The Best Ever Played

by | August 13, 2013, 10:51am 0

It’s 5:15 on the first morning of Bangalore Ultimate Open. I’ve slept for only five hours, but I wake up feeling clear and a little nervous. Boon paces the hotel hallway, back and forth through patches of light and darkness. In the room next-door, only Siva has gotten up. He splashes water on his face and leaves it there, a scatter-shot of tiny glass beads. He starts to prod the younger boys awake. It’s an exciting day, and once they’re up they’ll remain in almost constant motion, but at the moment it’s hard to get out of bed.

BUO is the most important tournament on the Indian Ultimate calendar; the undeclared national championship. With 24 teams and 450 players from eight cities, this year’s tournament will be the biggest that’s ever taken place in India. And after two years and 10 tournaments, it’s also the last I’ll be playing in the country before I go home to the United States.

I’m playing with FlyWild, a Chennai based team led by Boon. It’s an up and coming squad, one of the favorites to win the tournament. It’s also maybe the most unique team that I’ve ever played on. A few adult mentors and a handful of talented, slightly unruly kids. Some of them barefoot. The sons of fishermen.

I first met these kids on the beach in Chennai. It was long after dark, but they were still throwing in the pale light that filtered across from the street lamps. The kids ranged in age and size. Some of them were tiny and looked nine or ten, though they were actually a couple years older. Even the oldest boys, the college aged ones, were small and skinny. They were strong, but their muscles were thin and close to the bone. They wore the backwards caps and jerseys that they knew were cool, but they stayed low key. They didn’t swagger. Around strangers they were usually quiet but friendly, nothing like the young American athletes I’d known.

The kids had seemed happy to meet me, though a little shy. They spoke very little English and I spoke no Tamil. Some of the younger boys seemed to forget or ignore the fact that I didn’t speak their language and they would talk to me in long, rapid sentences. I could only look back at them, bewildered. But I could join their throwing games seamlessly. I didn’t need language for that.

The beach was the cornerstone of FlyWild’s success. The kids had time and an almost single minded love for the game. They didn’t think of it as practice, just enjoyed themselves in the cool hours of the day. In India, like most other places, the high costs of attending tournaments generally made ultimate an affluent persons’ game. FlyWild showed that ultimate had the potential to be the opposite. It could also be the most democratic of sports. In the end all you need is a disc and a friend. The FlyWild kids didn’t even need the friend—they loved to toss into the strong wind that blows off the Indian Ocean, catching the disc as it settled gently back to earth.

The kids hit the beach almost every day, morning and evening, hour after hour, throwing around and trying to sky each other. Running endless loops in the thick sand. Even before a tournament Boon can’t get them to rest. “They won’t listen to me,” he tells me once, smiling, “They’re always running around.”

Six of the boys are still too young to play in FlyWild’s more serious games. They mostly wait on the side line, bringing water, cheering on their friends and waiting patiently for the time that they’ll get to play.

Four of them do play with the adults. Suren is the youngest of these, fifteen, curly haired and not yet fully grown. He’s making his break into the top lines of the team, playing points that really matter for the first time. He’s much younger and smaller than the men he’ll be playing against, but he has a great sense of positioning and he handles well. Older than Suren is Ganesh, who looks a little like their mentor Boon, short and bearded. He has every throw in the book, but he’s still working on his decision making.

The two undisputed stars of FlyWild are Siva and Jagan. They are college age and have been playing ultimate for about a year. Both are thin and wiry, not particularly tall, but they’re incredibly fast. They can sky almost anybody in India. Siva is a gaunt, angular kid, serious, almost brooding. A freakishly good athlete. Jagan is more likely to smile. Less physically dominant, but a complete player. Something links them inexorably. They’re Siva and Jagan, a kind of inseparable duo, so that I seldom think of one without the other. Later I realize that I’ve taken that link for granted, that I don’t really know anything about how they see each other. I ask Sowmya, one of FlyWild’s female players and she tells me that the two have very little ego. At the end of BUO Siva was one of 7 players selected for displaying best Spirit of the Game and Jagan was one of 7 MVPs. They both applauded each other loudly, Sowmya points out. In reality they’re neither rivals nor a dynamic duo. Just friends. Two of the boys.

We leave the hotel and wait for the shuttle bus. The rains have broken over this part of the country and it’s wonderfully cool. The kids are used to Chennai weather, which is almost unremittingly hot, and they’re shivering slightly in the morning chill.

