-old kids.
His English was virtually nonexistent. "Please do win," he’d often command me before a game. His Slovakian was probably grade-school level, at best. Antonio, however, had grown up in Portugal near the Spanish border and spoke fluent Spanish. Fortunately, I’d spent a few years playing in Spain and I became the sort of de facto team translator. That usually meant he spoke to me in Spanish, I’d translate it into English, and the English-speaking Slovakians would then translate that into Slovakian in a sort of ridiculously sad version of the old children’s party game "Telephone." Not that it mattered whether or not the translations were accurate anyway; nearly everything he said was some kind of mundane instruction followed by a pleasantry. "Please," he’d say as we gathered around him. "I’d like everyone to make an effort to rebound (long pause). Rebounding is important. Thank you."
Basketball in a place like Slovakia, where player contracts are practically meaningless and are cancelled on an almost daily basis, is the ultimate social experiment.
I sympathized with the coach, a good guy caught in an unforgiving world. But even if he spoke a language we understood, he never had a chance. Basketball in a place like Slovakia, where player contracts are practically meaningless and are cancelled on an almost daily basis, is the ultimate social experiment. Players arrive from different countries and continents, all with different upbringings, backgrounds, and personal goals. Anxious local fans, overweight journalists who never played a game in their life, and even, at times, their own front office, view each game, and more specifically, each stat sheet, as a referendum on each player. As a result, survival instincts get sharpened, Type-A personalities go into overdrive, and insecurities are played out through subtle needling or passive-aggressive ball-hogging. For a sociologist who enjoys watching the filth of individual character and dreck of humanity bubble to the surface in controlled environments, it’s heaven. For a player, not so much.
Our top scorer was an immensely talented American shooting guard and narcissistic gunner who had led several other small European leagues in scoring. A staunch believer in quantity over quality, he fired away at every opportunity as if each contest was his own personal shoot n’ hoop carnival game. He generally loathed his teammates, viewing us as obstacles holding him back from a better job. He even coined his own personal mantra, "Keep shootin’ 'til you make it, then keep shootin’ 'til you miss it."
Our power forward was a spindly Canadian with a killer jump shot out to 30 feet who grew up in a farming village in Nova Scotia and showed open disdain for those that didn’t work hard and follow the ethical values of basketball. The starting small forward was a well-built Czech who turned his nose up at all of us and routinely took his frustrations out on opposing players’ faces with his unruly elbows.
The remainder of the roster was a collection of Slovakians who bickered endlessly over what we could never quite figure out. Practices often stopped for 15 minutes or more as they loudly and democratically sorted out whatever issue was their current obsession. They were led by our 35-year-old team captain. He saw himself as a 6’3 Slovakian Tracy McGrady and refused to pass the ball to anyone, ever, unless and only unless it led directly to an assist on the stat sheet.
My job was to share the ball, keep everyone happy, ignore my own numbers and start winning games.
Our general manager, a silent Owen Wilson look-a-like, and former player himself, understood the talent on our team, but also recognized the selfishness. I was brought in to be the voice of reason, the point guard to lead these conflicting personalities, and shore up the foundation under an eroding season. My job was to share the ball, keep everyone happy, ignore my own numbers and start winning games.
It mattered to me. Although I grew up in the U.S., my father is British and I am a dual citizen. If I could stay healthy and keep a job, I was in line to make the 2012 Great Britain Olympic team, capping my basketball career. So despite the general sense of dysfunction surrounding the club, I embraced my role. With some work, I even felt we could be pretty decent. As I soon learned, however, there would be a few unanticipated cultural differences to overcome. Slovakia was like nowhere else on the planet.
To understand anything about Slovakia, one must first understand the "Prague Spring."
On Jan. 5, 1968, the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, a two-country state that had been mostly been fronted by Czech leaders since its founding after World War I, appointed charismatic Alexander Dubcek, a Slovakian, to the post of Party Secretary.
