It all started, as many things do, at the grocery store. While checking out, I’d noticed the woman behind the counter was very tall. Naturally, I asked her where a girl can find a good pickup basketball game around here.
“Sunday morning,” she told me. “7am.”
So now, here I was in the humid Caribbean sunrise, following the sound of squeaking sneakers into a high school gymnasium on St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. As I pushed through the double doors, the noise abruptly stopped, and 16 men stared in confusion. Finally, someone broke the silence:
“Are you… here to play ball?”
“Of course!” I answered.
Another pause – then, uproarious laughter.
I was momentarily taken aback. I’m used to quizzical looks. But laughter? Is it really funny that a white girl would show up for Caribbean hoops? Who knows? At least, no matter what I do, I can’t possibly be worse than these guys expect me to be.
I introduced myself to the man with the clipboard. He scribbled my name and said, “You go next.”
While watching the first game, I chatted with John, a police officer. “It doesn’t always make me the most popular with the guys,” he told me, “but I’m happy to be doing my part.”
He explained some of the USVI’s police efforts to keep St. Thomas from becoming a major US “arrival zone” for illegal drugs.
“That’s what I’m concerned about,” he divulged. “These guys here, they think I care about things like the Grass and Go!”
“What’s the Grass and Go?”
Before he could answer, a whistle interrupted. “We’re up!”
On the court, I met the rest of the team. Though they all had distinct accents, I had no trouble understanding them when they spoke directly to me – but when they joked with each other, they slipped into a deep Caribbean English, which suddenly became a foreign language.
My team was on offense; not surprisingly, the smallest, oldest player on the other team chose to guard me. Fine! One of the greatest advantages of being chronically underestimated is that you can score several points before anyone figures out you know what you’re doing.
The crowd burst into applause when I sunk an uncontested, 10-foot jump shot – then nearly fell off the bleachers when I posted up and made a left-handed skyhook.
After that, our opponents took me more seriously. The game was high-level and aggressive, with occasional dunks – and the occasional argument, the topic of which remained a mystery to me. As the minutes wore on, I’d ask my defender, “What’s the problem?”
“Oh, there’s no problem! They’re discussing.”
“Wouldn’t ‘ball don’t lie’ be more efficient?”
He seemed puzzled by my rush. “Island time.”
Awaiting our second game, I chatted with another teammate, who was eager to share his “best-kept secrets” with me.
“If anyone gives you trouble, don’t go to the police. Go to the Frenchies. Then the guy won’t give you trouble again.”
“And if you go to the Grass and Go – just pull around behind the gas station and hold up some fingers in the window. They will come back and bring you that many bags of –“
He stopped, glancing at John. “You won’t tell him about this, no?”
I smiled, recalling a bumper sticker I’d seen the previous day: St. Thomas: You can’t make this shit up.
Glancing around the gymnasium, there was nothing unfamiliar about this scene. I could be anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and it would look the same.
And yet, this is where I had the most authentic and enlightening experience of my whole trip. Because in this gym, on these courts, we all have the same goals: getting buckets, steals, and huge blocks. Off the courts, we could let our guard down and just be real with each other.
St. Thomas is full of exciting new activities, from parasailing to paddleboarding to scuba-diving, and even flyboarding. But by seeking out a pickup game, like I would on any average weekend, those tour guides and concierges became teammates, peers, and even friends.
For the rest of that month, I always had a buddy to take me to local concerts and events, and who also begrudgingly agreed to join me at the Magic Ice bar (who knew you could play in the snow in St. Thomas?). His response: “Okay, fine. That was awesome. Thanks for twisting my arm, you crazy tourist.”
Whenever I saw a teammate strolling slowly home in the midday heat, I’d immediately pull my rental car over and offer them a ride.
And, when a local woman came to pick up her son from the game, she eagerly invited me to play her girls – she coached a high school basketball team. “Don’t go easy on them! They need to see a woman play with your hustle.”
That became my regular Tuesday-night gig.
Travel is usually thought of as the opportunity to do things you never would at home. But I think one of the best things you can do when traveling is exactly what you do at home. The words you hear may be unfamiliar, but wherever you go, basketball is always basketball.
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