I am writing this on the beach at Virgin Gorda, one of the smaller British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. We’re here for a couple of weeks to get away from all the sleet and snow being endured up there. This is our third year spending time here.
Virgin Gorda is a relatively undiscovered island run by the natives, of whom there are about 4,000. Tour ships stop here from time to time and locals have rigged up pickup trucks with benches and canvas awnings in the back to take them along the potholed roads to be shown the sights. These include spectacular cliffs and hills, hairpin turns, a ruined 19th century copper mine and a bunch of enormous 30-foot-tall boulders along one beach. There are about 10 waterfront bars here that host yachtsmen who tie up and sit to listen to Caribbean music while drinking beer, Cuba Libras and a popular local drink called the Painkiller.
There are also maybe 10 billionaires whose names you would know who have either private compounds on the island or actual smaller islands offshore they own. And there are half a dozen small resorts tucked away here and there, and we’ve rented a unit in one. We have the obligatory palm trees, arc of beach, mountain at the back, birds and butterflies and out front a clear, clean bay with neon colored fish swimming around. We snorkel, sunbathe, read and take walks.
Another nice thing about the island is its size. It is small. In acreage it’s about half again bigger than the peninsula of Montauk. To get anywhere takes no more than 10 minutes. And everybody knows everybody. As a result, there is almost no crime. If there is a crime everybody knows who did it and the stuff gets brought back. So there are no locked doors, even here at the Mango Bay Resort. There are locked doors however at the Little Dix Bay Rockefeller Resort, whose outskirts are patrolled and heavily guarded. They must know something we don’t.
Before we left the Hamptons, I called Gino at Mango Bay to see if he could round me up a basketball. I shoot hoops on a half court every day at home and I have missed doing so the other years we have been here. I don’t play well. But, being over 60, I can tell you that it’s good for endurance, quickness, reflexes, depth perception, the heart, blood flow, mental sharpness and, to a certain degree, upper body strength. Usually I can make about half of what I shoot. I break a sweat.
On Virgin Gorda, people play soccer. Many have never even heard of basketball. So I’d never thought about basketball here in prior years. However, on our last day here last winter, I saw a small dirt yard amidst some small buildings the locals had constructed adjoining Little Dix Road—the dusty road leading to the “Rock Resort”—where, at one end, there was a backboard, a hoop and a bunch of chickens running around.
Gino, managing our resort, is Italian. He knows basketball. And he said he knew this spot. It was a busy local enclave, he said, an enclave we would call “mixed use,” with a jumble of little open air homes, a grocery, a pavilion for board games, lunches and conversations, a beauty parlor, a night spot, a snack shop and, on that tiny field, half-court basketball from time to time.
“I’ll find you a ball,” Gino said.
Arriving here, he presented me with a worn regulation size basketball he’d gotten somewhere, and that afternoon, about 4 p.m., I drove our rented car out to the court and shot hoops. I was alone. But I saw there were many eyes on me from the surrounding buildings. Who was this guy? I’d raise dust, step on rocks on the uneven dirt that served as a court, and when the ball bounced off and I chased it, dogs would bark.
About 15 minutes in, two girls about 10 years old and wearing school uniforms appeared on bikes, hopped off them on the side and walked over. I threw one of them the ball—an invitation—and the girl took a shot and missed. The ball bounced back and she ran around dribbling it while the other guarded her. I joined in. We cheered when a good shot was made. Moaned when one missed.
Soon two boys about eight years old in T-shirts, sandals and shorts pedaled their bikes over and joined in. It occurred to me that school, wherever it was, had gotten out. The girls wear uniforms.
“Boys against girls,” one of the boys said. He spoke a kind of Pidgin English, barely understandable to me. The kids also chatted to one another while we played and I didn’t understand that either. Nobody spoke to me. But I was accepted into the game.
Soon an 11-year-old boy showed up, and when two other boys arrived, the girls fled. Not a word, just back on their bikes and gone. From here, the game became a sort of melee, every man for himself. Make a shot, get the next shot. Miss and fight for it. I could keep up somewhat, but at my age I was easy to steal the ball from and could easily be faked out. As for the shooting, it was all terrible for everybody. People guarded roughly and there was no ref. I was given no special treatment at all. In just half an hour, I was done.
But how was I going to go home without the ball? There seemed to be no other ball. I indicated I had to leave and held out my arms for the ball. They ignored me, continued playing a while, and I joined back in. When I motioned for it a second time, saying I’d borrowed the ball, one of the boys got it and lobbed it over to me and we were done. Six of us headed for bikes, one for a car rental.