Dubcek was a revolutionary figure and within weeks, to the delight of the general population and shock of party leaders, he ordered the complete overhaul of the crippling regulations that had strangled the Eastern Bloc country. He loosened restrictions on media, travel and speech, and granted Slovakia autonomy within Czechoslovakia.
Since 906 A.D., Slovakia has been passed between neighboring countries like a baby at a christening. First the Hungarians, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the Nazis, and after World War II, the Soviets, treated the Slovakians to various degrees of subjugation and oppression. Even in their own joint country, the Czech majority viewed them as peasants, little brothers, and their distinct language was denigrated as nothing more than a bastardized version of Czech. Slovakian poets and writers were relegated to the sidelines while Czech authors like Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera romanticized the Bohemian and Czech struggle for an international audience.
Yet, for eight glorious months in 1968, Slovakians had their own world-renowned hero, a reformer battling repressive conditions from all sides. Dubcek allowed a free press and Slovakian writers formed a union. Foreign newspapers and new ideas flooded in. Families made vacation plans to visit places they had only ever dreamed of. Opinions were heard, and great orchestras were formed for the first time in at least a generation.
All Czechoslovakians had been praying for a leader like Dubcek and they were overcome with emotion at his success. They cried, they laughed, they sang in the streets. Strangers embraced strangers. For eight glorious months it was euphoria.
Then, on Aug. 21, 1968 the Soviets sent an army of more than 500,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers to the capital. They crushed the government almost overnight, returning Czechoslovakia to a Marxist-Leninist state. Untold numbers of intellectuals and people of any sort of importance were forced to toil in factories or simply expelled from the country completely, including, and most importantly, Alexander Dubcek.
The great Slovakian hero was stricken from the history books and it was forbidden to speak his name. The watchful eye of big brother became ever more vigilant, security tightened and more barbed wire was stretched along the border with Austria. Children were force-fed party doctrine and their heroes were chosen for them and factory workers, furniture makers — the everyday man who worked hard — kept his head down and did not ask questions.
In the wake of the Prague Spring, Slovakians succumbed to a sort of prolonged depression. But in 1989, the walls of communism finally crumbled and in 1993, for the first time in over 1,000 years, Slovakia became fully independent.
Their depression, however, quickly morphed into a bipolar cluster fuck.
Their depression, however, quickly morphed into a bipolar cluster fuck. The elder generation mostly held on to communist values — preferring the simple life and the structure and order of the past while shunning the dog-eat-dog realities of the modern world. The rest of the population dove head first into a pile of capitalist manure, embracing every newfound freedom. The nation’s identity, and each individual’s idea of what it meant to be Slovakian was under constant upheaval, a raucous debate still being argued a generation after independence.
However, if there was anything all Slovakians could agree on and embrace, it was gambling, a way to express individual opinions while simultaneously seeking quick cash.
America often deifies money, and therefore views gambling in moral terms, a minor evil that can only be done most easily in Las Vegas or on the Internet, the two bastions of sin. But in Slovakia, after independence, casinos popped up everywhere. Sports betting, in particular, became so prevalent one could pick up a betting card at practically any supermarket in the country. As if making up for lost time, virtually every sport in the world provided an opportunity for profit — second-division soccer games in France, Danish women’s handball scores, the Kansas City Royals run differential, and, of course, Slovakian basketball.
The only time management ever mentioned gambling was on the day I first arrived. Martin, our stocky, 19-year-old, blond team secretary with the bottle-rimmed glasses and an encyclopedic knowledge of basketball told me I would be fined if I placed a wager against my own team. I thought it was almost comical that he even mentioned it. I had never played anywhere in the world where gambling was condoned. Surely, Slovakia was no different.
Most Slovakians understood and accepted the fact that some athletes bet on their own teams to win.
