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The Baller

February 4, 2010

Basketball player Kevin Sowell

ANCUD, Chile – It’s halfway through a late, Friday morning practice session in Ancud’s murky, municipal gymnasium and Kevin Sowell’s killing it. Fifteen footers. Three pointers. Everything’s dropping in. “Game,” shouts the lanky American, throwing his arms in the air after draining a 25-foot “buzzer” shot to win a quick, one-minute shooting drill.

The setting is reminiscent of something out of “Hoosiers”: a dank, empty, poorly-lit gym that could easily be home to a rural, 1950s high school team. The year, though, is 2007 and Sowell, a 26-year-old native of Hamilton, Ohio, isn’t anywhere close to Indiana.

Welcome to Ancud: a rainy, wind-swept fishing town of some 35,000 inhabitants located on the northern top of Chiloé. A large island off the coast of Southern Chile, Chiloé is about as backwater as it gets. The Chilean capital of Santiago is nearly 1,000 miles to the north. To the south lies the tangled wilderness of Patagonia, a sparsely habited land of rushing rivers, massive glaciers, sweeping forests and fjords.But for Sowell, who arrived here about a month ago from the United States, Ancud is home – at least until Christmas, when his temporary contact with Deportes Ancud, the town’s professional basketball team, is set to expire.

Sowell, or “Magic” as the local press recently dubbed him, came to this most unlikely of destinations in pursuit of the loftiest of dreams, to make it to the promised land of professional basketball – America’s National Basketball Association (NBA). It’s no doubt a huge long shot. Needless to say, NBA scouts aren’t in the habit of looking to Chile, let alone Ancud, for the next Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

Still, long shot or no, playing in Chile’s 25-year-old professional basketball league – the DIMAYOR – is the one shot Sowell has right now. And he has no plans to waste it.

Waste indeed. In his very first game Sowell dropped 28 points on rival Valdivia, one of the DIMAYOR’s top teams. He also had nine assists, all the more impressive considering he’d met his teammates for the first time just days earlier. A week later he scored an unbelievable 52 points against Santiago’s Puente Alto. Six days after that he poured in 44 against last year’s league champs, Osorno. Ancud’s star guard now leads the league in scoring (31.6 points-per-game) and assists (7), and, with just 11 games under his belt, he’s already the league’s number two ranked player.

“He’s spectacular,” says Jorge Calderón, an Ancud doctor and huge basketball fan. “I’ve followed basketball here for years, and really, he’s the best player I’ve seen…It’s been a real revolution for us.”

The Mystery Man

But who is Kevin Sowell? Where did he come from? Why hasn’t anyone ever heard of him? And how on earth did he end up in southern Chile – a place the locals themselves refer to as el poto del mundo (the ass-end of he world)?

Answers to those questions would require my own epic journey. A 14-hour overnight bus took me from Santiago to Puerto Montt, the closest “big” city to Chiloé. On a typically rainy day I then boarded a second bus, crossed the two-mile wide Chacao Channel by ferry, and eventually completed my cross-Chile trek on foot, walking a mile or so from the Ancud bus station to the town’s central square. Finally, there in the lobby of the Balai – a dimly lit, cramped hotel that’s been Sowell’s residence for the past several weeks – I met the mystery man himself.

After treating me to a Coca Cola, the affable athlete launched into an intriguing account of his early basketball career, beginning in Hamilton, Ohio, where Sowell grew up in an admittedly rough neighborhood. “You hear a lot of stories about basketball, about sports or rapping being an outlet. Basketball was my outlet,” he told me.

Sowell worked that outlet on the neighborhood basketball courts, burning through pairs of sneakers as he slowly built up the vast repertoire of moves – long-range jumpers, slashing drives to the basket, ridiculous Dominique Wilkins-style dunks – that have always made him a prodigious scorer.

“That’s my game. Outdoors. You see the flashiness. That’s where my game comes from. From playing outside. Street ball. To be honest I can count on one hand how many years of organized ball I’ve actually played,” he explained.

Sowell, in fact, needs just one finger to count the number of years he played for Hamilton High School. Cut after just one season, the 6’2” guard, short by basketball standards, missed whatever opportunities he might have had to play big-time college basketball, to make a name for himself early. 

