Sunday, June 8, 2014

Peace Corps Through The Eyes Of A Basketball Official


As most of you already know I just finished a forty one month service in the tiny West African country of The Gambia. It was an incredible experience that helped shape me into a better human being. I had so many different unique experiences and met so many special people. I got a chance to learn a lot of new skills such as gardening, language learning, cultural integration, and leadership. My favorite part of my service was working with the development of basketball in the country. I spent my entire three years working with the sport in one capacity or another. The last year and a half I worked with the Gambian Basketball Association (GBA) as a referee, referee trainer, and coach. With my help and the assistance of countless others the GBA has now conducted two straight league seasons, with as many as twelve teams participating. This is the first time organized basketball has been played in the country in decades. Before the establishment of the GBA basketball was nothing but the occasional pick up game. This blog post is my attempt to give you a snapshot of what I experienced during that journey.

Oh and let the reader be warned, this is a long read but I could not help it, it was a long service.

The Beginning

Aside from Dikembe Mutumbo I knew very little about basketball in Africa and so naturally assumed it was nonexistent. When I first arrived in the Gambia back in 2011 I came under the expectation that I would not play or watch basketball for two years. Fortunately for me there exists a world beyond my assumptions. I found myself living in a village that not only had a court, but players that made that court sing with the sweet rhythms of bouncing balls. However the sport I found them playing there was just as foreign as the people and language. It looked like basketball, sounded like basketball, but was not the basketball I was raised to play.

The game of basketball in Gambia is loosely constructed around NBA highlight videos on youtube. Moreover due to the immense popularity of soccer in Gambia, if there are any gaps in understanding about the rules, most players simply fill those gaps with the rules for soccer. For example when the ball went out of bounds players did not wait for the ref to administer the ball (as in traditional basketball); they simply grabbed the ball and passed it in (as it is in soccer). This produced a very raw form of basketball, unrefined by rules, lacking in fundamentals, yet exploding with athleticism; a product that took the idea of basketball and shaped it into something that was unfamiliar, entertaining, and maddening to watch.

It was even more frustrating and entertaining to play. You could absolutely pummel somebody who was dribbling the ball but as soon as they went up for a shot if you even breathed on the shooter you were called for a foul. Defenders staved off screens by throwing elbows and screeners countered by hip checking defenders. An exciting amount of full court passes, fast break dunks, and acrobatic layups. But at the same time a plethora of travels, hard fouls, ill-advised shots, and ducking from flying chairs. 

Village Ballers

I absolutely loved it!  I decided I wanted to work with basketball outside of my village and so offered my services to help put on a basketball camp during that first summer. I went with two other Peace Corps volunteers who shared my passion for the sport. We were all curious and eager to see what the camp would bring. What we experienced was both exciting and overwhelming. The amount of people that showed up for this camp was incredible. At any one point of time we were conducting drills on four different courts with an additional fifty people outside doing ball handling drills. The enthusiasm for the sport was intense and passionate. That was exciting. On the flip side I had never tried to run a layup drill with fifty participants. We all found coaching, already difficult due to language barriers, damn near impossible under these conditions. That was overwhelming. Sprinkle in culture mishaps, eager Gambian coaches unknowingly teaching bad fundamentals, the exhausting heat of the summer, ten deaf youths who never stopped on the whistle, and you have an once in a lifetime experience. I was hooked, the enthusiasm inspired me, and the challenges motivated me. This is what I wanted to do for the next two years.

