Integration Through a Shared Love

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Isaac Ehlers is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Bolívar, Colombia.

I remember being in first grade, eager to get to school early so I could spend time with my first love.  It was the beginning of a budding relationship that would influence the rest of my life.

As I grew up, this relationship only got stronger. I spent every second of my free time completely enamored, learning lessons in dedication, humility, and composure. I continued to wake up before class to practice, sneak into gyms, and hoop as much as humanly possible.

Although I did not fulfill my childhood dream of playing basketball in the NBA, I can say the game has had a significant impact on my life. The beauty of this game is that it is not a jealous lover. In fact, the joy it brings exponentially grows the more it is shared. Many of my most cherished relationships are deeply seeded in the complexity of this game. I can’t begin to count the number of people I have shared a court with, ranging from standout collegiate athletes to elementary school students, from elderly men to international friends.

No matter the level of experience there is always an opportunity to have fun and understand the other players on deeper level. I have found that basketball reveals individual’s character. You can get to know someone on the court without having to say a word.

During my first few months here in Colombia I have found that this has been particularly helpful in making friends in spite of language and cultural barriers. Upon arriving in country, I noticed that most pueblos are centered around a main plaza or park where you can usually find a court with two basketball hoops and soccer goals beneath. These slick concrete courts are usually used for soccer by barefoot Colombians playing with any sort of object that resembles a sphere.

However, there are the occasional groups that will pick up their ball and begin to shoot for the basket.  

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It wasn’t until I purchased my own ball and went to shoot around that the real closet hoopers came out of the woodwork. Initially I went to the court to find a space of solace; where I could forget the incredible change in my life by putting on headphones and focusing on putting the ball in the hoop. However a place of solace was not found. I was instantly surrounded by curious kids. Time and time again, as I arrived at the court looking to relieve the stress of the day, I found myself catering to the wants of the kids, facilitating games with them. I was happy to share my passion but itching for some competitive basketball.

After one of these sessions I was walking back home doing my usual obligatory Colombian saludos  when a man invited me into his patio to talk. I told him that I loved to play basketball but here in Colombia I prefered futbol because I hadn’t been able to find any competition. In a competitive but friendly manner he assured that me there was competition to be had here in Northern Atlantico; he just needed to give his guys a call. So we picked a date and a time, and we were set.

The day of the game came and the conditions were not great. It had recently rained, leaving puddles on the court. In addition the town vigilante was nowhere to be found, so we were playing in the dark. Yet there are very few things that can keep me from playing, so we played. I spent the first half of the game trying to figure out the Colombian rules unable to ask or understand anything, quickly realizing my Spanish basketball vocabulary was virtually nonexistent. Fortunately our game was by 1’s and 2’s to 50, so I had plenty of time to figure out the country specific rules before the end of the long game.

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After a tough and gritty game my basketball fix had been relieved. The conditions and style of play had evened out talent levels turning it into a scrappy game decided solely on will to win.  During the following weeks we continued to play as our numbers kept growing, until we had established a scheduled time with a regular group building camaraderie, creating memories, and getting to know each other: a collectiveness that any pickup basketball player can relate to. This on the court friendship continued to expand into the community and soon I was being invited to watch La Seleccion (Colombian National Team) games and share Aguila down by the river.

My initial desire to find personal time on the basketball court turned into some of my greatest friendships in Northern Atlantico.

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