Only later did I understand just how pervasive betting was. Most Slovakians understood and accepted the fact that some athletes bet on their own teams to win, even if it was rarely discussed. I soon discovered that even a few of our own players embraced this new tradition. While picking up the week’s groceries, they routinely bet on our team to win to help supplement their own meager salaries, secure in the knowledge that, even if we lost it only increased the payout the next time we did win.
The previous season, two players and a coach from our team, well known as gamblers and who had yet to be paid by our club, came under suspicion. In a game against one of the weaker teams in the league, both players collected four fouls in the first quarter leading to a blowout loss. But the players and coach weren’t even questioned. They were simply handed a slip of paper that warned them if it happened again they could be suspended.
Many fans bet as well, putting beer money down on almost every game. As a result, as if there was not already enough at stake, there was also a deeper, underlining importance to every contest. A win meant not just bragging rights, but an extra day’s pay and a wild celebration soon after. A loss, however, could be devastating, plunging both players and fans into despair, anger and temporary poverty. In defeat, a few of our players became increasingly desperate and cutting, almost vengeful toward one another.
The only authority with the power to change the gambling culture was the Slovakian Basketball Association, the national federation that oversaw every aspect of the sport. They are, however, a classic example of a post-communist institution gone wrong. Each year the government provides the SBA with nearly one million euros, all budgeted to support various facets of the game, junior league, National Team etc., but the organization is utterly corrupt. The year I played there, the €40,000 the SBA set aside to pay the professional league referees completely vanished; rumor had it that as much as €600,000 of those one million euros was unaccounted for. In midseason, the referees went on strike and league play was halted for over two weeks until emergency funds were miraculously "found."
Meanwhile, as the snows began to fall and the landscape turned into a horizonless place of utter desolation, our team tumbled into chaos. Despite our obvious talent, soon after I arrived, we plummeted into last place after a four-game losing streak, including one home game in which we squandered a 25-point lead. For most teams, team chemistry can be compared to the edge of a razor blade that cuts slowly between functionality and disaster. For us, however, team chemistry was a 50-pound sledgehammer, slamming down and obliterating any sense of cohesion and camaraderie.
I tried to bring the team together, but it was mostly hopeless. Even practice would deteriorate into a painful and epic psychological battle between the forces of normal adult social behavior and narcissistic whining. Our two top scorers, the American shooting guard and the Slovakian captain, engaged in a struggle over control of the offense. Each took turns lofting up wild, off-balance, one-footed runners over three guys while the rest of our team openly cursed at them and refused to help on defense. With each loss, anxiety over our job security increased.
With each loss, anxiety over our job security increased.
Upstairs in our front office, another war raged. In Europe, pro basketball isn’t primarily a moneymaking endeavor. Management is usually motivated by two opposing forces: a genuine love of the game and their own oversized egos, which often clash over the smallest incidents.
At one board meeting during our losing streak and in the midst of the local elections, which consumed everyone’s attention, a fistfight broke out over political party alliances. After decades of communist rule, each vote, no matter how insignificant, was seen as statement of personal independence and individuality and worthy of fighting over. The boardroom became a battlefield, chairs overturned and eyes blackened. After the debacle, one of the members of the board left the team in a rage and took with him his sizable financial contribution to the club, and much of the operating money.
Yet despite the swirling madness around me, or perhaps, in some small way, because of it, I was settling in. At times, I even enjoyed myself. Isolated in a small town on the fringes of the map, the ingrained superiority complex all Americans initially carry overseas slowly began to wash away. Once I let go of my preconceived notions of what a small former communist country should be and took the time to both walk past the soulless gray buildings to the local cafe for lunch, or toward the 12th century castle in the next village, and appreciate both for what they were, I began to feel a part of the place.
As a visitor in Prievidza I was conscious I had to fully embrace the present, whatever it was, because the past is mostly inaccessible, and muted, while the future is constantly under negotiation. I discovered there is beauty in the unknown. It is also terrifying.
