Hoop Dreams Grip the Land of Genghis Khan

ULAN-BATOR, Mongolia -- Russia may still be struggling to find a national ideology to replace communism, but in neighboring Mongolia, which only this past summer finally ousted its communists, the new Western faith has already arrived and taken hegemonic hold.

Democracy? Secular humanism? Freedom of speech, movement, and religion? Boring. Try basketball, a sport that has done in a few years what centuries of Mongolian history have failed to achieve -- moved cattle out of the streets of the capital and unseated the fighting arts as the dominant physical activity of Genghis Khan's descendants.

Only two years ago, on the heels of a wildly popular pirated television broadcast of the NBA basketball championships, basketball became the first professional sport in Mongolia's history.

Since then, NBA broadcasts have become legal, the Mongolian league has expanded to the point where it is preparing to launch a merchandising drive, and basketball hoops have sprouted up in virtually every courtyard in the country's capital.

"A few years ago, when everyone was wrestling, boxing, and playing table tennis in their spare time, I had a hard time finding people to play with," said Batzaya Purevbot, a forward for the Ulan-Bator Altai Eagles and last year's Mongolian Basketball Association Slam Dunk champion. "Now I have a hard time finding anyone under the age of 25 who doesn't play basketball at every opportunity."

Basketball, or sagsan bumbug , as it's called in Mongolian, has in Mongolia a number of natural advantages over other sports. One of these is the same reason it has become the dominant sport of inner cities in the ball tradition dating back 40 years or so.

But it wasn't until three years ago, when the Mongolian Basketball Association was hatched from a primordial soup of boredom and television -- in, of all places, New York City -- that Mongolians were introduced via television to the high-flying basketball of the West.

Back then, in the spring of 1993, Odonjil -- a member of parliament who was on a fellowship program -- began to ignore his studies at Columbia Law School in favor of television broadcasts of the NBA playoffs.

His roommate complained about the noise, but Odonjil couldn't tear himself away. He had played basketball in his youth and for the first time was seeing the sport being played, as he described it, the way God intended it to be played.

"It was like hearing Beethoven for the first time," he said. "I fell in love. I mean that in every sense of the word -- it was like romantic love."

Odonjil became so obsessed with watching NBA games that he began to lose interest not only in legal theory, but in practice. Imbued with messianic passion, he secretly made copies of NBC-TV broadcasts of the 1993 playoffs and smuggled them back to Mongolia at semester's end. Once in Ulan-Bator, he simply handed the tapes to Mongolian television, and -- without permission from either NBC or the NBA -- broadcast the basketball truth to pagan Mongolia.

"The response was unbelievable," he says now, reclining in a chair in his parliament office. "The phone lines at the TV station were jammed for weeks. It was probably the most popular program ever broadcast here."

Odonjil had clearly struck a nerve with the public, and together with his colleagues, who were also basketball fans, he began to dream of creating his own NBA at home. His close friend Naidensuren Zoljargal, the director of the Mongolian Stock Exchange, was also interested in organizing a league. Zoljargal had also travelled in the United States and had taken time out to watch the NBA; when he went back to America to get an MBA at Harvard in 1995, he was a regular Celtics fan.

These two young movers and shakers of post-socialist "reform" Mongolia were discussing their plans for a league at the parliament building one night in March 1994 when a third man, a parliament member from the Dakkhan province, overheard their conversation. Intrigued, he pulled out his wallet and plunked down 100,000 Mongolian tugriks -- about $200 -- on the spot. The next day, Odonjil put the money in an account as start-up capital, and the Mongolian Basketball Association was officially born.

Today, the league -- the only basketball organization outside of America that uses the American NBA rules -- contains eight teams, seven of which are in Ulan-Bator. The combined budget of the league and its teams is about 20 million tugriki annually. That makes Mongolian Basketball about a $40,000 business -- and, according to Odonjil, it is making a profit. The average attendance for games is about 500 -- not bad considering that the population of the entire country is only about 2 million -- and this year, the league negotiated a television contract with Mongolian State TV which will greatly boost revenues.

In 1998, Odonjil and Zoljargal even plan on selling MBA merchandise.

"Who knows," laughed Odonjil. "We may even have 'Air Batzaya' sneakers. Anything is possible."

Whether a Mongolian basketball player will ever make it to the NBA is another question. Though the league boasts one genuine seven-foot player, the average height for most teams is about six feet tall (186 centimeters) -- minuscule by basketball standards.

"We try hard," said Ganbold Batchuluuk, a 175-centimeter teammate of Purevbot's. "But we're just not a tall people."