After the camp I got in touch with one of the logistical coordinators for the event. A professional, middle aged, Gambian man working for the US Embassy named Papa Njie. When I first met Papa it quickly became apparent that he was the busiest man in Africa. Not a minute passes where Papa is not answering, silencing, or complaining about his phone. I have never met a human being who has more on his plate then Papa. I have also never met someone so eager to devour that plate. The man derives his manna from productivity. Papa would end up becoming not only my primary counterpart but also a good friend. About a year after the summer camp in 2011, Papa was elected as the new president of the previously dormant Gambian Basketball Association (GBA). In doing so the GBA elected a charismatic, motivated, and most importantly devoted fan who would use his connections and resources to turn the GBA into a productive and entertaining league. The GBA was so successful that it would go on to become a certified member of the international governing body of basketball (FIBA) and receive both national and international media attention. Without him the GBA would still be laying in its sleepy grave while players around the country continued to play without a purpose.

Papa has an exhaustive list of goals for the GBA, always has, always will. And he believed the best way to accomplish his goals was to recruit Americans to help out. His understanding was that all Americans knew basketball well because basketball was invented there (he was once very shocked when my girlfriend at the time mentioned she did not like or understand basketball, replying “but your American?”). Thus he invited me to a brainstorming meeting with other invested interests. One of the first topics was refs. The conversation went something like this:

Papa: "Guys, we need referees. We only have two trained referees in this entire country and both are usually missing. What are some solutions?"
Me: "Uhhhhh, I reffed for about three years back in the states"
The rest is history
I loved working with Papa. During our three years together we had many disagreements on how the league should be ran. Fortunately for both of us Papa has spent a large portion of his life working with Americans through the embassy. Whenever we stumbled upon those inevitable cultural misunderstanding on how to carry out business, Papa was able to understand where I was coming from (the American perspective) and then explain to me where he was coming from (the Gambian perspective). From there we were always able to reach a reasonable compromise. He never gets angry, has a lot of patience, and most importantly is a great diplomat. In a league where everyone believed they had the right to be heard, Papa listened.
So I started reffing basketball games. Over the next two years I would go on to ref over two hundred different basketball games in the country. During that time I got to know and love hundreds of different players, coaches, and fans. When I would ride my bike to work in the mornings I was often chased with greetings of “Hey ref!” Sometimes when I was out at dinner players would come up to me and shake my hand. But for every friendly greeting there was also the occasional “You suck!” Or the awkward moment standing in the grocery line with a player I threw out of a game the previous week, hoping I would not catch on fire from the scorching hatred that was being projected towards me.
My favorite part of the journey though was the relationships I made along the way, in particular the connections I forged with my fellow referees. All two hundred games were officiated with some combination of the same ten people. For one full league season there was only four of us. Needless to say, we were close. Together we shared many good and bad memories. Growing pains, drama, success, and progress; I will never forget all we went through together. If you have not already asked yourself this question I will ask it for you. Who are these people?

Well I’m glad I asked.
Sang Marie Sambou
When I first started reffing Sang was only ref who showed up for games on a consistent basis, so for the first couple of months of the first league season we ran a two man crew. Just me, him, and a scorekeeper named Alhagie (a tiny Rastafarian man who loves watching basketball), and that’s where it all began.
When I first watched Sang ref I was immediately offended by his animated style. Here is a ref, I thought, who is making bad calls so assertively. I did not like reffing with him as I felt like he cramped my “superior” style (I was still very American back then). I later realized I was offended not because he was a bad ref but because I envied the confidence that comes shattering out of him like shrapnel every time he makes a foul call. While Sang is refereeing games his stance is perpetually wide and planted, as though he is getting ready to absorb contact at a moment’s notice. When he makes a call he becomes a perfect right angle. His left fist smashes the heavens, while his right finger points like lightening at the accused so convincingly that a faultless suspect would be led to question his own innocence.