But after graduating in 1999, Sowell did actually have a chance to play college basketball – for a local school called Miami University Hamilton. Later he transferred to an even smaller institution called Temple Baptist College (TBC), in Cincinnati.

Though still very much an unknown, Sowell landed his first professional basketball job two years later with a nearby International Basketball League team called the Dayton Jets. Happy to have a foot in the door, the talented guard nevertheless learned quickly that anonymity comes with a price. For the next four months Sowell mostly sat bench, watching larger, better-known players get the playing time and exposure he desperately yearned for.

“I remember my first game,” he said. “I was waiting to get called into the game. We had 15 guys on the team so I was considered on the third team. You know, the guys that get the garbage minutes. We’re whipping this team bad. He’s subbing guys in, putting his second team in, taking them out, putting the third team in. Didn’t put me in, until four minutes into the second quarter. We’re winning by 30 points. I remember sitting on the bench crying. Literally crying. All my family was there. My friends.”

After 14 games with the Jets, his contract over, Sowell returned home. Days turned into weeks and months. He tried out for numerous other teams. But nothing happened. “I’m sitting at home playing street ball. Going to the YMCA playing pickup games, and that was very humiliating,” he said.

Finally, an old friend and fellow player put Sowell in contact with an agent, who was able to recommend him for a semi-pro (Pro Am) summer league in Kentucky. Needing a chance to prove himself, Sowell jumped at the opportunity. He played well, very well, returning to Kentucky last year for a second stint in the Pro Am, where he led the league in scoring (23 points-per-game) and finished as the top ranked guard. “And that,” said Sowell, “got me my first professional job out of the country. In Iceland.”

The New Globetrotters

Iceland? For anyone who hasn’t noticed, basketball – for decades a purely North American pastime – has quickly become a global game. Teams from countries such as Argentina, Spain and Greece now compete shoulder to shoulder with U.S.-born NBA superstars for dominance in international competitions. U.S. ballers are now sharing the spotlight in their own league as well. The San Antonio Spurs, the NBA’s reigning champs, boast a roster that includes two Argentines, a French point guard and a center born in the Virgin Islands.

It doesn’t stop there. Leagues have sprouted up just about everywhere: throughout Europe, across Latin America, and yes, also in Iceland, where exactly one year ago Sowell found himself playing for a second-tier team in a small city called Akureyri. Such tiny-market basketball leagues, while long on enthusiasm, are notably short on home-grown talent, something the basketball-crazy United States has in excess. As a result, a growing number of U.S. hoopsters are now scattered across the globe, playing in what amounts to an informal and disparate minor league basketball system.

Like America’s oft mythologized minor league baseball system, obscure leagues such as the Icelandic Basketball Association or Chile’s DIMAYOR are anything but glamorous. Pay checks are slim. Contracts are short. Futures uncertain. And while the notion of traveling the world as a professional athlete certainly has a romantic appeal, the experience can in reality be anything but. During the several winter months Sowell spent in Akureyri, trapped in the depths of Iceland’s endless night, he desperately missed his family and friends. Isolated not only geographically, but socially and culturally as well, he was lonely.

But Sowell also knew he was there to do a job. And in that respect, he excelled. Brought in to help the Thor Akureyri basketball team make the leap back into the country’s top division, Sowell did just that. Averaging over 30 points per game, he led the team to a 14-0 record. He was also the only second division player to be invited to the top division All Star game, where he was promptly named MVP of the match.

“It was awesome. To connect with other people from the States. For three or four months I hated it. I was by myself in a foreign place. I didn’t know anyone. I would just stay in my house, stay in my room all day, go to practice, then come back home. I hated it. So to get over that hump, to get to the All Star game and connect with some people from the States who were struggling with the same thing, it felt good,” said Sowell.

Living La Vida Chilote

The Iceland stint gave Sowell a foothold in the international circuit, and after returning to the states he was soon offered a short-term gig in Honduras. A few months later an agent told him about an opportunity in Chile. Sowell hesitated a bit at first. A job’s a job, though, and eventually – having no real idea what he’d be getting into – the b-ball journeyman packed his bags and headed to Ancud.

