This is the first in an occasional series of John Fountain’s memories of playing basketball with a team of Englishmen.
Lewes Castle beamed enchantingly just beyond our window.
Within days of settling into our townhouse in Lewes, England — a quaint town of cobblestone streets and an 11th century castle, where the Greenwich Meridian line passes and the house where American Thomas Paine once lived stands. Where the breath of a morning breeze spreading across a brilliant red poppy field and my search for basketball led me to the yellow pages here, about 60 miles south of London, at 5 Nevill Terrace.
My new bride is a scholar at the University of Sussex in nearby Falmer, England. We are both on leave from our American journalism jobs. I’m mostly carrying her bags. But I plan to seek work as a freelance writer. No matter what happens, though, I have resolved that all will be well if I can find my first love: basketball.
On a whim, I pick up the phone book and thumb through the “B’s.” After a few calls with no luck, my eyes settle on a listing for a “basketball club” in a town called Uckfield, which I rightly pronounce from the beginning. It is “Uck” as in “yuck” field.
I punch the digits. The short buzzing rings in my ear. Then click. The warm voice of a British man with a a British accent thick like syrup greets me. “Hel-lo…”
“Hello,” I answer, my own dripping American accent a dead giveaway.
“Are you American?” he inquires delightfully.
“Yes, my name is John…”
“Beg your pardon,” he interrupts, “What is your name?” he asks, apparently having difficulty understanding me.
“John,” I say again.
“No John, John, J-O-H-N,” I say, spelling it out.
“Oh-h-h, bugger, mate, Jo-on!” he says, pronouncing my name with a long “o,” the way that I would eventually take to introducing myself in England. “Jo-on (Joe-on), yes, Jo-on!”
“Yes, Jo-on,” I say, relieved. We both laugh.
“I’m Mark,” he says. His name is easy enough.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mark… I’ve just come over with my wife, who is a scholar studying at the University of Sussex.”
“Yep… I’m looking to play a little basketball while I’m here in England… I was wondering, if, uh… Do you guys have basketball?”
“Yes, mate, we have a basketball club that plays, I reckon’, couple times a week against other clubs in our league ’round East Sussex County,” he says, explaining that it is a team of mostly 20- to 30-something-year-old Englishmen with day jobs, families and a passion for basketball. “Do you play in America?” he asks.
“Yeah, I mean, yes. I played some in high school and (intramural) in college. But I play a lot back in Chicago, where I’m from.”
“Chicago?” he exclaims. “Are you from Chicago, mate?” His words reverberate with excitement. “Michael Jordan is quite brilliant, isn’t he? Just brilliant, mate.”
I had said the magic words. Secured a platinum pass to play basketball in England by linking my bloodlines –no matter how distant in reality in skill and ability–to the world-renowned No. 23. “Well it’d be great to have you, if you fancy it,” Mark chuckles. “I’m sure we’re not good by American standards,” he says, still laughing. “But you’re welcome to come out and have a go at it. … Cheers, mate.”
That was 25 years ago. And memories still linger like the scent of tea and fresh-baked scones, of salt & vinegar crisps and of a cold golden lager shared with my Uckfield Paragon teammates who indelibly changed my life. Who helped heal my American urban fried nerves.
Like the glow of the castle on quiet English countryside nights in Lewes.