Sang is a walking talking instruction video on how to sell a call and we learned a lot for each other. One thing that was immediately apparent about Sang once we started working together is that he loves refereeing basketball. As soon as I got a rule book into his hands there was no reason for him to be trained anymore. He took that book and shaped himself into a sharp, patient ref who calls a tight and controlled game. His style of officiating is such a perfect reflection of who the man is.
That’s ultimately the beauty, and at the same time curse, of the way the rule book is written. There is so much room for interpretation that an aspect of the refs personality is involuntarily infused into the game. It’s the one unspoken crucial factor of the game that neither team can prepare for. What type of crew are you going to get tonight? Are they going to let you play? Like I would. Or will they call things tight and not allow too heavy of contact? Like Sang would. And that is why Sang and I made the perfect team, we balanced each other out. Sang would call my missed fouls that ultimately come about from my style. I would let thing slide from time to time so that the game kept moving and had flow.
Sang was more than anything a caring and devoted friend. He always made sure I had a ride to and from the games, often times going out of his way to pick me up. He loved to tease people and was quick to laugh. Of all the officials in the Gambia, Sang might be the most disliked due to his style of reffing. Sang never flinches though, he has been called some really nasty things by players and has been threatened on more than one occasion but has never lashed out in anger (which is more than I can say). He shows up to games that he is not scheduled for just in case the crew working that game needs help or support. He is a shining example of a good human being.
After a while we moved to three man crews and so in comes my good friend Arch, an off and on ref, who joined us full time mid-season.
Mustapha aka Arch
The way Arch makes a call is reflective of how I imagine Arch goes about his day. When he calls a foul he lifts his left fist sleepily to about his head which makes him look like he is flexing but only because you would not stop asking him to. His right arm is fully extended towards the player but his fingers have chosen not to participate so he looks like he is offering the back of his hand out to be kissed. He goes to the table to report but decides it is too far so stops halfway and just wordlessly shows his fingers indicating the number. He looks like a teenager who was forced to participate in a charades game during "family fun" time instead of being allowed to hang out with his boys. And he looks like that the entire game. His stance in contrast to Sang’s tree trunk is just a limp noodle that someone tried to stand vertically and halfway succeeded. To put it simply when Arch refs he is just chillin.
I respect this man’s capability to be good at what he does and that is to sit back and enjoy life. He is considered one of the best attaya (local tea) brewers in all of Banjul.  He does not take himself or anyone else that seriously. He likes to keep things simple and lives a pretty stress free life. He has always been a good friend to me and is there when you need him.
When Arch is in the right position he makes good calls. When he is motivated and running up and down the court he goes from a mediocre ref to great ref. During last season’s playoffs he wanted the whistle, whenever I offered him a game off he refused. I was proud and inspired; despite his casual lifestyle he is very passionate about the game.
Arch was also just a funny person to be around. He is tall and well built, a former player who carries himself around teams as though he is comfortable with the knowledge that he could have schooled all these young guns ten years ago. His antics, though frustrating in the moment, are always funny the next day. In the last two years I have seen him do the following things during a live game. Talk to one of his friends at half court. Drink attaya. Pick his fingernails. Stare at the clouds. Talk on his phone. Text. And pick his nose. All things that in America would not only upset his fellow officials but the coaches, players, and fans. But here in Gambia everyone just says “Oh that Arch…”
My favorite memory of him was during a late night game that no one but the two teams participating chose to stick around for. After the first quarter finished Arch comes up to me and looks at me seriously and says "I have a problem." Now I have heard this from Arch before, it usually means he is too tired to continue, needs money to make it back home, or is unhappy with his metal whistle which looks like he stole from an elementary school P.E teacher. Instead he asks me very seriously "Is WWE real?" (Side note Gambians absolutely love WWE.) I wanted to laugh but I could tell he was dead serious. "Please I need to know, this boy over here is saying its fake." I told him WWE was indeed just acting, I had to. I felt like I was telling a cute innocent man child that there was no Santa Claus. He walked away quietly and continued reffing, clearly distracted and conflicted by this new information. Probably reconstructing his perspective on life, questioning other presumed truths.
Arch is a rock, players and coaches don’t get in his head, and despite his tendency to zone out he makes the crucial calls. He shows up when he is asked to and that goes a long way in Gambia. Though he does not always show it, he loves reffing. He loves talking about basketball, he is a fan. He and Sang are the only two people in country who bring passion to officiating at this juncture and thus will be the staple of organized basketball in this country for as long as they choose to stick around.
Around the same time Moses, one the best basketball refs that Gambia has ever had, got whiff of the league and decided to join our crew.
Moses is the ideal ref in that he is mostly invisible out on the court. One of my biggest grievances with refs today is that too many personalities take the whole “I HAVE THE POWER!!!” thing a bit too far and make themselves the center of attention. Joey Crawford of the NBA is a prime example, that man is an egocentric dirt bag who is constantly fishing for the limelight. I like to call these types of refs TV Officials.
How can you tell when you have a TV official reffing one of your games? Little things like giving technical fouls to any player/coach that shows a little attitude or emotion towards them, making an disproportionate amount of calls in their partners zones, any ref that mistreats their table officials (I’m looking at you Joey Crawford), and finally officials who call the game unreasonably tight. When I say tight I mean calling every little knick-knack foul and disrupting the flow of the game.
Sang calls games tight because that’s how he interrupts the rules (though sometimes he crosses over into TV Official territory), I call games tight when things start getting overly physical. But I have officiated with some fools in America that are clearly just making calls so they can demonstrate to the world how awesome they are. Which is why I loved reffing with Moses, he was invisible and at the same time incredibly competent.
Moses is the classic example of a basketball official. A tiny little man who reached a point in his life where he realized he was too small to ever be successful in the sport he loved, so like many tiny men before him turned to officiating. He is the perfect type of old. You know the kind of old where wisdom is oozing out of him but not too old to make you wonder if he is starting to wander into senility. Moses is without a doubt the most valuable official that Gambia has. He is FIBA certified and has officiated games all across West Africa and the United Kingdom. He has a firm grasp of the rules and commands respect from all the players and coaches. He has a Jedi like calmness to him and has rescued me countless times over the years. Just when a game is about to get out of hand and you think a fight is about to break out, in swoops Moses to save the day. In my opinion he is the mold for the perfect official. Invisible while the game is flowing, letting the players keep the spotlight, but a commanding presence when the game requires it from him.
Moses biggest shortcoming is that he has a hectic life outside of officiating. He teaches at the college, runs his own consulting business, and is generally too busy to be as invested as we needed him to be. My hope is that after I leave Moses will continue to train new referees and provide leadership to all of the young refs. He could be a great leader if he wanted to.