“I’ll be back,” I said.
When I got back to the condominium, I thought I’d like to get them a ball as a gift. In Spanish Town, a small dusty street with no sidewalks or streetlights—the British left 60 years ago without building much infrastructure—there was a store next to a bar which I thought might sell such an item. The store was on a part of Main Street that the locals frequented. It had lights in front of its show window that blinked the name on and off all day and night: Mr. Nice Guy.
I called and spoke to Mr. Nice Guy, who on the phone introduced himself as Saad, and I told him I wanted to buy the kids their own ball.
“I don’t have basketballs. But if you want to special order one, I could have it here in 10 days or so.”
He spoke perfect English.
“We’ll probably be gone by then,” I said. “But tell you what. Order me one. I’ll put it on a credit card. Just have someone bring it over to the field when it comes in. It will be a gift from a secret donor. The Dan Rattiner Memorial Basketball. By the way, where are you from? Saad sounds like an Indian name.”
“Pakistan,” he said.
The next morning he called with good news. He’d found a basketball on the island of Tortola, the Capital of the British Virgins. He had it in already. It had been brought to him on the evening ferry four hours after I called.
I asked what it would cost.
“Thirty dollars. I paid 25 for it, and I’m giving five to the guy who brought it over.”
“The kids get home from school at four. I’ll be at your store at three.”
“Anytime. I’m here all day.”
My plan was to give him $40. At $30, by his numbers, there was no profit.
Mr. Nice Guy’s store was very clean inside, well lit and with glass counters and clothes hanging on racks. He also sold wrist watches, cell phones, belts, gifts and sporting equipment.
Saad handed the ball to me across the counter. Brand new. Brown with red bands and gold trim. It reminded me of the regulation ball the ABA used before it merged with the NBA.
“This is beautiful,” I said.
“I’m charging you half price,” he said. “It’s for the kids and I want to be part of it. You owe me $15.”
“I was intending to give you $40,” I said. “I’ll give you 15 and tell the kids it’s from you and me.”
At the court, the kids were there, surrounding a big white pickup truck parked directly under the backboard. They were looking up, where a local guy was standing on the roof of the cab doing something. I parked and looked up, too. He was putting up a basketball net. As I parked, he climbed down, got into the truck, and without a word to anybody, drove off.
I got out of the car then reached back in and took out Gino’s old ball and threw it at the nearest kid, a girl. There were girls and boys there. None of the girls were in uniform. With the ball, they now all played, roughly, shooting and guarding and dribbling and shouting. Then I reached into the car again and threw out the brand new ball. What was this? As I got out and walked over to join them, they stopped playing.
“For us?” one of them asked in perfect English.
I nodded. With that, an 11-year-old boy walked over to me, looked me in the eye and held out his hand. I shook it. “Thank you,” he said.
After that, we all began to play together, but at first I didn’t even get the ball. One boy made seven shots from the outside in a row. I recognized him from the day before. He’d be given the ball back each time because he’d made the prior one, so we all had to just stand around. After he finally missed, the melee began again and now everyone was making shots. The accuracy, from both boys and girls, was about 7 out of 10. It was amazing. It had to be the new net and ball.
Meanwhile, they gave me no quarter. I guarded, they went around me. We’d fight for the ball, laugh and shout. When I shot, heavily guarded, I would miss, as always. At one point, a 10-year-old with the ball charged right into me and made a shot. I hadn’t moved. It was a foul.
“Charge,” I said.
And he nodded and, having gotten the ball back, handed it to me. It was true.
At this point, we had drawn a small crowd, four local mothers with babes in arms or three-year-olds in tow. They stood at the back, by the beauty parlor, and watched silently. One wore those cat ears on her head that you see girls wearing occasionally.
And so the next half hour went. New kids would arrive, others had to leave, the game waxed and waned. But teams had been decided upon and we all kept track of who was on your side to throw to. By the way, when someone left, they left—no goodbyes or anything. Just done and pedaling off.
After the half hour was up, I was done. The game also was now at 20 to 14, with us behind. It seemed a good time for me to go.
I just picked up my old ball, said I had to go to nobody in particular and, as they kept playing, trotted off and went back to the car. As I drove off, the 11-year-old who had thanked me gave me a brief wave from the middle of the game.
I will be back tomorrow. Right after school lets out.