Phil Factor explains how he challenged the IT department stereotype with basketball.
In our IT department, contractors would come and go, doing their parcel of work and then disappearing again, making little impact on the IT community: that is, until a new contractor called Sarah arrived. She was black, six foot tall, with a lean figure that was extremely easy on the eye. To cap it all, she had excellent social skills and an infectious laugh.
One Friday lunch hour, as I chatted with Sarah over a Mauldon’s Blackadder (for those who are not yet familiar with this dark bitter stout, its nutty aromas and fruity malt are outstanding), she let slip that she played serious basketball. Not only this, but she was also a member of the British Amateur team. I filed this intriguing fact away, as I instinctively suggested to her not to broadcast it amongst the lads.
All IT departments are the object of mockery and derision in the wider enterprise. We were no exception to the rule. We worked in the office next to the Facilities Department, inhabited by brawny Essex-men with no necks and shaven heads. These inhabitants of the lower part of the Thames Estuary spoke with a peculiar accent where meaning is based entirely on intonation and emphasis. It is somewhat similar in type to certain Nigerian dialects based on clicks and drum sounds imitated by the voice, but the words used in Estuary English are mostly Anglo-Saxon references to bodily orifices and sexual activities.
As you can imagine, there was a particularly high level of friction between the two departments. To the Essex-men, the pale, awkward geeks in the IT department seemed a bizarre, alien species. It came as no surprise to us that the IT department was the victim of occasional pranks and insults that led, by some strange coincidence, to the messy failure of their IT systems at the most embarrassing moments.
In a meeting one day, the insults went too far. One of the Essex-men’s senior managers cast aspersions on the heterosexual inclinations and prowess of members of the IT department. In short, the manager declared the IT members to be a bunch of ‘girls’ blouses’ – a phrase I had to have translated for me afterwards.
The next day, I strode round to the senior manager’s offices in Facilities and, on behalf of IT, I challenged their department to…er… a game of basketball. At first he blinked with surprise but then a cruel leer spread over his face and he accepted the challenge with alacrity. I suggested that, just to give the match more of a party atmosphere, we should allow girls and contractors to join in. His sly grin said it all. The senior manager’s contractors were tough, muscular lads, who, through some evolutionary quirk, had thrown all the developmental energy normally reserved for growing brains, into developing a frame that could lift 50 kilogram containers. In his rough ‘Estuary’ speech he relayed the challenge to his team and predicted the likely outcome…(approximate translation)…
‘Soon, these freakish creatures, steeped in their unnatural and solitary sexual practices, immortalised by the biblical Onan, will be shown up in all their contemptible degeneracy by our manly lads. Let them weep salt tears. Our victory will be lauded throughout the enterprise’.
The next day, I made sure to casually pass by the desk of Pedro the bookie, the local trade union rep, and unofficial organiser of the Tote. He hastily scooped up a pile of ‘fivers’ he had been counting. ‘Just whilin’ away me Tea Break’, he said.
‘Are you taking bets on the basketball match?’ I asked. He looked at me blankly, then relaxed when I produced a bundle of money. Rubbing his hands together, he agreed with me that he was indeed in the market for such a transaction, and I asked:
‘How much have you taken?’
‘Well, the hot money is on IT getting crushed by 50 baskets or more.’ He paused and chewed his biro, before he leaned closer and said in hushed tones, ‘though some bets are on a 30 basket defeat. This occasion is going down big, I tell yer, right across the company.’
‘What bets have you taken on a win by IT?’
Pedro’s laugh was deafening.
‘You could always be the first’, he said, hopefully.
I put two hundred pounds down, on condition of total secrecy. For a moment he wavered. He looked at me suspiciously. But then he remembered the pathetic physique of the motley geeks and nerds I could call on for my team, and he clutched at the money with a grin.
He wrote out the chit. ‘Shame’, he said ‘this would have cheered the punters, because they ain’t expecting much back as winnings.’
With the bet firmly placed, I just had to pull together a team from the ranks of the IT workforce. It proved an uphill battle. Developers who previously pontificated endlessly on their sporting prowess suddenly held forth instead on their impressive array of sporting injuries. The Sysadmin became immersed in the rule-book and pronounced that the game couldn’t be played to the published rules. The Analysts quickly created activity in their normally leisurely lives by arranging meetings on the day of the match in other company offices in Europe.
By the desperate expedient of allowing the contractors to add the hours spent playing the match to their timesheets, I just about managed to get a side together in time, with Sarah as captain.
The match was played at the local sports centre. All the organising was done by Facilities and their efforts showed that they were out to prove a point. Their team appeared in front of a large crowd of cheering company employees keen to witness the ritual crucifixion of the IT department. The Facilities team were dressed in brightly-colored jerseys, and they were an awesome sight as they warmed up; vast and squat warriors, with body hair in unusual places.
