In May 2015, as part of his forthcoming book Welcome to Mesopotamia, Daniel Tunnard decided to investigate the strange phenomenon of provincial basketball, because there isn’t much to do in Concepción del Uruguay and it was only a couple of blocks from his flat. It was pretty boring, but he wrote about it anyway.
Living in a country where football often seems to be where sport begins and ends (save the occasional tennis match if an Argentine’s involved, polo for the tourists, and lip service to those plucky rugby underdogs every four years), it is surprising to find little pockets of fanaticism dedicated to the kind of sports you leave behind at high school, namely volleyball (pronounced ‘bolei’), handball (pronunciation oddly uncorrupted) and, most of all, basketball (pronounced ‘básquet’ or, in extreme cases, ‘básquer.’)
In my first months in the town they call Uruguay but which isn’t in Uruguay, I lived in a flat just two blocks from the stadium (or crumbling recreation centre, if we’re being honest) of Parque Sur, the sporting heart of the barrio of Puerto Viejo, whose fans I could hear from my bed on many a night, making a racket. I decided I had to go and see what all the noise was about, even though, you know, it’s basketball.
There are three vital elements to a game of basketball: two baskets and a ball. From my $70 vantage point in the corner of the upper stand at the Parque Sur stadium during the warm-up, I can see only one of the baskets and sometimes the ball. I tell myself it’ll be different once the match gets going and people move about, like when you go to the cinema and that head blocking your view doesn’t bother you anymore. It isn’t anything like going to the cinema, and not least because the cinema usually offers an hour and a half of light entertainment.
It probably wasn’t the wisest move to turn up for a major match like this ten minutes before the start, but I foolishly believed that in paying for the more expensive ticket I’d be guaranteed at least a view of the match, and my wife started making a ham and cheese tart an hour before kick-off, or toss-off or whatever they call it in básquer, and when my wife cooks she is not to be rushed. (It isn’t even ham and cheese, as she’s bought mortadela, thinking she could spice up the tart with dead horse. Throughout the match, I do little burps that taste of dead horse. Very much the highlight of the evening.) At the same time I am admittedly reluctant to spend any more time than necessary in a basketball context. It’s Tuesday night and it’s nippy out. I’d rather be in bed with a good book, listening to the local básquer fans making their noise, toying with the idea of one day going to a básquer match but never actually getting round to it because, you know, it’s basketball.
Not only is basketball boring, but they have to play five games instead of one or two, like in proper sports, to get into the next round. South Park lead Regattas Club 2-1 in a series of five. From the names it sounds like the rough working class kids versus the poshoes in their yachts, caustic animation vs Howard’s End, but I went down to become a member of Club Regatas this afternoon (I’m not going sailing or anything, they just have one of only two swimming pools in town) and let me tell you, it’s not posh at all.
I walk down the few blocks from my mother-in-law’s house and make the error of going via Ituzaingó street instead of Bulevar Yrigoyen. Ituzaingó resembles very much its conurbano counterpoint, and not in a good way. An immense dog, a crude greyhound/Great Dane/Satan cross, stands in the middle of the dirt road barking at me. I meekly ask those idle men present if I may pass. I may. ‘No pasa nada’, says one, the customary words of owners of scary-as-fuck dogs. I pass great squalor, inadequate housing and feral children, a stagnant stream filled with rubbish. South Park’s much nicer.
The South Park fans have filled their 1,600 capacity stadium and are making a racket. These are the people I can hear from the comfort of my bed on balmy summer nights. They make me nostalgic for bed. It’s very footballish, with the fans singing constantly, excitedly banging their feet on the wooden boards, even though this is basketball. Basketball hooliganism is the scourge of this town. Sometimes, when South Park win, they break the odd window, and stay up late beeping horns. There are worse scourges, to be honest. Uruguay’s a quiet town. Club Regatas have brought along about 200 fans. They look more like a friendly family group than the bunch of vicious basketball hooligans I’m stuck with. During a lull in the South Park fans’ singing, they get up a bit of song about Regattas Club, probably a jolly ditty about the lovely day they had splashing about on the river, but the South Park fans drown them out with whistles and sing back at them:
“Did you come,
Did you come,
Did you come here with your gran?”
Or at least I like to think they do. I really can’t tell what they’re singing. Probably instructing their team to show some balls and then we’ll be champions and everyone else is a homosexual. That’s usually the gist of it. Amid the dullness of basketball, such crowds can make things a little more entertaining, but even they get a bit samey and irritating after a while. In one of the songs they shout ‘PUTO’ in the middle, quite rhythmically, so it’s one of the fans’ catchiest songs, and all the children join in on this particular line, shouting ‘FAGGOT’ with passion and hilarity, even though these very same people regularly watch live basketball.
I’d arrived to the flashing blue lights of a police car, a fleeting moment of excitement until I realised that was pretty much the entire police presence. I also see a police van when I leave. It’s haphazardly camouflaged in green and brown. I don’t know why. We’re in an urban area. Even if there were some major crime going down in the countryside — cow rustling, apple scrumping, whatever — I fail to see what little advantage can be gained from painting your big police van green and brown. It’s still a big police van in the middle of a field. The criminals will probably spot it. (Entre Ríos is situated on the marijuana corridor between Paraguay and Buenos Aires, so there is actually a bit of narco-trafficking in the province for those drugs that make it through Missiones and Corrientes without being confiscated, the favoured MO for a while being to fly over a given field in a light aircraft and airdrop the goodies to the fellow narcos waiting below, an exciting activity surely heightened by a round of the ‘spot the insufficiently camouflaged police van’ game.)
