Tag Archives: Spring 2012

Lessons from Liberia

Eight months and 3,000 miles southeast of my final game in Middlebury’s Pepin Gymnasium, I stand on the sidelines of a different court. With my eyes closed, they sound almost identical: shoes squeak, shots echo off the rim, players grunt, whistles trill.

But in the middle of Liberia’s capital city, only a few blocks from where Charles Taylor oversaw an unfathomable reign of terror, it’s strange to consider that a game like basketball could exist, much less flourish.

To an outsider, “flourish” may seem like an odd word choice. There is no roof on this gym. Garbage and sewage are swept into gutters on the sidelines, and paint peels off the concrete floor and wooden backboards.

Yet three times a week for the two hours before dark, the LPRC Oilers—a team in the Liberia Basketball Association—get to forget about life beyond the end lines and a community struggling to heal deep wounds, and they become enveloped in the coalescent and transitory power of basketball. I am their assistant coach.

On this day, the final practice before the beginning of the LBA’s Championship series, I recognize the quiet, focused energy of athletes on the verge, an intensity I lived for during my time playing basketball at Middlebury. It’s unnerving to feel it with another team, and in this environment, a bit out of place. But as incongruous as the feeling is, it is equally reaffirming—a testament that basketball isn’t about cameras, fans, or rankings, but about the guy next to you.

And the Oilers understand this better, perhaps, than any team I’ve ever seen.  Growing up amid some of the cruelest conditions on the planet, basketball represents something special to these athletes. For them, the game offers an escape from their common experience. Their wins are tangible evidence of the power of dedication, and their championship run an immutable statement to teamwork. While basketball is woven into my life, inseparable from everything else, for this team the game is discrete. It provides an alternative to a jaded reality that has been consistently marred by senseless violence. As Liberia looks to redefine itself as a functioning democracy and a model for post-conflict societies, smaller communities are increasingly important.

Paradigm shifts begin at the bottom, and this team is a shining example. And their example is spreading. For our final games of the season, LPRC’s local refinery has arranged for buses to ferry workers to the games. In an environment with precious little to root for, the Oilers have inspired a community.

Liberians still have a long, difficult road ahead of them: in my three months as an assistant coach, I have witnessed bribery, extortion, vandalism, ineptitude, and corruption; I have seen brawls break out over bad calls and games delayed by monsoon rains. But the attitude of the Oilers—their determination and teamwork—provide exactly the right place to start.  In so many ways, my experience in Liberia has been nothing like my experience with the placid dependability of Middlebury. But in important ways, it has been—you just need to close your eyes, shift your focus, and appreciate that the power of basketball knows no borders.

Andrew Locke was a tri-captain of the 2010-2011 Middlebury College basketball team.

What Paul Nelson Conducted

On a brilliant fall day in 1973, Paul Nelson passed me a golden gift that I have prized ever since. A small group of Poli Sci 101 students had gathered to discuss Plato’s entertaining, maddening book, The Republic. Before coming to Middlebury I had never heard of Plato; and here I was, slouched at a table in a Warner seminar room with a dozen other freshmen, mulling the morality of a shepherd named Gyges. I thought of that moment when I heard that this ageless man, this tireless conductor of thought, was actually retiring.

In Book II of The Republic, this cad finds a gold ring that makes him invisible. In short order Gyges hooks up with the queen and, with the queen’s help, murders the king and sets himself on the throne. The story serves as a kind of experiment to see whether social pressure dictates one’s virtue. Can any human, unobserved, anonymous, behave well? (You might say that Gyges foreshadowed both the Internet and Super Pacs.)

Being a late-blooming adolescent, I was less interested in the philosophical question than in the randy queen. The experiment seemed less than pure; after all, not every invisible aspirant to a throne would find such a willing coconspirator. Gathering my courage, I spoke up. “What about the queen? I mean, doesn’t she sort of, you know, spoil the ethical question?”

Paul Nelson frowned.

I blushed.

And then came the gift. “That hadn’t occurred to me,” he said.

It hadn’t? I stared at him, sure he was lying. This bearded sage looked exactly the way Aristotle must have: professorial, probing, peripatetic, impossibly lean. Philosophy whooshed from Mr. Nelson’s mouth as though the ancients themselves spoke through it. And he was ancient himself! Surely he had reread The Republic sufficiently to have memorized it, possibly in Greek. And the queen question had never occurred to him?

In the four decades since, while Mr. Nelson donned the grand title of G. Nye and A. Walker Boardman Professor of Mental and Moral Science, his outward appearance remained unchanged. Many thoughts have doubtless occurred to him over those years, as much from the works of his beloved mentor, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, as from the mouths of tabulae rasae like me. Paul Nelson was the most brilliant listener, showing patient curiosity in the rhetoric of Henry Kissinger, my senior thesis topic. He went on to direct the performing arts series at Middlebury. And he became a scholar of rhetoric himself, spending his last sabbatical in London in the study of 19th-century British sportswriters.

An illiberal mind may ask what a philosopher can glean from the rhetoric of long-dead Limey sportswriters. The answer lies in one golden moment in Warner. For this was Paul’s gift, this is what he conducted: A liberal education comes not so much from the four-year pursuit of knowledge. It comes from welcoming, over a lifetime, the occurrence of thought.

Jay Heinrichs ’77 is the author of Thank You for Arguing and Word Hero.