A Story About Kyrgyzstan and Gilbert
A spark of recognition flashed in Ivan Zhdanov's eyes when he entered the Wizards' practice court tonight. He asked a team official whether this was the same court where Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson held their legendary shooting contest, the one that became a YouTube sensation.
"I saw this!" Zhdanov said. "In this gym. Craaaazy!"
That an 18-year old from Kyrgyzstan would be familiar with the Internet exploits of Gilbert should no longer surprise me, and yet somehow it still makes me shake my head. And then when Gilbert unexpectedly entered that practice court and was mobbed by a half-dozen Kyrgystan under-16 players, wearing matching Arenas jerseys and asking for photos and handshakes....well, more head-shaking. He's apparently huge in Central Asia.
"I'm so glad," Zhdanov said through a translator after meeting Gilbert. "My dream has come true."
"It's just something unbelievable," added Marat Lokenov, another player. "Something I will never forget."
You know, a late-March game between the flailing Wizards and the Bulls might not mean much to local fans, and judging by tonight's crowd, it didn't. To these kids, though, it did, and not merely for the usual I-love-this-game reasons.
See, six of them were on a commercial plane bound for a youth tournament in Iran last August. That plane crashed 10 minutes after take-off, killing 10 of the team members. Their coach, Bakhtiar Kadyrov, was badly burned helping passengers escape, and spent three months in a hospital. None of the team members had flown again before this month, when six of the seven survivors traveled from Bishkek to Moscow to Vienna to D.C. for a trip hosted by the State Department, which had sent a Sports Envoy team to Kyrgyzstan last summer, before the tragedy. And so now, they were saying that being here, at an NBA game, was "the height of humanity," and that it was "some sort of compensation for what we went through."
"For us, this has an amazingly healing effect," Kadyrov, the coach and a member of parliament, told me through a translator. "And there is a lot of phobia, just to even walk on the airplane. But the motivation is so strong to go to America. Just to think about this is a dream."
The teenagers are bound for Indianapolis to watch the NCAA tournament next weekend, but tonight it was time for their first NBA game. They met with Darius Songaila and Oleksiy Pecherov before the game, asking for their practice methodology; Pecherov recommended they go to Best Buy and look for Magic Johnson DVDs. They met with Vice President of Basketball Administration Tommy Sheppard; "We have something in common, we all have basketball, so I feel like I already know you guys," Sheppard said.
They asked Dominic McGuire to dunk, quizzed Laron Profit about his recovery and weight-lifting techniques, and treated Gilbert with the same loving awe I've seen from countless U.S. teens. One borrowed my pen and had Gilbert sign a Wizards practice ball; at that point, I guess, he was allowed to keep the ball.
"Since I started playing basketball that was my dream, to watch a game of NBA players," Zhanysh Adiev said through the translator. "Look at me. I'm shining like a new pin."
"Naturally any kid in Kyrgyzstan would dream to go to America," the coach told me. "And especially to watch, to observe the players, to say hi to the players. It's amazing; in the United States of America, they are star players, and they're accessible, and we can say hi to them. Not in our country. In our country, if you're a star, you can't be approached. That's the philosophy. So we're amazed by the accessibility and of course the opportunity. So the kids are happy. They are happy. They are all excited. They will come to the motherland and they're gonna talk, they're going to talk to their friends, they're going to talk to their relatives and they're going to tell these stories. And they'll actually talk about the character of the American people: very kind, very sympathetic."
(And in case this reads too much like propaganda, I asked Zhdanov whether he knew that Gilbert would be inactive. "I thought he would be playing today," he told me, "but then I was told that he would not be because of the injuries and I got frustrated a little bit." Join the club, kid.)
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