The first real job I ever had was playing basketball for a minor league team in southern Germany. I was fresh out of college. I knew I wanted to write and I didn’t know how to pay for it. The club was based in Landshut, a small town about an hour from Munich, very pretty, with a famous old church, a river running through it, cobbled streets and crooked houses and biergartens – all of that – and everybody from the ages of seventeen to forty had gotten the hell out. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

There was one disco, or maybe two, but the players hung out at a place called the Riverside, where a pizza van used to pull up on Saturday nights, and sell pretty good slices. I went maybe once. My father warned me before I set off about the rough types, real men, I might encounter on the job. These are not the kids you grew up with, he said. Don’t get into any gambling situations. Watch out. And in fact I lost five marks to one of them on a long coach ride, playing Connect 4 to pass the time, with an engineering student from Munich – a six foot nine skinny power forward, who rode the pine for us while finishing his degree.

On fellowship or visa applications, when I have to fill in details of my employment history, I run into the problem of what the job title was. Swing man or three spot or small forward – there are different ways of writing it. But the truth is, I didn’t last long. I wasn’t good enough to have fun. Pretty much as soon as I got to Landshut I wanted to quit. A few months before I had been writing essays about The Tempest and the Putney Debates, falling in love with a grad student, throwing Frisbees in the quad, and going out for late-night pastrami sandwiches. In Landshut I got my ass kicked by guys who were older, tougher, better and for the most part smarter, at least in the relevant ways. They wanted it more, as the sports writers say. And every day I had to go to work and face this fact.

There was something depressing about the whole set-up. I made 1800 marks a month, the club gave me an apartment to live in, and we got our meals paid for on the road. This seemed terrific to me – I was a kid. But there were thirty-year-old guys on our team, making not much more money, and living in the same crummy flats. The trouble with being an athlete is that some of the time you have to work so unbelievably hard that the rest of the time you’re not good for much. So my teammates watched videos or played video games all day, sat around, took naps, warmed frozen pretzels in the microwave, and then at night went to work, and sweated their guts out.

I was intensely lonely. I had a lot of free time – between the morning practice, which ended at noon, and the evening practice, which started at eight. But the only people I knew were people I saw too much of already, and so I spent the afternoons on my bike, cruising around the mildly pretty countryside, buying chickens from local farms and putting together roasts, reading all the English-language books they had in the local library. Writing poems, that kind of thing. Sweet melancholy days. And then in the evening I’d get my ass kicked again.

All of this makes sense if you’re winning basketball games, but we weren’t. The reason we had to practice so late and so early is that the coach cost a lot of money, and bought cheap players (like me), and had to bring us up to scratch himself. Also, we shared gym time with a lot of local activities: yoga classes, kids’ ballet, Jazzercise, etc. Often we had to pull their exercise mats off the court before warming up. If you come home sweating at ten each night, then you can’t get to sleep right away. But we also had to wake up early to force down food, otherwise we’d end up puking our breakfasts on court during the morning session. What I mean is, those four hours of work took up the whole day and some of the night.

Boy was I glad to get out of there. A year passed before I could pick up a ball again with pleasure. The short experience left deep scars. Not just the sense of failure. Or the feeling of giving up on what I thought I loved – a game I spent my childhood playing – of giving up on childhood. But the memory of the guys I played with, who really were very good at what they did, talented and dedicated and physically freakishly blessed – toiling away their short working lives, for not much money, in small towns across Europe, where nobody really cares about basketball anyway.

 

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Showreel of Ben Markovits in his playing days:

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