The day before our game against rival Zilina, our Owen Wilson look-a-like general manager barged into the locker room, slamming the door against the edge of an empty green plastic chair. Our leading scorer and wildly egotistical gunner had been fired.
There were a few congratulatory glances around the locker room, but they were short-lived. Like robots on an assembly line, he was soon replaced by another American gunner with similar qualities. He had played the year before in Prievidza to much fanfare, finishing in the top five in scoring and assists, but isolated himself from his teammates with his play. Mentioning Allen Iverson as an influence, he played no form of recognizable defense and, like his hero, often skipped practice. When he walked into the locker room the Slovakians immediately and collectively groaned.
While the new player walked around and shook each teammate’s hand, our general manager silently ruffled through his coat pocket. The entire time I was in Prievidza I had never heard him utter a single word, in any language, usually communicating with only grunts and finger pointing. Finally, he pulled out a wad of crumpled, handwritten papers and handed one to each of us.
"Dear Player, if no do win with subsequent team match, no will have taken money of month."
I looked down at the document, written in a form of English used nowhere else, except maybe a translation website: "Dear Player, if no do win with subsequent team match, no will have taken money of month." Apparently, we were going to be fined a substantial portion of our salary if we continued to lose, starting tomorrow. The general manager brushed his hair to the side, turned, and slammed the door behind him, a healthy reminder of who was in charge.
The moment the door shut, the shouting began. The crinkled paper we each held in our hands that threatened our livelihood had broken the crumbling levee holding us together. Curse words and insults burst across the room. We had reached our collective limit, and the room reeked of unfiltered raw feelings.
If the professional basketball court is a cathedral, our team locker room was the crypt. For an outsider it’s a place of distant worship, where player’s transform into superheroes and bishops into saints. In reality, it’s little more than a dark, moldy place that stores the skeletons of the past. During times of adversity, every slight, every insecurity and every heartache, every rotting emotion from a player’s lifetime in the sport, seethes and oozes to the surface. Teammates see each other with the skin pulled back, in their most vulnerable states. When the losses mount, each player’s sense of being and self-worth gets called into question. It can often get ugly.
Myself and the other foreigners on the team were furious over our position in the standings, and the questionable state of our contracts. We blamed the coach, and the Slovakians, and even the goddamn snow. We yelled and screamed that we were not being shown the respect we deserved. There were ideals that needed to be upheld and we were going to take charge.
The Slovakians laughed. They mocked our Disney-esque ideals and naiveté about the world. "Why should we get paid if we don’t win?" they asked. Then they glared at us, unflinching, across the locker room, our anger rolling off their hardened backs. I realized this next game, this season, even their careers, were not simply about winning or losing, or making the playoffs, or finally hoisting an elusive championship trophy, or any other reason Americans reduce a lifetime into a 30-minute, made-for-TV, tear-jerking, ESPN documentary.
The Slovakians wanted more — a sense of ownership, a sense of control over their own destiny, something that had been so fleeting for so many generations. Forgetting is hard. As much as we’d all like to, the past cannot be outrun. It flows through our bloodlines, and clings to the edges of our veins. They hoped, perhaps, that by asserting control they could mold their own future and, in turn, slowly let go of what had held them prisoner for so long.
I could see in their eyes they weren’t going to back down to us, idealistic North Americans who were blinded by our own history, and our own warped sense of entitlement.
We were going to bet on ourselves to win — together for once, united by greed and our need to survive.
We were at a stalemate.
But we still needed to win this game, in spite of our disagreements, and we all still needed to make a living. We knew, deep down, there was only one thing we could all agree on, one thing that we could bond over: Money. When the arguments finally died down, one of the Slovakians spoke up. Tactics, he said, had to be changed.
We all understood. Many of us got in our cars and headed down to the supermarket. We were going to bet on ourselves to win — together for once, united by greed and our need to survive.
