Anywhere else in the world Wilt Chamberlain may be the player who comes to mind when American basketball is mentioned—but not in Yalalag. The name they drop there, I like to think, is El Gringo Grande. They called me that after having watched my stuff in only one game.
Yalalag is a Zapotec Indian village to-hell-and-gone back in the mountains of southern Mexico. I had been living in Oaxaca City, which lies in a valley some 230 miles southeast of Mexico City. The rugged peaks of the Sierra Madre del Sunrise beyond Oaxaca. The valley and adjacent highlands have been the home of the Zapotecs for some 2,500 years.
Some people I knew were going to Yalalag, and I went along. We traveled by train, by truck and finally by donkey-back and foot, until we reached the central plaza of Yalalag.
We had not been there long before I realized I was being followed by a squad of young men. Every now and then they consulted in whispers, poked each other in the ribs and giggled. After we had all had more mescal and beer than will set easily on an empty stomach one of these boys stepped—or was partially pushed—up to me. His name was Fermin, and he had picked up half a dozen words of English in the Oaxaca market.
March 29, 1965
"Hallo, gringo, goodby," he shouted, and the whole crowd turned to watch and listen.
"Hello, hombre, adios."
"You like? Good?" he asked, making a strange gesture, holding his hand horizontal to the ground, patting the air rapidly.
"Good, very good," I said politely and patted the air as Fermin had done.
As if they had been waiting for this cue, the other boys began shouting "Basketball, basketball!" and leaped forward like a ballet corps, each wildly pantomiming the game, dribbling in the air, simulating center jumps and shooting.
"Hallo, gringo, basketball is agreeable with you, yes?"
"Yes, man, basketball is very agreeable to me." I thought we were merely making conversation.
"Good, good, good, you play with us, now, now, now, goodby."
Fermin and the other boys, followed by the whole crowd in the plaza, hustled us to the rear of the palacio, where there was, in a manner of speaking, a basketball court.
After having walked 30 miles on sneakers, four oranges and three candy bars, and after three mescal boilermakers, I was not in razor-sharp condition. I had not been on a basketball court since being cut from a junior varsity high school squad 15 years before.
The basketball court sloped noticeably down the mountainside to the west. There being plenty of vacant land, the court was about twice regulation size, the out-of-bounds lines marked with stones. The surface was hard-packed dirt from which some of the rocks had been removed and the larger furrows filled. Wooden hoops for the baskets were mounted on small backboards, which stood a foot or so lower than standard. After a time the crowd lined up on the downhill side of the court so as to keep bad passes from literally missing by a mile and rolling down to the Rio Yalalag. The opposition (which I shall call the Jaguar AC, having never caught the name of the village they represented) showed up. The village presidents, a dignified man who was to referee, tossed up a soft soccer ball and the game was on.
The Zapotecs are strong, big-chested mountaineers who can carry packs that would stagger a mule. However, they run to breadth, not height. At 5 feet 11 (at home a midget for basketball purposes) I towered over the tallest of the other players by four or live inches. Also, both Yalalag and the Jaguar AC used an obsolete style of play. They brought the ball downcourt at a slow dribble, the dribbler screened by his teammates drawn up in a phalanx. They never drove in to the basket for a layup but shot from outside, using both hands, throwing the ball up from between their knees, like foul shooters 30 years ago.
Reaching easily over the heads of the Zapotecs, I took the ball, jumped a few inches off the ground and stuffed it through the sawed-off basket as effectively if not as gracefully as the Big Dipper himself. At a lumbering trot I raced (comparatively speaking) to the other end of the court, arriving in time to block, like Bill Russell, the first between-the-knees shot of the Jaguar AC. These revolutionary tactics killed the hometown crowd. They whistled and shouted. Some diplomat yelled in Spanish, for my sake, "El Gringo Grande."
The Jaguar AC, however, was not amused. After we Yalaltecas scored a quick six points, the Jaguars took time and commenced a ferocious argument. It was not necessary to understand Zapotec to catch the drift of the debate. "Where the hell did you get this ringer? If he's from Yalalag, I'm Goose Tatum. The commissioner is going to hear about this."
When the game resumed, the crisis settled itself, as my effectiveness proved to be limited. My problem was that, after coming up with a rebound or blocked shot, I had great difficulty deciding which of the 15 or so players (the teams fluctuated between five and nine men to a side) were Yalaltecas. Everyone seemed to be 5 feet 5, broad, brown and screaming for the ball. When I passed off, the chances were 50-50 that I would give the ball to the Jaguar AC.
Attempting to counteract this difficulty, Fermin had the Yalalag boys identify themselves by yelling, "Hallo, gringo, goodby," but after a basket or so the Jaguar captain shrewdly stole our signals. The confusion was tremendous.
"El Gringo Grande," yelled the crowd.
"Hallo, gringo, goodby," yelled all the players.
After several hours the game ended, with everyone exhausted, the crowd from hysterics, the other players from chasing my wild throws and I from being a superstar. The early Yalalag lead held up, but even the Jaguar AC took things with good humor, feeling perhaps that they had gained considerable fame, even in losing, by playing the weirdest game the mountains had ever seen.
My last memory of being a sports hero for the day in Yalalag was Fermin standing in the brush, yelling after us as we started down the mountain.
"Hallo, gringo, goodby," he shouted, making a dribbling motion in the air with his hand.