The night before BUO starts I sat with FlyWild’s captain, Boon, in the hotel lobby. He’s short and stocky, incredibly quiet. At first it’s not easy to see why he’s one of the most popular and respected leaders in Indian ultimate. That has less to do with how he comports himself outwardly and more to do with his generosity and dedication. Once, just before Chennai Heat, I had watched Boon pound a huge concrete block into oblivion with a sledge hammer. It had been buried too close to the surface of the sand in the playing field and he didn’t think it safe to leave there. The fact that he was exhausting himself the night before the tournament mattered no more than the ache in his hands and muscles. He was quiet and determined and seemed immune to pain.

In the hotel Boon sprawled back in an easy chair, relaxing. He’d spent all of last night driving us from Chennai to Bangalore and then slept all day and gorged on KFC takeout. He opened up when I ask about the kids. I knew surprisingly little about them. Whenever I’d met them in Chennai they would just appear from the end of beach, coming after school and staying late. I wondered about their families, their backgrounds, their plans for life.

Boon told me that the boys are from a community of fishermen. Some of their parents work in menial service occupations like driving and domestic service. They’re not well off kids, but not the poorest either. They’re on the cusp of India’s new upward mobility. Siva, Jagan, and Ganesh all study in college, the first in their families to do so. But at the same time they’re miles away from the English speaking elite that Boon and many of India’s ultimate players are members of. When they first began playing seriously Boon recognized their potential, but also the potential difficulties they faced in continuing the sport. He told them not to worry about the money—for jerseys, travel, and tournament fees, he would sponsor them. He told them to just play. And they did.

Now, more than a year after they started, FlyWild has had a huge impact on Indian Ultimate. They’ve set a new standard of speed and defensive intensity. In very little time they’ve become a team to beat, finalists at the annual beach tournament in Chennai. But talking to me, Boon speaks more about the impact of ultimate on the kids themselves. The game has helped them focus, he says. A lot of the kids from their community mess around and get into trouble, but the FlyWild kids have gained a sense of perspective and discipline from the game. They’ve also been exposed to far more of the world than they would have otherwise. They’ve become members of a wider community in Chennai, they’ve started speaking more English and they’ve traveled to cities like Bangalore and Auroville. In February, Boon and some other Chennai players sponsored Siva, Jagan, and Ganesh to take the train across the country to Ahmedabad for a tournament. (They won.) Most Indian kids play cricket or football with their friends and neighbors, in local parks or empty lots. The FlyWild kids compete against people from all over India—adults, college students, professionals, other kids from other cities—and they’re not just respected, I think, they’re genuinely liked.

Talking to Boon I get a sense of these kids through his eyes, as fully rounded people. He’s proud of them in that way that you can be proud of somebody when you’ve helped them grow. He’s proud of the change that they’ve made and he wants the best for them. And of course, like any coach, he’s proud of their skill too. “They throw just like me,” he says, smiling. And it’s true. The way they hold the disc, fake, release, they look just like Boon, even the smallest of them.

The first game of BUO is cold and rainy. Boon lets some of the younger kids play and we come out a little sloppy and unfocused. We take the half 6-4, and afterwards Boon shows little emotion. He speaks impassively, like a general surveying what must be done on a battlefield. “Let’s turn it up a notch,” he says. “The top lines will go out. We won’t let them score any more.” They don’t.

The next game is classic FlyWild. We’re up against DoD, one the best teams in India, a semi-finalist at last years BUO. They’re a team of athletes who love to run and huck. They’re also pioneers of a really quality mixed ultimate strategy (all Indian Ultimate tournaments are a 5-2 gender ratio). This game is one of the two critical match-ups in pool play and the loser could easily drop from the championship bracket. We come with a hard zone defense and they can’t crack it. We win 10-2 and I know that if we play this way, we’re going to win the tournament.

The last two games of the day follow a frustrating pattern. We play teams we should easily beat, but we find ourselves struggling to get in any kind of groove. Our third game, against a Chennai team, comes down to 8-8 at soft cap. Boon has the disc on the end-line, just inches away from a score. He throws to Siva. The disc is knocked down and Siva calls strip. His opponent disagrees and a lengthy argument begins in Tamil. Venki calms everyone down and we score on the next throw. So much time has elapsed during the argument that game time has expired and we win without having to play the D point.