The New Kids On The Block
My primary goal in working with the GBA was to leave them with a healthy amount of trained and competent officials. The league would never progress if there were only two available officials in the country after I left. So I recruited new officials and trained them.
As you may already be able to imagine this was an incredibly difficult endeavor. To start with the officials that ended up signing up were a collection of P.E. teachers, casual fans, and some random people off the street. None of them were experienced with the rules and on the first day of training I found myself explaining the concept of out of bounds to my perplexed listeners. Then there was the fact that the GBA expected them to be ready to referee league games after only three weeks of training. League games were overwhelming for me to officiate with three years of experience under my belt, asking them to referee league games after three weeks was daunting. In addition English was their second language which made explaining something like a charge vs block stupidly challenging. Finally there was the little detail that I really was not that qualified to be leading referee trainings. I mean here I was this kid who had refereed as many as fifty total games, being asked to teach. I was not ready to be the lead official for a JV match in the states. I felt hardly prepared to be a lead official for an entire country (mostly due to Moses absence).
So I did what any good leader would do in my position. I winged it with as much confidence as I could muster. I studied the rule book from top to finish, created my own curriculum, set up some practicals and away we went. I have no clue how effective my trainings were in the grand scheme of things. All I know is that I developed some valuable leadership skills, learned some great life lessons, forged some memorable friendships, and accomplished my goal. The ten officials that I trained are currently refereeing the playoffs right now back in Gambia.  My star pupil from those trainings was a kid named Malik.
Malik is a sixteen year old boy who looks like he is going on thirteen. Unlike his tiny forefathers before him Malik does not care to play basketball, he just really likes watching it. Like Moses he is also invisible on the court. In fact he is so ordinary that if you did not know better you would see him running around on the court and just assume he is a super devoted fan with really poor eyesight. Then once you found out he was a ref you would laugh and make some comment about how desperate the GBA must be if they are now employing children. But then Malik makes a foul call with the confidence of Sang coupled with the composure of Moses, and you think damn this kid ain't bad. Then the guilty behemoth will clumsily approach Malik and try to intimidate him and you watch as the kid walks right past him as though he did not even exist. That’s when you realize this kid is the future of officiating for the GBA
Refereeing in the Gambia is intense and at times frightening. Unfettered emotions and passion fuel players throughout the game and you never know when those emotions will turn on you. If you are unprepared for it like I was when I first started then it will absolutely affect the quality of your officiating. There have been multiple occasions where I have uncomfortably watched a player contemplate whether or not he is going to knock me out. But Malik carries himself on the court like I imagine Chuck Norris would. The kid has a backbone and I have no doubts that he will one day become FIBA certified and ref internationally.
He studies the rule book religiously and constantly asks questions. He carries a whistle with him everywhere he goes always prepared to officiate whenever a random pick-up game breaks out (I am not kidding he actually does this). Sometimes when I watch Malik ref I wonder if he is not already the best official we have in country. But then he calls a back-court violation on a play that never left the front court, reports the wrong number on a foul call, and then during a timeout goes up into the stands to continue spitting game on this girl he just met. Moments like those are when I remember he is only sixteen.
Malik is quick to flash his goofy smile and loved getting to hang around a bunch of old fogies like us. He did not have any money so he rode his bike everywhere and sent a text that said “please call me” whenever he needed to talk so he could save a little money. I love how Malik approaches life through humor. Whenever a player would argue with him he would come up to me afterwards and start laughing as he explained why the player was wrong. Sometimes I would tell him he interrupted a rule incorrectly and he would just laugh at himself and promise to do better. He is genuine kid and I hope he goes far in life.
The problem is sometimes I feel like the only one who takes Malik seriously, his youth will be his biggest obstacle towards success for at least the next decade. Older coaches, such as Uncle Tolo, just don’t take him seriously.
Arch and Malik
Uncle Tolo