By halftime, we were losing by 16. Inside the locker room, we sat with our heads down. Antonio raised his voice for the first time, speaking in anger, some combination of Slovakian or Portuguese ricocheting off the walls. We all nodded. We didn’t listen. Coaches always say the same thing.
Then, as the second half started, with our backs against the wall, we slowly trimmed the lead. We started making jump shots, Zilina began missing easy lay-ups, and the calls went our way. Suddenly a 10-point deficit became five, and then one. With less than 20 seconds to play, our Nova Scotian power forward and best shooter was left open.
His shot clanked off the rim. So too, apparently, did our chances.
The referees, however, stopped the game. They conferred and agreed that because the scoreboard had gone out at roughly the same time as his shot, we deserved another chance. Time ran backwards, then re-started and then moved forward again with nearly the exact same play. Our Canadian power forward was open in the same spot, took a pass from the new American and knocked down a 25-footer to give us the lead.
Our fans reacted in a way only fans in Europe can. They ran around the stands in a frenzy, shooting off flares, banging drums and waving and throwing anything they could pick up. The fall of communism had hardly caused a bigger celebration. The scoreboard then froze completely and the blaring the horns nearly broke every window in the building. After a period of chaos, with referees at both ends of the floor counting down the time in different languages, the air thick with smoke, as time expired our opponents took one final shot. One perfectly released shot taken at the ends of the basketball earth, one that spun so very perfectly through the barren space between the fingertips and the net, where careers are made, and broken. It hung for just a split second on the lip of the rim, before rolling off and bouncing harmlessly away.
It was just one game, and one win, and we were still planted firmly in last place, but we celebrated as if we’d just won the NBA Championship, first on the court, then in the locker room, and finally halfway down the mountain at a medieval country bar to celebrate with shots of Slivovica, the Slovakian national drink.
We huddled around each other, almost a team, glasses in our hands and threw back shot after shot, slurring our way through national hymns.
We huddled around each other, almost a team, glasses in our hands and threw back shot after shot, slurring our way through national hymns.
The alcohol started to talk and I congratulated a few of the guys on the game and their winnings. Maybe we would never be a great team, or even a decent team, but at least we had this moment.
"Thanks," our American gunner said as he patted his wallet when he got up from the table. "But you know," he said with the sly smile of someone with infinitely more knowledge of the Slovakian way than me, "we’re probably not the only ones who made some money tonight."
It took a moment for his words to sink in through the haze of the celebration, my first Slovakian victory. Then flashes of the game came back like a rush of blood to the head.
There were too many easily missed lay-ups, too much token defense, too many dubious foul calls. There was the gift of that extra possession, and that clock, that clock that so conveniently broke at the last possible moment and that irrevocably altered the game.
It had all been decided beforehand; we were going to win this game, no matter what. Maybe the decision was made by someone in our front office, or by our own players, or by our opponents, or the referees, or the scorer’s table, or some strange secret combination of them all. Or maybe not, maybe the outcome was simply a product of the chaotic, unfolding history being molded and shaped for a modern world, like everything else in Slovakia.
I had been paid, but still, I couldn’t let my suspicions go. Suddenly I was skeptical of everything and everyone. I didn’t sign up for this, not like this, anyway. Maybe it was the Slivovica, or the shock or both, but my head started to spin and everything turned upside down.
The team huddled together around the table, arms across each other’s shoulders and their glasses pointed skyward. "Na zdravje!" the Slovakians screamed in unison, clanking their glasses together, "Health!" They then paused and looked down at me.
I was still seated. "I …" I started to say something, to point out the discrepancies in the game I held so dear. Then I got up from my chair and stood and looked around the room. Antonio was smiling from ear to ear, his arm around our captain. Martin was passed out drunk, his bottle-rim glasses on the floor, the Slovakians and the Czech and the Canadian were all beaming with pride, with grins that could barely be contained inside the small tavern, their faces tinted bright red.
I took a deep breath, exhaled, then turned toward the team and slowly raised my glass to the ceiling.