His impact on the town and its basketball team has been immediate. Struggling at 3-7 before Sowell’s late September arrival, the team then went 6-3, giving it sudden and legitimate hopes of qualifying for the post-season. Ancud’s numerous hoops fans couldn’t be more thrilled. Unlike in communities in central and northern Chile, where soccer is king and basketball barely registers in the public consciousness, in far-away Chiloé, b-ball is a true passion.

“I think the weather here has a lot to do with it,” Andrés Ulloa, one of Deportes Ancud’s team directors, told me. “In the winter, actually during almost all of the year, it rains here.
So as far as recreational activities, indoor sports are the only thing available to people when they get off work. That’s why so many people come to the gym.”

And come to the gym they do. Grungy or not, Ancud’s clammy Municipal Gymnasium – which can seat about 10 percent of the town’s entire population – fills to the brim during weekend home games. “People are super passionate about basketball. They shout. They curse out the refs when they make bad calls. It’s really special,” said Ulloa.

Not surprisingly, the local “Chilotes” are thrilled with their new recruit. On the night he scored 52 against Puerto Varas, “people couldn’t believe it,” said Francisco Knopke, an avid fan. The crowd went berserk. “Sowell, Sowell,” they shouted. Ulloa can’t remember Ancud fans ever calling out an individual player by name.

At times the experience has been thrilling for Sowell as well. A perennial mystery man who’s struggled for years to make a name for himself, “Magic” is suddenly a star – at least in this one, tiny corner of the world.

“Wow. Wow. Wow…They really love me. They really reached out to me and embraced me. The children, the team, the elderly people. All over the newspapers. I’m not used to that. I’m not used to walking down the street and seeing a picture of Kevin Sowell with a title ‘Beast with the Ball.’ I’m not used to seeing stuff like that,” he said.

But those are the good days. When he’s not practicing or traveling with the team, Sowell spends most of time in the Balai hotel, in his room, by himself. “I don’t really get out too much,” he told me. “I usually just stay to myself. I’m a silly guy but no one would know that, because I don’t go out. A lot of people can’t relate to me and vice versa, because of the language barrier. I usually just sit in my house, working on my lap top. Or I walk around with my headphones on. Waving. Saying ‘hola’ a billion times because everyone recognizes me.”

Stumbling along the Way

Two days after our first meeting Sowell and his teammates traveled to Santiago, where they lost a Saturday night heartbreaker to Universidad Catolica. I spent that night heading north on yet another 14-hour bus haul. But on Sunday I was able to catch up with Sowell again Los Andes, a small city about an hour north of Santiago. Ancud Deportes was there to play Liceo Mixto, the league’s top team.

Sowell was on fire from the beginning, scoring in dizzying flurries. He grabbed his first two points on a soaring baseline dunk. Seconds later he jammed home a crazy alley oop, followed by a quick three-pointer. Notably outsized, Deportes Ancud nevertheless took an early lead and held it through most of the game. Sowell was everywhere: cutting the lane, stealing the ball, dishing it off, draining threes. He’d finish that night with 50.

But in the final seconds of regulation time, Liceo Mixto – led by a one-time Seattle Sonics draftee named Kei Madison – charged back, capitalizing on their clear size advantage to control the ball inside, dominate the offensive boards, erase a late, 10-point deficit, and tie the game at the buzzer. With the crowd and momentum behind them, Liceo Mixto took control in overtime to eventually win it by 10.

Speechless, Sowell disappeared into the locker room. We spoke on the telephone a few days later. Still upset by the weekend losses, the talented American was having trouble keeping his frustrations at bay. Back in rainy Ancud, he wondered aloud where all of this would get him, if there’s anyone out there paying attention.

“To be honest, I’d like to be in the NBA in a year,” he said. “Please don’t take that as me being arrogant, but I want to play against the best competition. Because I feel like my game is ready for that. How many countries must I play for and put up these crazy numbers before someone takes notice? I’m hoping to be in the NBA. I don’t know how to get there, but hopefully this is a route. Putting up good numbers. Leading my teams to championships, to wins. Hopefully that’ll get me there.”

(This article originally appeared Nov. 2, 2007 in the Patagonia Times)

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