The IT team looked shambolic by comparison. Sarah, bless her, was suitably dressed for the occasion, but the rest of the team sported T-shirts with strange geeky messages such as ‘Bad Sector on C:’. Worse still, a few others were wearing jeans hastily converted into shorts. They were pallid, ghostly creatures, blinking in the unaccustomed light and huddling together for warmth and mutual support. Sarah bobbed around in an energetic but futile attempt to increase morale.
The spectators were chanting strange primitive phrases in ‘Estuary’:
‘These unfortunates, begotten out of wedlock, and lacking any predisposition toward normal heterosexual love, nor, in fact, having developed any secondary sexual characteristics at all, will soon be vanquished by our gallant band’.
I sat confidently in the coach’s chair. I’d briefed Sarah to do her best not to play too hard, but just to keep two baskets ahead and pass the ball at the last minute so that others could claim the credit for scoring. I wanted nothing conspicuous. ‘Please be a bit of a girl’s blouse’ I added, showing off my new knowledge of the colloquialism.
The referee blew the whistle and the game started. A Facilities man with the size and grace of a rhinoceros seized the ball and ran several yards with it before remembering he ought to be bouncing it. I looked at the ref – no response. The rhinoceros was now dribbling the ball down the side of the court but a careless step took his foot out of bounds. I glared at the ref, still no response. He paused to shoot, but Sarah knocked the ball out of the air as it left his hand, dribbled it swiftly down the court and passed it to our small forward. The shock of having the ball in his hand totally un-nerved him and he stood for several seconds with bulging eyes as all five of the opposing team bore down upon him.
Mayhem ensued. The unfortunate man was subjected to every foul in the book: charging, blocking, holding, pushing and checking, with probably a few newly-invented fouls thrown in for good measure. The referee at last blew his whistle.
‘Foul!’ he yelled, pointing a quivering finger at my unfortunate small forward. ‘You held the ball for more than five seconds,’ and promptly awarded a free pass to the Facilities team.
My small forward was so overcome that he had to be substituted. The Facilities team, detecting that the referee might lack a firm grasp of the rules on fouling, began to nobble one or two of the IT team, like hyenas picking off stragglers in a herd of wildebeest.
Obedient to my instructions Sarah would try to pass the ball to someone else to score rather than aiming at the basket herself. However, the strain of keeping ahead meant that she had to do the lion’s share of the work.
Five minutes had passed and we were 2-nil up when came the first attempt to nobble Sarah. The Facilities team had woken up to the fact that she was the greater force behind the team’s surprising prowess. One member of the Facilities team made a clumsy attempt to kick her leg. She evaded easily and continued her role in defence, which was equivalent to a one-man team. Seconds later, Facilities attempted a vicious foul on her with a pincer movement. Deftly, she became a blur of motion that left one player writhing on the floor, clutching his leg in agony.
The rest of the game remains a mystery to me, as I had my hands in front of my eyes, groaning. All I heard were the ragged cheers of the IT department as goal after goal was scored, and the cries of the injured Facilities men as they were picked off one by one by Sarah. She had, unfortunately, gotten up a head of steam and all caution was thrown to the winds.
By the time the final whistle went we were 50 points ahead and the spectators, who had previously been suggesting graphic ways in which the IT team could be dispatched, had turned on their own team, offering the opinion that they were:
‘A group of talentless people engrossed in self-stimulation, with little inclination for work and who were incapable of fitting a euphemistic ball through euphemistic hole the size of a house.’
After the game, two of the Facilities team were taken to the Accident and Emergency room of the local hospital, whilst the IT team stood triumphant, shaking hands with the sorry remains of a once-proud Facilities team.
The following day, the general manager of Facilities stormed into my office. ‘I have two men off for a month with severe leg injuries and five more have phoned in sick’. Lapsing into ‘Estuary’, he added:
‘Dear fellow, I suspect you have wronged me sorely; in a way I have to confess I am unable to detect. I strongly suggest that you are a devious person, resembling a portion of the female anatomy normally concealed beneath Marks-and-Spencer’s underwear’.
I looked pure and innocent, unable to respond in his own primitive speech. I merely pointed out that perhaps he should revise his poor estimation of the physical prowess of the IT department. After all, he had abysmally failed in somewhat public circumstances to support his assertion that IT were incapable of knocking the skin off a rice-pudding. In a fury, he stormed out, in much the way that I imagine Napoleon left the field of Waterloo.
The trip to see Pedro the bookie was most satisfactory. The Tote had doubled my stake. I shared the winnings with Sarah – it seemed only right – and I bought her a gift, purchased from an ‘exclusive’ ladies shop. She opened it with squeals of delight. ‘What is it?’ she cooed.
‘A Girl’s Blouse,’ I replied, ‘Wear it as a badge of honour. You deserve it richly’.