by Bob Baker
The U.S. Information Agency sent a cable in 1968 to Bamako that offered the teaching services of Salvatore “Red” Verderame, an outstanding basketball coach, to improve basketball teams in Africa. As it was a popular sport in Mali, I asked for Red to teach in Mali a full week. When he was slated to visit, I sent diplomatic notes with the dates of his visit to the Malian Ministry of Sport and to the Foreign Ministry. Both agreed to let me take him around to schools and even to Army camps in Bamako and other towns. That was a rare opportunity to travel as American diplomats had to get permission just to leave the capital. The Malian government was proudly and loudly Marxist. Local media denounced the U.S. daily as racist, imperialist and aggressive. Our war in Vietnam gave lots of room for criticism.
After Red settled in to Bamako, we went on tour driving in the post’s ancient green Chevy station wagon to a dozen cities and towns. Red spoke no French so I was his interpreter. He was a middle aged, giant, 6′ 5″, pear shaped Pan, red hair, blue eyes, but still very nimble and energetic on the court. His personality was very warm.
At the Chicom-built motel in Mopti, the Venice of Africa, (called that locally because the streets flooded in the annual rains) we checked into our rooms late one day after a long drive. It’s about 285 miles to Mopti from Bamako on the dusty, red clay roads. I had been in Africa a couple years and knew the local ropes somewhat. After I washed up in the thin trickle of warmish water from the shower, I called Red for supper. We hopped over the thin line of sewage that trickled out of one of the rooms next to ours. The line ran near, but not into, the dining room.
We sat to order supper. I suggested we get the chicken stew, as it was boiled and safe to eat. The stew was good. Red enjoyed it with excellent French bread, a fresh baguette, amazingly still baked in Marxist Mali, and coffee. The stew came in large, broad rimmed bowls, a substantial meal. It also had some very tiny roaches in it, about half the size of rice grains. When I saw them floating on my soup, I automatically used my spoon to scoop them, then tapped them out onto the edge of my soup plate and kept eating. I was used to them and knew they were harmless. Halfway through the meal Red asked me what I was doing putting stuff onto the edge of my plate. Then he leaned over close for a good look and said, “Jesus, they got legs!” He looked at me as if I were crazy and stopped eating his stew. He ate only canned beans right out of the can after that, opened them himself, and always gave me a funny look when I ate local food.
Red was a great favorite with the Malians on and off the court. He was an excellent coach in dumb show and joined in the games sometimes to demonstrate points about the game. Obviously expert, friendly and outgoing, he made an excellent impression with enlisted men and officers at Army camps and with students and the staff at high schools.
Way upcountry, Red made a big hit at a crowded local market which sold everything from baskets and gourds to fine gold work and old coins (spread out on a scrap of cloth on the ground were Austrian thalers, English guineas, Spanish doubloons, coins no longer used in Europe). At one corner of the market a young musician was playing a local flute for change tossed by passerby. Red loved music and began to do a jig in front of the little street musician. A crowd of market women instantly formed around the giant red head doing his dance. Red took one by the hand and began to dance with her. A couple other women joined in a circling dance around the dusty street. Another kid began to play a little drum as the crowd swelled. Red raised his arms and held up his big index fingers, grinned broadly and danced very gracefully for a couple minutes. The African crowd loved the giant Pan figure dancing. A German tourist in full khaki regalia: shorts, hunting weskit, shirt and pith helmet, struggled furiously to assemble his complex camera on the edge of the crowd, but Red stopped dancing to a round of applause before he could get his picture. I still have mine in memory.
After Red finished his tour teaching around Africa, he sent out from his hometown in Connecticut, a dozen basketballs. We mailed them to schools and Army camps. He was a great guy, baked beans and all.
A Malian AF Captain whom I met through Red’s trip, had a beer with me occasionally at a local bar. Last time I met him, he asked for a loan of $500 to buy a missing spare part for his parachute transport plane. The U.S. had given Mali two such aircraft plus spare parts and a U.S. airforce tech but the agreed time for such help had run out. I had loaned $1,000 in Uganda earlier and never got it back. So I turned him down. Not too long after I had left Mali, the parachute regiment was part of the revolt that overthrew the Marxist dictator, Modibo Keita and installed a non-Marxist regime. Maybe the Captain got his spare part thanks to politics instead of me.