POSTED: Sep 1, 2014 10:02 AM ET
By Helge Prüßmann, for NBA.com
When the music stopped, and the DJ started to address the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the ancient German castle, it marked the end of two incredible weeks in my life. "Welcome," he said, "to the United States Youth Basketball Team. They won a silver medal in a big tournament today." The crowd, many of whom had already inquired about the group of unusually tall teenagers I was with, cheered enthusiastically.
American Ethan Happ, who had been named MVP earlier that day, was ecstatic, overwhelmed. Over the course of the tournament, he and his teammates had experienced how basketball could bring people of different cultures together. I anticipated this to happen when I picked them up at the airport. After all, I had made that experience many times before.
When my friend Albert and I started playing basketball during lunch breaks in 10th grade, it was mostly because we were no good at soccer. In Germany, and especially outside the big cities, everyone starts out playing soccer. I had played for my village team, but shown more interest in the animal- and plant life of the pitch than in scoring goals.
It was a small wonder that our schoolground even had a basket set up, and when we started clumsily bombarding it with one bricked shot after another, many of our classmates were shaking their heads. Still, a gym teacher took notice of our efforts, and since there was a sports tournament coming up, a school team was formed and we were a part of it. Being able to skip school for games, we felt like legitimate athletes.
Gradually, basketball became a part of our every day lives. Instead of volleys, the Champions League and Cristiano Ronaldo, we started talking about alley-oops, the Cavs-Spurs Finals and Dirk Nowitzki. We calculated how many points T-Mac would score if he kept the pace of his 35-second explosion against the Spurs for a whole NBA game (roughly 1,070 points). I won a pound of chocolate bars betting on Yao Ming's exact height.
When I was in 12th grade, my family was joined by Enkmunkh, an exchange student from Mongolia. Descending from nomads, he was very shy and difficult to approach during his first few weeks in Germany. He loved playing basketball, however.
One day, my grandfather brought home a rusty basketball post harvested from a scrap heap. The base needed to be filled with sand for weight, so Enkmunkh and I sneaked off with a pushcart to the village's gravel pit. Filling up the cart with sand, working toward a common goal, we were both thrilled. Enkmunkh smiled broadly, maybe for the first time since leaving Mongolia. Then, we set up the hoop, and played so much that we first broke the backboard, then the ring shortly before Enkmunkh flew back home.
After finishing high school, I was ready to leave my sleepy German village and go on an adventure. My parents gifted me a huge backpack, and I set off on a one-year trip through India.
I arrived in Mumbai, a major Indian city, at the same time as Pau Gasol. He was there to promote the NBA, having just won his second NBA title. I attended his clinic, the only foreigner in the adoring Indian crowd. It seemed from the outset that this journey would be entwined with the game of basketball. (That's me playing on a court in Ladakh, India, at the top of this story.)
Later on in the year, I stayed in a small Himalayan town called McLeod Ganj. The place is famous for its Tibetan community. If he is not traveling around the world sharing wisdom, the Dalai Lama lives there.
Looking back, the first thing I picture when I think of McLeod Ganj is its streetball court, seemingly glued to the flank of the mountain above the main street. Encircled by pine trees, facing a lush green valley, it is a sight to behold. Here, the occasional traveler can play with a lively group of local Tibetans, Indians and even some Buddhist monks. I always thought it unfair that the monks had to play in their robes, prohibiting them from dribbling between their legs.
The friendliness and welcoming approach of these people made me feel at home, and I ended up staying in McLeod Ganj for nearly three months. I have since gone back twice, meeting new people and catching up with old friends, and playing many, many games on the picturesque court.
Mannheim, a city in Southern Germany, is perhaps best known for its university, accommodated in one of the country's biggest castles. In soccer-crazy Germany, it is less well known for biannually hosting an international youth basketball tournament called "Albert-Schweitzer-Tournament". But when I started studying at the University of Mannheim last fall, I was very much aware of this competition. I knew that a young Magic Johnson played here in Mannheim in 1975. So did Tim Duncan, Vince Carter and more recently, Nicolas Batum and Omri Casspi. So when I got the chance to be the local guide for one of the teams from the 16 nations participating in 2014, I was thrilled. My designated team, by chance, turned out to be that of the United States of America.
After picking them up at the airport, I was with the U.S. team for the whole tournament. I sat on the bench for each of their games. The USA did not have a very good recent track record in the tournament. The times in which top players like Magic or Duncan were willing to participate seemed long over. The players that arrived knew that, while very good, they were not considered top prospects in their class. Led by talkative point guard Shavar Newkirk, they embraced this, calling themselves the B-team, and riding that team-spirit they reached the tournament's final, losing in a close game to Italy. They handled themselves with class, and many of my colleagues on the organizing team told me how I impressed they were by these young men.
When I was celebrating their silver medal with the team in the courtyard of my university, surrounded by the walls, parapets and towers of the castle, I started reminiscing. There were many people I had bonded with through a shared passion for the game of basketball. Albert. Enkmunkh. The Tibetan monks. My new friend Ethan. I realized that meeting diverse people was the best thing about the game of basketball. And I wondered, whom I would meet next.
Helge Prüßmann, 23, lives in Mannheim, Germany. He is a student pursuing a bachelor's degree in business management. He's also an avid NBA fan and lists Derrick Rose as his favorite player.
Besides basketball, he says travel is his main hobby. He hopes to do both soon when he travels to the U.S. for the first time.
David Aldridge's regular Monday column, the Morning Tip, is on hiatus. It will return later this month.