The one in which he gets a prize

So, I’m sitting at the Coffee & Co at the Laurinska street in the Bratislava Old Town. The sun is shining, the coffee is good, and the mind peaceful, so I just leaned back in my chair, and looked at the people walking past me. Many of them are tourists, most even, as always in all the Old Towns in all the world.

One of the people who just passed me was a big man in a beige jacket, blue jeans, blue sweater. He was wearing sunglasses like Jack Nicholson, and he had done some shopping. The big man walked like big men do, in long and heavy steps, as if he had to make an extra effort to beat the gravity with every step. But, as he walked by my table in the sun in just a few seconds, he also had a special jump to his step.

Me as Paolo Rossi.

The man was Anssi Rauramo, a four-time Finnish champion in basketball, former Member of the Parliament in Finland, and currently the City of Helsinki director of sports. Also, one on my all-time sports heroes.

One summer, in my youth, he was the main instructor at a soccer camp I was at. Or, it wasn’t really a camp, since I stayed at home, more of a week-long soccer school at the local sports park. Every day, we’d show up to hone our skills in soccer, learning to dribble, bounce the ball, and how to bend it like Beckham, even though at the time, we were trying to learn to bend it like Michel Platini and Zico.

Anssi was at he height of his career, having been voted Basketball Player of the Year a couple of times, at a time when basketball was still one of a few major sports in Finland, not completely buried under hockey, soccer and other coverage. Whatever Anssi said, I cherished like profound words of wisdom.

After our week of practice, we played a big intra-camp match. Anssi was the referee, of course, as the two teams of kids lined up against each other. I don’t remember much if the actual match, but I do remember that I scored the game winning goal, and that one time, I did bend it like Platini, from about 25 meters, beating the kid who could barely touch the crossbar with his finger tips.

After the game, Anssi had all us kids line up in the middle, as he held his game ending speech, telling us hard we had worked, and how much fun it had been to see all of us learn so much. Then he crouched, picked something from the ground, and coughed.

“And now, the competition committee…,” he said, as a one-man committee, “… will name the Player of the Match.”

“You,” he said, and pointed at me.

I took a couple of steps forward, shook hands with Anssi, who handed me the prize. I looked at it, and squeezed it in my hand as hard as I could, to be sure not to drop it.

“Thank you,” I said, and took two steps back again.

And that was the end of the camp. When all the kids had run along, I opened my fist, and studied the prize Anssi had given me.

It was a beverage can tab, one of those old-style tabs that you pull off the can. I closed my fist again.

Anssi just walked back down the street, and as I was watching him, I couldn’t make up my mind whether to stop him, tell him the story, and thank him. I nodded, and he nodded back, but I didn’t run after him. But if I see him a third time here, I will. And I might even buy him a beverage.

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