NBA Finals fervor reminds Eritrean expatriot of home

(First published in The Athens News; June 22, 2016)

The article is on the last basketball game and historical victory of the Cleveland Cavaliers and does not mention Donald Trump. (Oops! I already did, but this should be the last mention.)

 A Little Background

A native of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, I have lived about four years in United States. One of the constant reminders of being away from home is the complete shift in sports language and (un)learning new games. The first shock is using “football” to refer to what I have called all my life “American football.” As a form of bold defiance, I insist on calling it “American football” and am still resisting the use of “soccer” to refer to football.

In countries other than the United States, non-American football is the most popular game and the main subject of casual conversation. Yet the wildly popular World Cup and matches involving the English Premiere League, and Spanish and Italian La Liga, are barely discussed in the U.S.

Not long ago, I was in Jackie O’s in Athens watching the decisive Premier League game with Newcastle playing Manchester City. When Newcastle scored to secure the championship for Leicester City, I jumped out of my seat and shouted in frenzy. Other bar patrons had been hardly watching the game being played on the small screen; all eyes were on me after my spontaneous reaction.

In a state or country where an average person requires a footnote for Lionel Messi (the equivalent to having to explain who Michael Jackson is), I gradually learned to discuss these things with a few football-friendly people in other places, plus I’m learning to detach myself from non-American football.

 Fast Forward

 After my prolonged “sports hibernation” came Sunday night’s NBA Finals Game 7. (Yup! Basketball, too, is very popular in different countries including my home country, Eritrea, and like many of my contemporaries, I once dreamed of being Michael Jordan.) Throughout the seven games of the Finals series pitting the Golden State Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers, I have been discussing the games, online and on phone, with Merhawi, a friend from San Francisco (an ardent fan of the Warriors) and Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith from Athens. As the first game was kicking off, Merhawi called as he was driving from San Francisco to Hercules, near Berkeley, to watch the game and mainly “to celebrate the inevitable victory with friends later.” He also suggested I go out to the bars to watch the game and offered to reimburse me the beer expenses as the series would have an unhappy end for the Cavaliers. Smith, on the other end, was writing me pessimistic messages (via Facebook Messenger) mainly emphasizing his allegiance to the club, with the resigned tone of “but they’ll never make it.”

When the Warriors had the upper hand in the first four games (3-1), my friend Merhawi would call before every game, restating various statistics and with a sarcastic tone declaring that his team has been teaching the Cavaliers how basketball should be played. Then came the shift of the momentum, and now it was me who started calling him. The first time he reasoned, “they get more money if the games continue.” Next time he attributed the failure of his team to Draymond Green’s suspension for Game 5, noting that Stephen Curry becomes dysfunctional without him. Before the last game, he was extremely confident, stating: “You will see how Green will play today; he won’t have to worry about suspension of next game and will play his best. Of course they have been lenient to spice up the game, but today is your end.”

After the game, Merhawi did not answer my call.

Meanwhile, following the Cleveland-Golden State finals series has been different with Terry. Not a religious man, he does get superstitious about sports. For instance, I think he truly believes that his teams play better when he’s not watching them, and he avoids ever guaranteeing any sort of success or victory, for fear of jinxing his team.

His tone has been consistently cautious and even pessimistic. During the sixth game, as he was sending his pessimistic messages, we made a bet. If his team lost, we agreed he would pay for beer as he was mainly responsible for the failure. If his team won thanks to my positive vibe, it would be my treat. Of course, I owe beers’ treat now.

In order to feel the nuance of Sunday’s big game, I checked out some bars and finally ended up in Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the game, as the bar was fully packed. Terry was at home watching.

In the first quarter, I checked Terry and he as usual was pessimistic. Already being indebted, I proposed a new deal; if the Cavaliers lost, mainly due to his pessimism, this time he would pay for lunch. The first two quarters were not promising, and Terry started to ask me where I would like to eat. But the game shifted momentum shortly and became more promising for him.

Seeing a whole crowd in a bar erupt in shouting at the same time, I suddenly felt at home. The environment was very familiar. As the Cavaliers looked better and better, getting super excited and at the same time thinking of my expenses, I told Terry we should also consider fast-food spots such as Burger King or McDonald’s. With an incredibly fast pace and shifting momentum, the game continued. Of course, it was also tense and stressful. With the game nearing the end and the Cavs briefly falling behind, Terry wrote: “I might have to stop watching so they play better. Maybe read a book or play with the dog or talk to my wife.” To his credit, he continued watching the game, and the rest is history.

I was watching alone, but with everyone, in Buffalo Wild Wings, and as the game intensified, I called the waiter and asked him to prepare me my check. Although I could not get it reimbursed by my friend Merhawi out in the Bay Area, as we had agreed, I knew that whatever the final result of the game, I might forget to settle my bill.

The whole bar rose and shouted with the final whistle.

Immediately I called Merhawi – no answer. I left the bar and started walking home down Court Street. The street bloomed festively with the trademark wine-and-gold jerseys, most of them boasting LeBron James’ number 23. The familiar sportsmanship vibe I had been missing from back home had surfaced. Everyone started celebrating. I hugged many random passersby. Just to observe the celebration, I checked out some bars on Court Street. It was all too much, or to use Donald Trump’s phrase, “It was huuuuuuuuuuggge!” (Oops! I mentioned him again.)

 Editor’s note: Abraham T. Zere is an Eritrean writer who lives in Athens.