Afterwards, as always in Indian Ultimate, the teams form a spirit circle, the players mingling together, arms resting on opponents’ shoulders. The team captains offer praise, advice, or any other thoughts. The speeches always end with a weirdly anachronistic three cheers of “hip-hip, hooray!”

Boon talks for a long time in Tamil about spirit of the game. Everyone seems satisfied. It’s one of those quirks of Indian Ultimate. Even heated arguments usually lead to little hard feeling afterward. Here Spirit isn’t so much a guideline for discussing a call—which is often done with the famous argumentativeness of Indians—it’s more about treating even bitter opponents as friends after it’s all resolved.

After the final games of the day we return to the hotel. In their room, the kids put on Tamil songs and dance wildly, like film stars. Even after a day of playing they move frantically, until sweat pours off their bodies. Eight kids in one room, Ganesh DJing, somebody filming on a camera phone. Suren flails his body until he falls to the bed and has to rest and then gets up and dances again. Their faces remain serious, bursting out into laughter only when I’m pulled into the middle of the room and made to dance with them.

Day 2 continues to frustrate us. We play a new team from Bangalore and again win by only a few points. Then we come up against Spinergy, the team from the international community at Auroville. Spinergy is known for their chilliness and team play. They know each other exceptionally well and they don’t make mistakes. I know that they’re a team to be wary of, and I’m not wrong. Spinergy dismantles us. We make a lot of bad throws and once they have the disc they don’t give it back. It’s a good wake up call. Even with the loss we’re still through to the championship bracket.

There’s some confusion over the seedings. We’re told that we have another game today, then that we don’t, and finally that we do. The quarter-final is against Falcons, a Bangalore team that perhaps most closely resembles FlyWild, young guys who run hard. It turns out to be the game of the tournament.

We go up 4-0 quickly. Siva catches a Callahan. It looks like we’re back in our top form and headed to an easy semi berth, but Falcons refuse to go away. They make a few breaks on us and begin to even the score. FlyWild’s biggest weakness starts to become apparent: we don’t have two complete lines. Boon, Siva, and Jagan are playing savage and getting tired. Siva goes down with a cramp. The game stays tight and a crowd has gathered on the sideline. Almost everybody from the tournament is there, watching. Players from Bangalore and Chennai are cheering, supporting the teams from their own cities. There are competing chants of “Fly Wild! Fly Wild!” and “Falcons! Falcons!” and loud cheers for every big play and score. It’s a phenomenal atmosphere.

Soft cap blows at 8-8, game to 10. We score, coming within one point of victory. I’m playing O points, so I head to the side line and walk down to our attacking end-zone. The pressure is incredible. I want the D line to end this, I don’t want to play anymore. I hunker by our end-zone, silently telling my teammates to finish it. I don’t want to play universe, I say to myself. I don’t want to play universe. I don’t want to play universe. The point drags on. We get the turnover, we lose it. We get it again and lose it again. Boon makes a hard strike cut, but there’s a bad throw and the disc tips off his hand, high up into the air. He goes up for the disc and sprains his ankle on the landing. At the same moment Jagan goes down with a cramp in his calf. Suddenly two of our top players are out. Things are looking over. I come out to replace Boon. Suren has to come in for Jagan. He’s just 15, a head shorter than Jagan and he’s never played in such a big situation.

The game resumes. We play the hardest ultimate I’ve ever been part of, trading a few more turnovers. Falcons take advantage of their mismatch and huck it in Suren’s direction. He skies his man in the end-zone, knocks down the disc. The Chennai supporters go wild.

We work the disc down the field. Siva has it and I cut to the break-side of the end-zone. He throws me a hammer. There’s an eternity in which I think about how much I hate catching hammers, in which I relive, in vivid detail, each and every one of the many hammers that I have dropped over the years. And then I catch it. I start a victory circuit of the end zone, but something’s wrong. A pick was called somewhere. It didn’t affect the play, but Siva threw the disc anyway, so it has to go back. We discuss the call. Part of me wants to argue, though I know what the correct ruling is. But it’s ultimate, and I know that handling the call correctly is every bit as important as catching a hammer or not. Handing the disc back to Siva is almost unbearable, it also feels like the best thing I’ve done all game.