There is a problem in the league that I like to call the “The Old Kebba Complex.” First to understand what this means I must define the one mandinka word in that last sentence. Kebba more or less translates to elder. Like a lot of cultures around the world Gambians put a huge social emphasis on their elders. Now for us Americans, who have chosen to treat our elders like nose hair, biologically necessary but better kept tucked away, let me explain the nuances of the kebba. It is a social taboo to disrespect your elders; reaching old age awards them a lot of respect and gratitude. They are also awarded a certain amount of social responsibility. For example in my village the elders met together monthly and worked out village issues. If a husband and wife are fighting an elder can step in and help resolve things, if you want to start a project in village you must get the blessing of the elders. I actually found it to be quite beautiful. It worked efficiently in helping the village run smooth socially.
It can however be a problem. Especially when it comes to managing a youth driven movement likes say a basketball league. Now here is the most basic thing you should understand about the kebba complex. When a kebba says jump, you don’t necessarily have to jump, but you must listen to their opinions on why you should jump and them give them a convincing justification for your two feet still being glued to the ground. If you still don’t agree to jump after about fifteen minutes of arguing then, fine, just turn and go your separate directions. No harm done, the important thing was that the kebba was heard. Now imagine trying to referee a game and having a kebba demand a justification for every call that he does not agree with. Welcome to officiating basketball in the Gambia.
Uncle Tolo is a fantastically old and cranky kebba who coaches the Walidan basketball club. Tolo never actually enunciates words but rather just growls at you when he talks. He is the rebel king of coaching in Gambia, who may be an actual dragon in humanoid form. Tolo’s anger is the reason it’s so damn hot in Gambia. He laughs at dead baby jokes and enjoys listening to heavy metal. Tolo moonlights as a hype-man for struggling local reggae artists. He also enjoys long walks by the river side and the finer things in life, such as contemplating the existential reasoning for brewing attaya. He showed up to coach games in over-sized Chucky T-shirts and had one of those mouths that was too big to every fully close. I loved Tolo.
Unfortunately Tolo and his Walidan club, a collection of players an archaeologist would be proud of, have become the leaders in the war against officials in Gambia. They have been using their ceremonial privileges to harass officials for the last two years now. And since culture dictates that the kebba is heard nothing is really done about. What Walidan does not realize is that, in reality, they are a rusty anchor that is holding the league back.
Let me tell you what it is like to ref a typical Walidan basketball game. It’s pretty simple. One of the following happens every time you make a call that does not go their way: Tolo tries to argue yelling “I have the right to argue,” the guilty player yells “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” and then looks at you like you just spit on his mother. Someone, whether it’s Tolo, a player, or some random fan, throws a temper tantrum so spectacular that children present at the game stop what they are doing to take notes. Then they will glare at you like you just stole their girlfriend. Or just start complaining under the breath in wolof, leaving me powerless to do anything. I sometimes wonder if these are just a bunch of teenage girls stuck in the bodies of grown ass men. The only time they are tolerable to officiate is when they are up by twenty and even then they choose to complain every other call. The following is not a hyperbole. Every single Walidan game that I have ever officiated that has ended with them losing; someone from Walidan has approached me to let me know that I was supporting the other team and that they were going to report my ‘cheating’ to the GBA.
Haters going to Hate
The Problem
The league’s biggest problem right now is that there are more teams modeling the Walidan style of sportsmanship then there are teams that lose with grace. These are the type of people who go home after a loss and instead of accepting any blame and contemplating what they can improve upon, transfer the entire fault to the officials. They don’t know how to lose and it’s a hopelessly toxic culture that is being nurtured by these archaic fools. It’s a culture where instead of knowing you lost a game because you missed half of your free throws, you remain stuck on the fact that referee x missed two calls. It’s a culture that reeks of stagnation and mediocrity. Tolo once got a technical from Sang and after the game he took me aside to let me know that Sang did not have the right to give him a technical because he was too young to show him so much disrespect and next time that happened he was going to kick his ass.
