Playing Days —A Conversation with Ben Markovits
Benjamin Markovits has forged an unusual path. From 1996–97 he played professional basketball with TG Landshut, a minor German team based in a rural town not far from Munich, leaving after a season to embark on a writing career. 23 years later in 2010 his experiences with Landshut finally found their way into the light in the form of a thinly-veiled memoir, Playing Days. We interviewed Ben to find out about the highs and lows of his time with Landshut, and and just how thinly-veiled the memoir really is.
Callum Green: When did you decide you wanted to play basketball? How did you find the process of finding a team in Germany from America, without having any post-high school on-court time?
Benjamin Markovits: So my mother’s German, and we go to Germany in the summers. I think I read an article somewhere in a magazine about Eibe Berlin, which had a very good German basketball team. And I knew something about it. I knew that with my German passport I would have an easier road in.
“It was just a pipe dream kind of thing. I had no idea if I could make it in Germany, no idea at all.”
My college roommate made a tape. That was filmed mostly in the gyms at Yale, where I went to college. I didn’t go to Yale on a basketball scholarship. I played with the guys in something called the Captain’s Practices, and had there been a junior varsity there, I would’ve probably been on that, but there wasn’t one. I practised with the team occasionally, and I played pick-up basketball with them on the pick-up court, but it was just a pipe dream kind of thing. I had no idea if I could make it in Germany, no idea at all.
I got an agent, I sent him the tape, and he arranged some tryouts. The day after I graduated from university I flew to join my uncle in Hamburg, and lived with him for a bit and just played basketball all summer until I got a job.
So it was never the goal to be a player in Germany?
No, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved basketball, so I wasn’t just driving trucks or something like that, I was doing something I really liked to do. I had days when I was trying out where I couldn’t miss, and afterwards all these guys from the German club were throwing money at me, and then the next day at another tryout I stunk it up and that conversation stopped. So while I was playing, I was sort of working out how good I am. It took me a long time to realise that, if I’d worked really hard, I could’ve been a mediocre player in the second position. I didn’t know that when I started.
Yeah! The first thing that struck me was that these guys I was playing with are unbelievably good, and still, by NBA standards, they suck. And that was kind of incredible because, you know, I’m 6’6, I’m relatively lucky athletically and I’m not even close to being good enough to have a proper career at it. You realise how good, how freakishly good the people in the top leagues are. That came home to me when I saw how good the people in the lower leagues are. They were serious. It was their lives, they were genetic freaks, they were incredibly fast, skilled, competitive, and they just weren’t good enough.
“It took me a long time to realise that, if I’d worked really hard, I could’ve been a mediocre player in the second position. I didn’t know that when I started.”
So what was your experience like of actually playing in Germany?
It was very strange. I mean, it could have been a lot more fun than it was if one or two things had gone slightly differently. I think you can probably have a nice time if you’ve got one buddy. If you do it with a friend, and suddenly, you’ve left college, you’ve got an apartment, people give you some spending money, you can go out every night, you’re not playing, you can travel around, you can mess around. I think that could’ve been fun. And it can be fun if you’re not stuck in a tiny, tiny town.
Was there a different culture to basketball in Germany than over in America at the time? Did you see people playing pick-up games on the street, or anything like that?
No, there were no streets where you could play pick-up basketball. There is a different culture. I mean, I should say, on our team we had an American guy, we had a South American who was Italian but had gone to school in the States, and we had a Slovak guy, so it wasn’t a particularly German team.
There were Germans, some of the Germans were students. There were a couple of kids who just loved it. They were just kids, playing with these pros… Americans come because there isn’t the same league system, you can’t play fourth division basketball in America. There’s a D-league now but there wasn’t when I played.
Yeah, and the D-league is still a very competitive, high skilled professional league. It’s not exactly semi-professional level.
Right. And my guess is if you’re a third, fourth division football player in this country, you might make £20,000 a year?
Yeah, around the minimum wage I’d imagine.
Ben: Right. You’re never going to go to the premiership but you’re really, really good for five or six, or maybe ten years, you can have kind of a nice life, and not work that hard. And that can’t happen in America, so, they go abroad and then you bounce around these leagues because the finances are uncertain. In fact, our team folded in the middle of the year. They ran out of money.
So how did Playing Days come about?
I was writing even as I was in Germany playing basketball. I wrote long letters about what I was seeing, and I was also working on a novel. When I left I showed some of my accounts of playing basketball to various people, almost got book deals for them, wrote up four drafts of the straight memoir, and nothing really happened with it. I started working on other things, and eventually sold another novel.
Years later, I knew that I still wanted to write about the experience, but I didn’t particularly want to go back to this memoir I’d written when I was in my early 20s.
