By Bryan Gregory Sanders, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Travelers generally yearn for something new, but often something familiar in a new setting can be just as fulfilling. In Rio there are plenty of opportunities to get in on a game of football (soccer), as well as miles of beach volleyball courts – but sometimes there is no substitute for a game of hoops, whether 3-on-3 or full court 5-on-5.
Basketball lives and breathes (in pick-up games) on the local courts of Rio – where expatriates and travelers can mix it up with local Brazilian talent.
Though not Brazil’s most popular sport, the country has never been a stranger to basketball thanks in part to national hero, and FIBA’s all time career points record holder, Oscar Schmidt, who is inspiration to players like Kobe Bryant.
With old time heroes like Schmidt, the strengthening national teams, and growing numbers of Brazilian players in the NBA – larger numbers are getting in on the sport. This has brought younger talent on public courts making the pick-up games more challenging and enthusiastic.
For ex-college player and American engineer living in Rio, Steve Deken, playing in Rio differs from the states. “Here you have to know where to look, and once you find a place, you have to compete with kids lined up to play soccer on the court as well.” he adds, “if you’ve got a good location however, you can always get a good squad to show up.”
Mike Smith, another expatriate living in Rio for over three years, agrees, “the difficulty was really finding a working court, and getting guys off the beach to play” adding that in the summer, games have to be played late due to the heat.
Games can be found some days at the Jardim de Alá courts, along the canal between Ipanema and Leblon, as well as on the Lagoa, near Parque da Catacumba, where Deken explains, “there are two courts where Thursday through Sunday nights you’ll get good turn outs from fifteen to twenty people – and some can play pretty decently.”
The courts in Parque do Flamengo (Flamengo Park) however, are where the more passionate and dedicated showcase their skills.
Much like the quality of courts – the range of competition can vary greatly from the older players looking for a fun way to stay in shape, to teens training with their fathers, to the passionate twenty year-olds who play for the love of the game.
American expatriate and co-owner of the Blue Agave Mexican bar and restaurant Jason Galeria, tells a humbling story of local athleticism.
“[I remember] my homeboy Nellie coming down here from Oakland, and we were thinking we were going to crush some Brazilian b-ballers (in 2003) and getting embarrassed by two random dudes in Havaianas [flip-flops] on the Lagoa,” he admits.
Though the differences here are subtle, Smith says, one aspect stands out here; “everyone is just much more polite, fouls are rare, and there isn’t the same smack talk happening (unless you’re playing with Gringos). Because the Brazilian’s that play here learned in a more formal environment, the whole thing is more disciplined.”
As far as watching the pros, Galeria adds; “at the Blue Agave Copacabana, we have games on ESPN and other games cause we have an extra channel that gets the best NBA match-ups of the day like three or four times a week, and we put the sound on in English (when applicable) in surround sound.”