(On day 7, our group of travellers split again for much of the day, to spend time at the Zeke O’Connor junior and senior schools–sit in on lessons, hang out with the students, and take part in activities that ran the gamut from pickleball [!], to educational sessions [on sexual health, leadership, energy flow, and creative writing], to … basketball. Justin, who arrived in Phaplu at last from Canada via Kathmandu, tells the story.)

I didn’t know I would travel to Nepal, have my first “Shaq” moment, and be oh-so-humbled on the basketball court–all in one game!

But first, let me introduce myself. My name is Justin, and I have been a member of the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation Canada board for about 2 years, and been around the organization my entire life. My grandfather is Zeke O’Connor, who started the foundation 50 years ago, and my mom is the current president. Adventure stories from the mountains of Nepal were ever present, and gratitude instilled for what we have and how we can give back were early rewards of my ties to Nepal. I was so excited to get the opportunity to visit Nepal in 2008 with my grandad, mom, and two sisters, to see the impact of the foundation. This trip really opened my eyes and heart and connected me even further to the people we encountered.

SEHF Founders Sir Edmund Hillary and Zeke O’Connor in the mountains of Nepal, c. 1976

Since that trip, the Zeke O’Connor school has been established–an honour that is not wasted on me and my family. I have helped give back to the school by co-chairing a Next Generation SEHF board with Susan M, and organizing fundraiser events like Night In For Nepal–a virtual cooking experience hosted by Chef Harry Prosser. Raising money for the ZOC school has been amazing, but nothing could prepare me for the feeling when I got to visit the school in person last week. Which brings me to Nepal and the start of my story.

After a lovely scenic 9-hour car ride from Kathmandu, I arrived in Phaplu a few days after the trip had begun for the rest of the group. This meant I had a personal welcome, which was overwhelming, to say the least. This was especially felt at the senior school, where I was greeted by an entire school of smiles, flowers, and warm wishes.

Justin meets Principal Lakhpa from the Zeke O’Connor senior school in Phaplu (pic: Allison Murphy)

Justin arrives at the senior school (pic: Kristie Gill)

Pic: Virginia Elliott.

Taking a minute or two after to compose myself and get my bearings, I was ready to visit the various classes and grades. From the get-go, I was warned that the kids were excited to play basketball later in the afternoon. I could tell that my height (6 ft. 3) was something unfamiliar…

I toured the school and sat in on some of the classes, and my favourite part was seeing the amazing science fair projects. From automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers to home alarm systems, it was clear that these kids were innovative, resourceful, and inspiring.

After the science fair, and a few more class stops–where I was called Justin Bieber (pretty incredible, that guy’s reach! Nothing but respect for Biebs!)–it was time for basketball.

But first, a few disclaimers:

  1. I was wearing 3 top layers and long underwear under my pants. It was my first day, and I didn’t know what to expect, so I prepared for the worst.
  2. I am tall, and that is pretty much the sum total of my abilities. I did play in high school and was competitive, but that was a long time ago … My athletic peak is more than a few years in the rear-view.
  3. I was wearing my trekking boots (bad idea … that’s a story for another blog, but TL;DR: they fell apart 2 hours into my trek to Kunde Hospital, the next day … whoops).
  4. The school has a dirt court with more than the occasional rock as its own unique obstacles.
  5. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the altitude was 2,400 metres …

With those important details out of the way, we tipped the ball off, and it was a fast-paced, full-court game. I was hustling, trying to live up to the potential that my height suggests, and everyone was racing to show off their moves. Apparently, they’ve only been playing for 4 months, but you could have fooled me–they were great!

The calls for me to dunk came early and often! Granted, this was not a regulation-height rim, and I was pretty sure I could do it, but I still wasn’t about to embarrass myself–I thought it best to keep the mystery alive.

We played for what felt like hours; I had to sub myself out to take off whatever layers I could and chug water. The girls were giggling at what I thought could only be my lack of stamina compared to my fellow ballers. When I went back in, refreshed, I got the ball on a fast break, made a couple of dribbles, and started my way to the basket. My man Mingmar, hustling back on defence, was there ready for me. Little did he know, I had the Euro step in my bag of tricks; little did I know, I couldn’t pull it off, and ended up bailing on the ground in a cloud of dust. When I got up, with Mingmar incorrectly apologizing for my lack of athleticism, I heard the familiar giggles coming from the ladies’ section. No bother, big tree falls hard and all that; I kept it moving. Then I noticed some of the guys with a grin on their faces, too, and felt a bit of a breeze on my backside … Yup, a nice little rip in the pants! Luckily, or at least for this purpose, my long underwear came in handy. I wrapped one of my layers around my waist, and we kept playing.

Good defence, Mingmar!

I would like to say my team won, but they were at a big disadvantage on defence with their 6’3″ centre struggling to get back and guard the rim. We had a blast, and the school bell rang, and the crowd thinned out. I was in no rush to go anywhere, and neither were most of the guys I was playing with, so I stuck around and pleaded for us to go half-court so I could save some energy for the rest of my trip. We did a bit of a shoot-around; I was trying to pass along what knowledge of shooting I had, with a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality.

The peanut gallery!

In the late afternoon, as the fog covered most of the school and court, the requests for dunks persisted. At this point, I was well past warmed up–you might even say overheated … plus, a few blocks and crossovers here and there had my confidence at an all-time high. There were only a few girls at the picnic table and the guys I’d been playing with the entire afternoon were now my boys, so why not?

For the kids, right?

“Okay, I’ll do one!”

I was passed the ball. The kids waited eagerly to see if the white man can, in fact, jump.

As I took my approach–honestly a little nervous about getting stuffed by the rim or ripping the rest of my pants–I took off with whatever energy was left in the tank.

Here’s what happened next:

1 second of relief that I’d dunked the ball

0.5 seconds thinking that this actually looked kinda cool

In that 0.5 seconds, I held onto the rim, and when my weight changed from upward to downward, the rim came with me. It bent to an almost 90-degree angle, and whatever vibe I had was instantly replaced with shock and embarrassment.

There were no more giggles, but full-on belly laughs, at this mistake! Especially from the ladies at the picnic table! I was horrified, but the guys were all calm and laughing at what had just gone down. They called me “Shaq” (who, technically speaking, destroyed glass backboards rather than bending rims, but point well made), which didn’t take me out of my state of focus on how I could instantly fix it. With the support of the guys, I was able to get onto a chair and push the rim back to its original angle, but the damage had been done.

I searched for tape and performed a short-term fix. When Principal Lakhpa came out, he was all smiles, and shared with me what is the icing on the cake of this story: my grandad, Zeke, was the one who had donated those rims, years back! I promised to replace them ASAP, and have since sourced two new rims, nets, and balls, which are on their way from Kathmandu as I type!

It was an afternoon, a game, a school, a group of students, and teachers that I will never forget. I’m happy we were able to bond over our shared love for sports, and that my clumsiness was able to connect me closer through laughter. The spirit of the day has carried me up the mountain and as I type this from Namche Bazaar, I can’t wait until I get back and play again … maybe just a shoot-around this time!

Justin, Heather, Erica and Virginia’s trip now continues on to the Kunde Hospital, along with World Expeditions guide, Bikash Rana. Here’s the view from Namche Bazaar! (Pic: Justin von Etzdorf)

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