The Game They Play in Paradise

By Mike D’Orso

There were some things I knew I would find when I landed for a winter weekend on the island of Eleuthera. Bad roads and beautiful beaches. Pink sand and pineapple rum. Balmy breezes, a Bahamian sun and blessed solitude. But nothing had prepared me for Hitler. Nor was I ready for his museum. And I had no idea what to make of his basketball court.

It was a week before Christmas, and I had come to the Bahamas on a free ticket – a major airline reward for yielding my seat on an over-booked flight earlier in the year. I had chosen Eleuthera on a hunch. I knew it was one of the country’s Out Islands – a far cry from glitzy Nassau. The guidebooks told me it was a little more that a speck on the map. A sliver of coral and limestone 100 miles long and two miles wide. Brochures described bougainvillea and hibiscus bushes drooping over picket fences, palm trees lining dirt paths to un-peopled beaches, small, neat homes painted on the bright colors of fruit and looking out on a translucent turquoise sea. This is what I had hoped for, and this is what I found when I stepped off a water taxi onto the dock at Harbour Island, a three- by one-half-mile dot three miles east of the northern tip of Eleuthera.

The 1,500 people who inhabit this oasis call it Briland. The adult’s fish for lobster, conch and grouper, work at half a dozen small resorts along the beaches or commute to the main island to plant and pick in Eleuthera’s pineapple and orange groves. The children attend the island’s single 300-student school.

The schoolyard was empty when I arrived late on a Friday afternoon. Christmas lights were strung on the palms, and poincianas lined the narrow lane that runs past the school’s sandy front yard. Reggae versions of Jingle Bells,and The First Noel drifted from the open windows of the houses nearby. A beat-up van sputtered past me with the words REGGIE’S “NO PROBLEM” taxi written on the side.

I noticed a purple Los Angeles Laker plate fastened to Reggie’s rear bumper just above the Bahamas tag. I soon noticed that almost every vehicle on the island bore the Laker logo, in honor, I learned, of the Bahamian patron saint of basketball, Mychal Thompson. Thompson, whose nickname in his native Nassau is Sweet Bells, was the first native from these islands to make it to the NBA, and he spent the last third of his 12-year career playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. He is now a Seattle SuperSonic radio color commentator.

“Sweet Bells”, explained an elderly shopkeeper, “made the Lakers the word of God in the Bahamas.”

I saw a few Boston plates as well, and was told there had been a surge in Celtic green since Rick Fox – who also cut his basketball teeth in Nassau before moving to Indiana to finish high school and going to North Carolina at the Chapel Hill for college-became a guard with the Celts last season.

“It’s a small country, yeah.” Briland school basketball coach Clayton Johnston, a 32-year old transplanted Canadian, told me when I tracked him down in his tiny office. “But the kids here live on the basketball court. This game is their passion, their absolute passion.”

Most play it outdoors. Johnston’s kids – the boys and girls who wear the Briland Buccaneer jerseys when playing against Eleuthera’s Windermere Warriors, hatchet Bay Potcakes (potcake is Bahamian slang for a junkyard dog) or Governor’s Harbour Rude Boys – practice on an asphalt court a hundred yards from the Atlantic. When the Buccaneers host a visiting team, the game is usually played under the stars, on that lighted court with a third of the island’s population seated on the grass or sand. Occasionally a rooster will dash out of the darkness and interrupt a fast break.

There are only four indoor gymnasiums in the entire country, according to Johnston. One is in Freeport, and three are in Nassau, where Gladstone (Moon) McPhee, the Red Auerbach of the Bahamas, coaches the national team. When college scouts from the U.S. come to the islands, they rarely venture beyond those gyms. It was in Nassau that the scouts found Thompson. And it was there that they more recently came across Dexter Cambridge, who grew up in Hatchet Bay on Eleuthera. Cambridge became the U.S.’s leading junior college scorer at Lon Morris J.C. in Jacksonville, Texas, in 1989-90. He then transferred to the University of Texas, where he led the Longhorns in scoring and rebounding early last season before being suspended for two months by the NCAA for accepting money from a booster while at Lon Morris. He is now with the Dallas Mavericks.

“Dexter’s good, but we’ve got a dozen Dexters around here,” said Johnston, who is a pretty fair athlete himself. He rowed varsity crew and played intramural hockey and football at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Eleuthera volleyball team. He came to Briland in 1987 after answering a Toronto newspaper ad for teachers in the Caribbean. “I’d already applied for a job in the Arctic,” he said, “but this sounded better.”