The momentum stays with us. We work the disc around and finally get it to Venki in the end-zone. Game over. Ganesh runs towards me for a chest bump, but I chicken out at the last minute and opt for a leaping high five. Suren turns a series of hand stands. I know that this is the best ultimate I’ve ever played; that this is one of the best games we’ve ever had in this country.

The competitive standards of ultimate in India keep rising with each tournament. A few years ago stack offenses were uncertain, zones uncommon, and layouts were a rare treat. Forcing flick was a sure thing as many players could only throw a backhand, but, in many games, the force dissolved entirely. In 2013 the game is different, more or less on par with mid-level club or college play in the US. The rapid rate of expansion means that there are always inexperienced players and teams, but a large part of the Ultimate community has mastered the basics and is starting to push itself athletically and strategically.

The impressive thing about Indian Ultimate, however, is its commitment to Spirit of the Game. From my first tournament in India I was hooked on Indian Spirit. The community was small enough that it was actually that, a community. I loved that within a couple of days people knew who I was. At my next tournament, more than a year later, people still remembered me, and over the last two years, those occasional meetings have become actual friendships. The Indian game has stayed true to ultimate’s roots as an alternative sport. In fact, in some ways it has actually improved in Spirit, even as it dramatically escalated its technical proficiency. This years BUO, was one of the most spirited and argument-free tournaments of the ten I played in India, though it was also by far the most competitive.

The morning of the last day I wake up early and head to the fields to watch the first games. It’s hard to believe that this is my last day of Indian Ultimate. I’m more nervous than ever. For the first time it feels like winning is a precondition to success—that it won’t be a good tournament unless we at least make it to the finals. And I have a sinking feeling that we aren’t going to pull it off, as if our quarter-final we’ve burned all the intensity and good luck we had coming in.

The feeling abates a little bit when I find out that we’re going to play Learning to Fly. L2F, as they’re known, is one of the most experienced teams at BUO. They’ve won a number of tournaments recently and they’re ranked number one here. But they looked a little unsteady through pool play, and in their quarterfinal they struggled against their opponents’ zone defense. I know that if we can play zone well and execute on offense, we can win easily.

It doesn’t happen. At game time everything clicks for L2F and nothing for us. They shred our zone and even when we get turnovers our offense can’t respond. The boys look a little sleepy and unfocused. In his typical fashion, Boon plays on his sprained ankle, but it isn’t enough. It becomes clear that we play our best against up-tempo teams. L2F is patient and meticulous. They don’t bite and throw the disc where we want them too. They keep it away from Siva and Jagan, denying any chance for a lay-out D. For the first time in the tournament they play clinical ultimate and we’re on the receiving end. We can’t ever hit that highest gear. We can’t ever generate the intensity of the quarter-final. We end up losing badly and without much fuss.

Later I sit with everyone else on a small hill by the fields, watching the final that I wanted so badly to play in. Now that it’s over, all sorts of thoughts are running through my head. I think about competition and what it means. I think about winning and losing and why I woke up this morning already feeling hollow and defeated. I realize it wasn’t losing I had been afraid of. It was leaving India. I had wanted to win because I thought that the vividness of that memory could lock me into the moment, that I could carry it with me. Like a photo album or a small zip-lock bag, filled with Indian earth. This is a common illusion, that winning will somehow preserve us. Now I wonder if that drive to win hadn’t meant that I’d been playing out of fear the whole time. The best moments had nothing to do with victory or continuing to the next round. The best was when you played for pure joy, because the game and your teammates, your opponents and your body wouldn’t let you do anything less.

On the field L2F powers through an inexplicably easy win over Spinergy for the championship. I think about Spirit and community. Big words that don’t always mean so much. Words that probably elicit eye rolls from the sport’s “elite” players. I think about how much those things mean to people like us, the FlyWild kids and myself and all these friends I’ve made in a far away and foreign country

At the hotel, as we get ready to go our separate ways, the kids keep telling me that I have to come for Chennai Heat. I have to play with them. I wish I could talk to them in their own language, tell them how far away my country is. Instead I tell them I’ll try. I will try, though I know it’s impossible. When that weekend in October comes, I’ll strain my imagination to be with them. Because I’d rather play Chennai Heat than American Club Nationals or any other tournament. I’d rather play it with these kids, on that same beach. I really would.

Photos by Deepthi Indukuri.

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