Thai Galaxy Street Basketball

I was lured in by the sound of basketballs swish, swish, swishing through a metal hoop with a chain-link net. One 10-baht coin bought me three minutes on the source of the swishing, a Galaxy Street Basketball Challenge machine in the top-floor arcade at Big C, on Bangkok’s perpetually traffic-jammed Ratchadamri Road. At the time, I had no idea that coin would lead to my informal induction into a club of thirtysomething, Thai working professionals who, despite significant language barriers, adopted me as their own and accepted me as more than just a passing farang.

First, a quick note about the basics of Galaxy basketball: it consists of four rounds that total three minutes. Made baskets count for two points until the 20-second mark, after which they count for three. The rim is stationary in round one, then slowly slides back and forth along a foot-long metal track during the remaining three rounds. Seven basketballs are used in one-player games, nine in two-player.

I know—it sounds like a a silly theme-park amusement where you pay a few bucks for a chance to win a knock-off Bart Simpson doll or maybe, if you’re lucky, a stuffed, oversized pink flamingo. This, however, was a game dominated by adults; by big kids seeking a temporary escape from the everyday responsibilities and banalities of adulthood.

An officially sanctioned tournament was to take place about a month after I stumbled onto Galaxy basketball and, later, the dedicated group of regulars who fanatically played it. During that month, I watched them practice on mid-week evenings and weekend afternoons—and I practiced with them, communicating through my broken Thai and their sporadic English and learning some of the nuances of the game from these, the game’s most ardent players. Some friendships were formed, some acquaintances were made.

My scores slowly improved to semi-respectability.

Then 30 years old, I was one of the youngest competitors in the tournament. The field included guys nicknamed Boy, Nong, and Lion, the last a 42-year-old travel agent who splits his time between Bangkok—where his girlfriend competes as his Galaxy doubles partner—and his hometown of Taipei.

Dook, a bespectacled 36-year-old structural engineer and one of the most sociable guys of the bunch, was also on hand. I laughed when he’d confessed that he trained at home by regularly doing bicep curls with 7-pound weights; I wasn’t laughing, however, when five hours into the tournament my hands were shaking, my arms felt as taut as stretched-out rubberbands, and my shoulders were aching like I’d been bench-pressing oak trees. Dook’s scores were also, of course, nearly twice as high as mine were.

Kob, a lanky, affable guy with a quick smile who works at Asia Insurance and spends most nights practicing at the arcade, was the reigning tournament champion. Dressed in khaki pants and a blue-and-white striped polo, he was as cool as a cucumber that morning, and smiled wide once he found out that I’d arrived 15 minutes early: Thais notoriously run on their own clock and are rarely on time for anything.

His main competition was Nom, who swept into the arcade with an air of confidence, focus, and determination. He carried a Nike duffle bag and two water bottles, and was accompanied by Joe, his friend, doubles partner, and unofficial trainer who during the weeks preceding the tournament kept track of Nom’s scores round by round, game by game, in a small black notebook filled with pages and pages of numbers. Nom was dressed in his standard Galaxy “uniform”: a black nylon shirt, fitted Lee jeans that ran about 3 inches too long and bunched up around his mid-ankle Nikes, and a tan wristband on his left forearm.

Kob and Nom both take this hobby especially seriously—and they’re very, very good.

Countless tourists wandering towards the Big C food court have stopped and shaken their heads in disbelief at the flurry of basketballs these two launch with the dizzying speed and accuracy of a tennis-ball machine. One night I kept track: each of them averaged around 325 shot attempts per game: that’s 1.8 attempts per second, or about 108 per minute.

Of course, speed isn’t the only key to success in Galaxy basketball: these two consistently sunk those 325+ attempts at above a 90% clip; ridiculous, really. In the weeks following the tournament, Kob and Nom began taping the tips of their fingers before playing. Better grip? Less calluses?

The tournament wore on for nearly seven hours; none of my scores were remarkable, many were embarrassing. In the end, the final four players left in the singles competition were Lion, Kob, Nom, and Bond, a demure 30-year-old with cartoonishly boyish looks. Based on a complicated scoring system that only the operating officers of Galaxy Company, its highly trained scorekeeping officials, and the world’s top mathematicians could possibly make sense of, Lion and Bond would compete for 3rd and 4th place, Kob and Nom for the title.

The highly anticipated championship match went back and forth between Kob and Nom, with Nom eventually sealing a narrow five-point win. A sense of disbelief splashed across his normally stoic face: after all those nights practicing, all those coins he’d pumped into the machine for hours on end, he’d unseated his friend, his foe, the reigning champion. Kob was of course the first one to congratulate him with a big smile and a pat on the back. It was one of the sweetest, most sincere displays of sportsmanship I’d seen in a long time.

Soon after it was time to move past Nom’s win and to collectively share in the feel-good moment the afternoon had been building towards: the medal ceremony. With digital cameras flashing, one by one the winners were called to the front and awarded their prizes. Though everyone didn’t leave with Galaxy medals slung around their necks, each of us went home happy—there were no losers, a fact which Thas was quick to reinforce as she rushed over with a stuffed animal and Galaxy t-shirt that’d been set aside for me in advance, last-place finish or not.

It was this touching gesture of sincerity that nearly brought me to tears as we bid each other farewell and returned to our adult lives. Maybe this is a kid’s game. But to me and the Galaxy Street Basketball Challenge crew, this game, and that tournament, meant so much more.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.