Johnston teaches several subjects and coaches every sport at the school, from softball to volleyball to track and field. But basketball, he said, is king. Both his boys’ and girls’ teams were undefeated in regular-season play last year – perhaps inspired by the 15-seat van donated to Briland’s sports teams the previous summer by singer/songwriter/author Jimmy Buffett, a regular visitor to the island.

“He heard we had a problem,” Johnston said. “He wanted to do something to help – quietly, you know. No big deal.” A Briland team road trip – which always begins by boat – often ended with no transportation waiting on the other side of the water. Now the van sits parked by the dock on Eleuthera.

Most Brilanders – including such local basketball legends as Marty Saunders, who, Johnston told me, “schooled Dexter every time they played, absolutely schooled him” – rarely leave the island once they finish school. Some quit early, as Saunders did after 10th grade. “A lot of these kids leave school earlier than that,” said Johnston, to go pump gas or carry bricks.” Some, according to Briland police chief Ellis Miller, are eventually done in by drugs, notably cocaine. “A lot of cocaine comes through here,” said Miller, “and some of it stays.” But the main reason most Brilanders never move beyond their small island is the same reason so many tourists come to visit it. “Look around,” said Johnston. “This is paradise. And this is home to these people.”

The Friday I arrived – and that Saturday and Sunday as well – as the sun sank below the coral-colored horizon, the throbbing beat of steel drums and Reggae rose from a tiny courtyard at the center of the island. A sign nailed by the courtyard’s doorway read VIC-HUM CLUB AND MUSEUM. Inside its banana-yellow walls, under an open sky and the fronds of over-hanging palm trees, I found six boys going three-on-three on a half court no larger than a living room. Its surface was a checkerboard of black and white ceramic squares. By nightfall the floor would become a disco, drawing dozens of locals and a handful of tourists.

But now those tiles were splashed with sweat from the basketball players. The players were teens – some students at the Briland school, others already dropouts. One, a slender 16-year-old who told me he was not good enough to make the Buccaneers, cradled an alley-oop pass and threw down a vicious dunk. he then disappeared through a doorway into the “museum” for a soft drink.

There was a pool table inside, surrounded by walls plastered with ragged 1960s record album covers (Janis Joplin, Tom Jones, James Brown, Marvin Gaye) and with vintage posters and photos of American athletes (Magic Johnson, Marvin Hagler, Jackie Robinson) as well as a life-sized foldout of Michael Jordan. A Bulls-Knicks game was on the television. Behind the bar stood a man called Hitler.

His name is really Humphrey Percentie Jr., but everyone on the island knows him as Hitler. Locals say the name comes from the fact that everyone knows not to mess with him. He reminds me of a downsized James Earl Jones, clad in a khaki jumpsuit. He filled me in on Briland’s political history (in a nutshell, there is none) as he poured drinks.

Other than the school’s, his key-sized court is the only basketball arena on the island, and it stays busy every day. I wanted to ask Hitler why he had built it in the center of his patio, but he wasn’t interested in answering questions. Instead, he insisted that I guess the circumference of the coconut he keeps on a shelf behind the bar.

“It is allegedly – allegedly I remind you – the largest coconut in the known world, mon,” he said, setting the coconut on the counter as he popped open two bottles of a Bahamian beer called Kalik.

It was a big coconut. About the size of a basketball. I pointed this out to Hitler, but he was busy shooing the kids off his court and setting up the sound system for the evening crowd that was already drifting through the door.

That pattern was repeated the next two days – raw, above-the-rim afternoon jam sessions played to a pulsing Reggae beat, followed by a night of dancing beneath the moon. I never got to see the Briland Buccaneers in action – they had an away game at nearby Spanish Wells that weekend. But on Monday afternoon I did see the Jimmy Buffett van, parked near the weathered taxis that met me and the other tourists headed to the North Eleuthera airport for our flight back to the U.S.

As the plane climbed and banked over the shimmering water of Harbour Island, I hoped for a glimpse of Hitler’s court of the schoolyard. But all I could see were palm trees, pink sand and the fishing boats.

Mike D’Orso lives in Norfolk, Virginia and has written a number of stories for Sports Illustrated.

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