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.

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