The worst part is that, due to cultural demands, Tolo and those like him set an example that people take seriously. So when Tolo treats every official like inconvenient dog piles, people watch and take notes. The next thing you know players are doing the same and not just his but players from other teams. Assistant coaches I never knew existed started berating officials. During the second season of the league treatment of the officials started to become an exhausting issue and my young refs started getting discouraged. But the complaining was not only draining for the officials, but for the players and fans as well. Basketball had just reached a point where it was not very fun. And when I see that happening I blame Tolo. I blame Forday, who coaches YMCA, a cantankerous little man who treats officials like a welcome mat. The GBA has many problems and they all begin and end with the coaches and players who mistreat the officials, ignore the youth, and refuse to look beyond themselves.
Anyways in one of the last games I officiated I decided to go after Tolo and set an example for the rest of the league. That no one was untouchable. So for the first time in two years Tolo got ejected from a match and let me tell you it was two years overdue. It was something I avoided for so long because I was not sure what kind of cultural impact it would have. But I had reached a point where I felt if the league kept being dictated by its own culture then it would collapse on itself anyway.
It was time to show the players and coaches of the league that they don’t run the show on the court. Tolo reacted how I predicted he would. He threw an absolute hissy fit, told me I did not have the right to treat him like that, and topped it off by trying to fight me. His antics set a great example for his one of his players who after losing the game started acted like a Minotaur in a china shop. He started destroying chairs, balls, and most importantly his dignity. This was all because he was upset that I had the nerve to kick out his beloved coach and believed that I was purposely trying to make his team lose. Tolo ended up being suspended for two years for his behavior.
Which is ultimately unfortunate because I really did like the guy off the court, he was always kind to me and was the only coach who ever showed up to help out with summer camps we put on. He was my worst enemy during games but always quick to make amends after the game. People looked up to Tolo. He has been a part of basketball in this country for decades and it’s a damn shame that he could not transfer is off the court commitment into a good example on the court.
Officiating in the Gambia is far from perfect, but show me a basketball league that does not have its problems with officiating. We are young inexperienced, professionals doing our best to keep the league afloat amongst a bunch of ignorant clowns who don’t realize that everything collapses without us. At least we recognize that we need to improve and so hold weekly meetings and train during the off-season. That’s more than most of these teams can say.
Experienced or inexperienced, human error is absolutely unavoidable while refereeing basketball. This means, no matter where you are in the world, there is no escaping those ill-timed bad calls that leave a sour taste in the mouth; it’s just part of the game. It is incredibly difficult to make split second decisions in a game dominated by some of the most athletic people in the country. This is coupled with the fact that angles are everything in officiating basketball. If you are in the wrong position at the wrong time it does not matter how obvious the call is, you will miss it.
So when I marched out all my new refs this last season after only three weeks of training I knew there was going to be missed calls. After the first season things were not that bad between officials and players but there was a level of distrust. I was worried that my new refs would tip the scales towards ugly if we were not prepared. Papa and I called a press conference to ask everyone to be patient with us, that it would take time before they became comfortable. We warned them, there will be a lot of missed calls this season, and to please work with us. I understand the frustration on the part of the players and coaches. But we are trying to build something bigger than all of us; an institution that gives an outlet for all those young ballers out there to continue following their dreams, a next level that has never existed in this country. I’m talking about a place where young people can develop their leadership skills, sportsmanship, and teamwork. A place to learn one of the most valuable life lessons: how to lose. That’s my dream for the GBA.
But things did turn ugly during the second season and as we entered into the playoffs only got uglier. The league is trying to deal with an ‘us vs them’ atmosphere that could ultimately destroy everything we worked towards. Players hate all of the refs and the refs hate them back. The players see them as incompetent instead of inexperienced. The coaches see them as hated enemies instead of healthy adversaries.
