When the sun finally dips below the Cambodian horizon, some of Phnom Penh’s innumerable squatters disappear into the once illustrious Olympic Stadium, while thousands of black bats that have made this ramshackle relic of Cambodia’s 1960s glory their home launch themselves enthusiastically into the darkening skies, offering up their shrill screams like some undead testament to the horrors of 28 years of strife since Prince Sihanouk was forced from power and the stadium fell into misuse and decay. The next day, the complex comes alive with children in white robes sparring for their tae kwan do professors, and young men playing Sei (hacky sack with a shuttlecock) or Sei Doc (an unbelievable cross between volleyball and hacky sack). And in the afternoon, on a basketball court with crisp new nets, intrepid locals, expatriates and visitors match their nerve and skill in battle with members of Cambodia’s national team.
Westerners with a little hoop experience will likely salivate at the sight of players who average 5 feet 9 inches in height — power forward Pau Kiny is just 6 feet 2 inches — and nicknames like “Ch’gai,” which translates as “Doggie.” And then there is what seems to be a remarkable display of poor shooting: Games often come down to the wire, but here the score is typically 4-4, one point shy of a decision. (A set point total, usually 5, determines the winner.) To the rookie it may well look like amateursville, but the Cambodian game can be deceptive, and in the relentless damp heat of Phnom Penh, it doesn’t take long to realize it. T-shirts soak with sweat before the game even begins, and the unaccustomed ball handler soon finds himself panting, unable to leap or concentrate, and staring off at the hazy sun — a red and yellow blur sagging toward the edge of the sky. That’s before the smoke of burning trash — the traditional evening pyre for those who can’t afford garbage service — blows in to mix with the dust kicked up by passing motorbikes.
And that’s the easy stuff: After good shots repeatedly clang off the rim, the rookie begins to feel as if the hoop is smaller — every basketballer’s nightmare — and then realizes it is smaller, and only a high-arcing swish stands a chance of dropping. Which may explain why the charge-on-the-way-to-a-lay-up is a primary offensive weapon here (and why other national-team players are nicknamed “Dau” or “Lion,” and “K’dao” or “Hot,” and “Battambang” after his home province). Then there are the standard defensive tactics: Two-handed shoves and football-style tackles are considered an effective means of stopping any drive to the basket. Given that no game is played without a whistle-crazy referee — tempers and cheap, accessible weapons are a bad combination — how does anyone not foul out? Simple: There is no fouling out. But maybe the worst aspect of the Cambodian game is the ridicule. When a rookie’s jump shot is swatted away by the Nigerian Michael Jordan — a gym coach at the International School of Phnom Penh — the courtside crowd sitting astride 70-odd mo peds bursts into hoots and high-fives.
At game’s end, as national-team members relax over mugs of green sugar-cane juice, and the jam of motor scooters pushes its way toward the exit, the once-cocky, now-humiliated rookie is left to suck on a 15-cent water bottle and contemplate the lessons learned. A skinny waif approaches, tugs on the player’s shorts. Thinking the boy is thirsty, he hands over his still-half-full bottle. The boy smiles, promptly pours out the water and runs off with the bottle — for which he might earn a penny from the recycler. As the sun dips below the horizon and the sky darkens, and the squatters begin to take up their nighttime positions in the stadium, and the bats stir, the rookie realizes that he’s just had his true initiation to Cambodia. And, for the first time, he fully understands the concept of home-court advantage.