How much of a thinly-veiled memoir did Playing Days end up being?
Ben: Some of the basic facts are simply true. When I graduated from college I didn’t want to go to grad school, and I had a German passport so I realised I could play as a native in Germany. I did play in a small town outside of Munich, and our claim to fame was that we played in the same league as Dirk Nowitzki. All that stuff is true.
I mixed up some of the other facts because you still have to shape it into a series of events. As with most novels, the personal stuff conflates various experiences. In lots of novels what you do is you take real experience and you try to make it sound more like the imagined stuff, and I tried to do the reverse here. I started with the real experience.
I wanted the book to have the feel of a memoir, and have you read memoir before? Most of our lives are fairly boring! Still, any of the descriptions of the games are games I played in, and the heart of it, the two parts that I really wanted to get across, they were true of my experience. One is that it’s a book about the moment in most people’s lives when they realise that they don’t want to be professional athletes. And for lots of kids, that comes with a certain pain, right?
Yeah. Like you said, it’s the realising there’s always going to be some people who are better than you.
That’s part of it, realising where you come in the pecking order. But the other part is, actually, it’s just a game, and you don’t want to play it anymore. You’ve outgrown it. That’s painful, because it means you’ve outgrown all kinds of other things that you didn’t really want to outgrow.
I guess some of the guys you played with wouldn’t have outgrown it. They’d have just kept trying. But because you had other passions you could take that step back and say, okay, I’ve done this. I’ve learned from it, and now I’ll move on.
There were people like that. There were also people who were kind of lazy, they were good at basketball but they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They thought, screw it, I’ll spend my 20s doing this. They weren’t disappointed because we were making a living. They give you an apartment, they give you a car, they give you a salary, and they pay for your expenses when you’re on the road. So you think, what the hell, what else should I do? It beats working at a sandwich shop or something! And then there were other people who were desperately disappointed that they hadn’t turned out to be better basketball players.
“It’s a book about the moment in most people’s lives when they realise that they don’t want to be professional athletes. And for lots of kids, that comes with a certain pain.”
How about the loneliness, was that part true?
I was really unhappy. I mean, that’s not made up. I found it a very hard thing to do. Sure, I was a young man living on my own for the first time in a small town where there really were no other people my age who had my interests. Everybody had gotten out. And that’s true of a lot of these basketball towns, actually, because the towns that are big enough to support major sports support football, and so the basketball clubs end up in these weird places where you’re either in high school, or you’ve left, or you’re 40 and you’ve come back to raise a family or something like that. But then also, when you play sports you get measured every single day, and you might not like the measurements.
I guess it’s like having a end of year exam every single training session.
Right! And not just that, but the people doing your examination are your other classmates, and they’re not side-by-side, but they’re doing it at you.
When you play like that, your whole life is a sport. When you play sports at university, it’s a small part of your life or it’s a big part of your life but you have other friends. I mean, I was lonely but I couldn’t have been the loneliest. I could speak German, at least. There were a lot of guys on my team who had come from South America or America or wherever, and they didn’t really speak the language, and they had nothing to do but sleep and play basketball. You’re too tired the rest of the time. We had an expensive coach and relatively cheap players, and so in order to justify his salary our coach made us work incredibly hard. We would have two-a-day practices in the pre-season, and because we couldn’t get gym time whenever we wanted since we had to share the court with aerobics lessons and that, they would be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. That meant that all the rest of the time we were eating and resting, and so it totally dominated my life.
Reading the book you can sense this strange loneliness. You were doing what you loved, but it’s under someone else’s terms.
Exactly. Also, when you do something you love and you work hard at it, you find out things about your own abilities that you don’t have to confront if you’re doing it in a more amateurish way. Whatever job you have, you ultimately find out what you’re capable of. It turns out to be a mix of pleasure and pain, and it just happened to be that that thing was basketball.
This sort of first-hand account of playing in a small town in Germany against Dirk Nowitzki, it’s quite an amazing story.
It left me with a lot of respect for athletes because I realised, as I said, how incredibly good the best ones were. You know, they’re better at what they do than anybody I’ve ever met in any other walk of life.
“It left me with a lot of respect for athletes because I realised, as I said, how incredibly good the best ones were. You know, they’re better at what they do than anybody I’ve ever met in any other walk of life.”
Also, there’s the emotional difficulty of coping with the athlete’s existence, because the trouble with sports is that you can’t do it that much. Even four hours a day is pushing it. Any office job that lasts only four hours a day means you have a lot of other hours to fill.
In this day and age that seems like a strange luxury.
It depends where you are. Like, too much time in London is one thing, but too much time in a small town, and when you’re too tired to do anything, that’s another. That’s why you’ve got a lot of athletes that just play video games.