My young guys have not even been given a shot to grow and are wallowing in discouragement, contemplating quitting. So what I want to say to all of the players/coaches in The Gambia is if you hate us so much then ref your own damn league. No what I have to say to every damn arm chair expert in the world is to grab a whistle and show me what you're made of. I guarantee you are not even half as good as my young refs. When everyone else was focused on the missed calls I was shaking my head in awe at the calls they were making. I could not believe how good they were doing on only three weeks of training, these average Joes off the street.
The only way this league will be successful is if the elders of the league look beyond themselves and start supporting their young refs. As long as its culturally appointed leaders, the Tolo and Fordays of the world, continue to set poor examples of sportsmanship then the GBA will be nothing more than glorified rat ball. A league that will be more famous for is mistreatment of officials than any of its player’s accomplishments.  But most tragically of all, it will become a place where young people learn poor sportsmanship and the wrong way to lose.
It’s very likely that league will collapse after this season. I hope not but I recognize it’s a possibility. The refs are not being given the chance to develop. The players want the GBA to be their version of the NBA without being patient enough to let it progress towards that. My prediction is that either the players will get tired of the referees and boycott, or something silly like that. Or the officials will become overly discouraged and quit.
All I really wanted was to give people a chance to play basketball. I figured referees were the best place to start because you can’t have organized basketball without officials to ref the game. I did not anticipate this onslaught of poor sportsmanship, inflated egos, and toxic competitiveness. I am not sure Gambia is ready for a competitive basketball league. First they must learn how to lose before they will ever truly become winners.
I am no cynic however and refuse to end this story negatively. When I think of basketball in Gambia I will always come back to this memory.
The stadium was buzzing with energy on a cool Saturday night in Bakau. For the first time on a Gambian basketball court David was about to knockout Goliath. David played by Gambian Armed Forces (GAF) is a scrappy little team from Bakau that no one expected much from when the season began. But they had home court advantage, heart, and an admirable stubbornness towards rolling over. Goliath, played by the Saints was a strong team that was considered a dark horse to go far in the playoffs. They had one of the tallest teams in the league and one of the better coaches.
Led by six three pointers from one of the top point guards in the league the Saints had maintained a comfortable lead for most of the game. But two of their star players had fouled out and momentum belonged to GAF, who had crawled back to within two. One quick steal, lay up, and crowd eruption later and the score was tied. Everyone was enjoying themselves. The fans were noisy and alive. The players were passionate and animated. This is good basketball I thought.
The Saints hit two free throws with ten seconds remaining to put them up by two. GAF dribbled up the court, no timeouts, no real clue what they were doing. The Saints put on an intense back-court press and it looks like GAF was about to lose the game on a back-court violation. The point guard saw this and threw a desperation heave into the front court. His target, an attractive, little used bench warmer who I always assumed was on the team for aesthetic reasons. One of the Saints giants reads the play and goes to intercept. Game over? Not yet, the big man miss timed his jump and only got his fingers on the ball, tipping the ball right into the hands of Mr. dreamy eyes. He looked at the ball with shock and I wondered to myself if this is how the game will end; with him staring stupidly into his crystal ball trying to discern the outcome of the game. Alas he regained his senses and with the form of someone who was taking the first shot of their life, hoisted a three point heave from his hip that, yep you guessed it, hit nothing but net as time expired.
The crowd stormed the court, the losing team walked away gracefully. Everyone shook the referees hands and we all went home saying the same thing “I love basketball.” Exactly a year ago GAF had one of the stronger teams in the league before many of their best players transferred. Many wondered if they were even going to have a team this year. Exactly a year ago the Saints just got done participating in an on court brawl that shook the league. The entire team was suspended for the rest of the year. Moral was low after that brawl, the future of the league seemed to be hanging in balance, too many inconsistencies, too many question marks, too many bad examples.
But as I watched the very same saints player hug the refs I felt like finally there is hope, finally we are playing basketball.