The game starts. I still can’t see the Regatas basket. I’m quite pleased that this is a match I have no interest in, as otherwise I’d be quite anxious about my poor view. South Park take a 4-0 lead. That’s it, game over. Regatas never draw level. What a pointless sport. I am so bored already. Not just bored, but standing up bored. That’s the worst kind of bored. I crane my neck half-heartedly, shift my weight from one leg to another. My knees can take about an hour of this. My brain, less.
After about seven minutes, I think to myself that about seven minutes must have elapsed, and if I look at the clock on the scoreboard it will show me that about three minutes remain until the end of this period, and this will give me an automatic feeling of relief and a brief moment of non-boredom at the happy sensation that all this will be over soon. I look at the clock. It’s been counting down from 10:00, and has stopped at 7:35. The clock has stopped! I want to cry out, tell somebody, pass on the word to the referee. Then I remember that this is basketball, and the clock stops whenever the ball isn’t in play. This is the ultimate torture. It’s like they deliberately set out to find a way to make basketball even more interminable. A game that could be over in 40 minutes, and have its spectators tucked in bed with a good book by 10.30pm, instead goes on for two hours.
The first ten-minute period takes twenty-five minutes. This somehow feels like a sport designed with Argentines in mind. There are two over-long pauses per quarter, when a claxon goes off and the players go and stand on the sidelines and listen to their coach, even though only three clock minutes have passed since he last spoke to them, and even though this is basketball and tactically about as complex as 5-a-side football but even less of a spectacle. The Regatas coach does a kind of clog-stamping move up and down the line when his team are playing badly, which is most of the time. The first period ends with a kerfuffle between a couple of players over something I don’t see. The fans shout and jeer. ‘¿Qué pasó?’ I ask a kid next to me. He laughs and shrugs at the absurdity of an answer. Three policemen shuffle onto the pitch in French gendarme hats. One elderly copper looks like he’s escaped from the pages of a Tintin book. ‘Tintin and the Case of the Interminable Boredom’. A small child tugs at my elbow in an endearingly Victorian manner, addresses me in the formal ‘usted’: ‘Señor, ¿vio un Blackberry negro?’ I love it when kids call me señor. Kids have no concept of how old adults are. I could be twenty-two or sixty-five for all he knows. I tell him I haven’t seen a black Blackberry. I lie, for I’ve been using my own black Blackberry extensively during the quarter to text my wife about how very bored I am.
I had intended to sneak out after the first period but decide to stay for the second because it starts pretty much as soon as the first one finishes. It’s all much the same as the first period. I really don’t get the appeal of basketball. There’s the odd three-pointer or particularly well-executed passing move, but there’s also a lot of penalty throws, half of which are missed. Half time eventually, slowly comes, by which time South Park have an insurmountable 14-point lead. I leave the building with the smokers, ready to make my escape, for I have watched 20 minutes of basketball stretched out over an hour and that is more than enough for any human in one lifetime. They’ve locked the gates. I can’t get out. This is how they get people to watch basketball.
I stay and have a smoke instead. Sometimes, a smoke is as good as going home. I think about asking some older men here what’s up, what’s the appeal? But the idea of going up to a basketball fan at a basketball match and asking ‘why do you like basketball?’ strikes me as the mark of an idiot. Why do I like football? I just do. I started watching it and playing it when I was a kid, everyone else at school did the same, that was about it. It’s the same for these people. Plus there’s the pull of the barrio, a barrio in which these people have lived all their lives, they’re all club members and play sport in this same auditorium. These are strong reasons. There’s also the fact that there really isn’t very much to do in Concepción del Uruguay on a Monday night. It’s either this or fishing, basically. And let us not forget that this is the deciding match against a local rival in a regional semi-final and they’re cruising to victory. This is so much more than just a sport event. Which is useful, because the sport is basketball.
I find it amusing how what is on paper the most exciting hour I’ve spent in my three months in Concepción — live sporting event, local rivalry, potential semi-final decider, crowd enthusiastic to the point of minor window breakage — is in reality one of the most boring hours, and bear in mind, I sat through the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight the Saturday before.
I go to the other end of the court for the third period, stand at ground level, get a clear view of both baskets. It’s all pretty much the same as before, the same as every basketball game before that. One team scores, the other team goes up the other end, either scores or misses, the team comes back this end, either scores or misses or gets a penalty. Sometimes there are lulls where no one scores for about a minute, as basketball ingeniously discovers new ways to make itself even duller. This match doesn’t even have the only vaguely exciting thing about basketball, when the teams are tied with thirty seconds to go and the scoring of points momentarily feels vaguely significant.
I manage four-and-a-half clock minutes of the third period, which is really about three hours, and with the score at 60-38 to South Park I call it a night, while my knees are still functioning. I ask the man at the gate if I can leave. ‘Sí, querido’, he says, bemused that someone should choose to leave so vital a fixture half way through the third quarter. I had an excuse all prepared that my wife had gone into labour and that not only was I the father but also the obstetrician, but this proves unnecessary, and perhaps a little too exciting for this crowd.
Daniel Tunnard is the author of Colectivaizeishon, el ingles que tomó todos los colectivos de Buenos Aires, available in most bookshops in Buenos Aires. Welcome to Mesopotamia, his book about moving from Buenos Aires to Concepción del Uruguay, will probably be published next year. He is also rumoured to have written a book about trains.