Meeting monks who are avid 76ers fans

Basketball hoop in Mongolia. (Photo by Robert Peck)

The people who tabulate the demographics of Philadelphia’s sport fans may have missed the monks of the Danzandarjaa Khiid monastery in Moron, Mongolia.

I met three of them in a small café just a few yards from the monastery’s central temple during my final day in Hovsgol Aimag. “Where are you from, and where are you going?” asked one with a characteristic greeting when I entered the room.

On hearing Philadelphia, he and his friends all grinned excitedly. They could hardly believe their good fortune at meeting someone from the land of their favorite basketball team. They cried out “76ers” in unison, and then began to recite the names of their favorite players. It seems the NBA games are broadcast here by satellite TV and these guys love to watch our hometown team.

A fourth monk entered and after ordering some tea, spent the next few minutes trying to promote the Celtics. But the 76ers fans had him outnumbered, and being a good Buddhist, the lone Celtics booster decided to return to morning prayers.

American basketball has entered the consciousness of every Mongolian with access to television. You can see the effects throughout the countryside, for near almost every ger that has a solar panel and a satellite dish, is a home-made basketball backboard mounted on a tall larch pole.

The hoops, fashioned from pieces of salvaged metal, vary widely in size and height. I have seen some as low as six feet and others as high as fifteen feet from the ground - it’s hard to judge from a television screen just how high a hoop should be.

The courts are sand or gravel, and usually strewn with cow pies. Many of the backboards double as hitching posts for the family’s horses when they’re not in use.

Mongolia’s greatest sports heroes are still its wrestlers, but give the country a few more years and a new generation of sports fans may push basketball into the front row.

Perhaps some day we will see the 76ers take on Ulaan Bataar’s “Red Heroes” in the big arena downtown. If so, the monks from Moron – or their successors - will surely be there to cheer.