I want to end things with a big shout out to refs we trained: Wilson, Fatou, Karamo C, Karamo J, Gibril, Alhagie. I loved getting to know you guys and I can’t stress enough how proud of you guys I am. You were asked to do the impossible. No one will ever understand just how incredible your accomplishments are. To take three weeks of training and then courageously step onto the court is admirable. And then on top of that to not give up despite how difficult those first couple of months was is even more inspiring. Your commitment in the face of adversity will be an inspiration to me for the rest of my life.
I would like to give another huge shout out to my good friends and fellow Peace Corp volunteers Justin Jewett and Mike Walberg. Justin came in right before the first league season and started coaching one of the teams in the league. His commitment to helping the GBA improve was incredibly instrumental in its success and he is a shining example of the right way to coach. He showed his players how to lose with pride and that will prove invaluable as those players become future coaches and trainers. In addition he found funding to put on a youth driven basketball summer camps that focused on not only basketball but healthy lifestyles and leadership skills. He is the great example that Gambian youth so desperately need.  Mike came into the picture about mid-way through the first season and even though he had never officiated a match before stepped in and not only helped us finish the season when we were struggling to find officials and Moses was absent, but then helped carry out all future official trainings with me. He grew into a more than competent referee in such a short time and was such a valuable resource as a fellow trainer. He went to every summer camp, tournament, training the GBA put on and was invaluable in the success of the league. This project could not have succeeded like it did if those two were not around to help. This was not by any means my project it was ours.