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Published in, this article is a translated version of the original piece.

Ex-Gladiator Marco van den Berg

From Professional Coach to Novelist

Trier/Schweich – Marco van den Berg – basketball coach and husband of politician Katarina Barley – has penned his first novel. He shares his journey towards fulfilling a dream, reflects on his time with the Gladiators, and reveals his promise not to return as a professional coach, for now.

When it all comes to an end, someday. When time grows short, and every cell knows it. Then it’s probably a good thing to have a coherent answer to the question in one’s inner monologue: why, indeed, was that one good, old life goal approached so tepidly? So semi-ambitious, so half-hearted: like writing that book, that novel that always lay dormant within.

Of course, Marco van den Berg, born in 1965, is far from the end. But the idea of writing his own novel was not a fixed one when he found himself jobless shortly after Christmas 2021 and his departure from the basketball second division team, the Gladiators Trier. He describes this “gap in his life” as something that left him wandering the world with empty eyes for a few days, to the point that even his neighbour noticed and asked him about it. However, Marco, a Dutchman residing in Schweich, is not one to wallow in self-pity. He is drawn to more intriguing philosophies that guide him through life.

“Why am I a basketball coach and not a writer?” That inner voice returned after a few days, just like it did nearly 20 years ago. “Man, why am I a basketball coach? I should be putting my intellectual capacity towards writing fiction. In 2004/2005, I took a sabbatical year to write. I had already achieved success as a basketball coach in the Netherlands by then,” he recalls. But that is just one facet of his life. He sat down at an old “Remington” typewriter, much like the one his idol, Ernest Hemingway, used – and to this day, van den Berg drafts his first versions exclusively on a typewriter. He wrote in his native Dutch, but after completing over half of it and several months in, he took stock: the dream ended up in the trash can. And he returned to the basketball court. “I didn’t think it was good enough,” he remembers. “At least I had tried. But the story remained in my head.”

The second time, after his departure from Trier, he did things differently. The most significant change: he wrote in English, the “stepmother tongue,” as he puts it. This was the only way “In Search of Achilles” could be completed. The novel was published by the Californian publisher Köehlerbooks in October. There are currently no plans for a translation, so the 370-page novel is not widely available. But you can find it in the bookstore in Schweich, thanks to him.

The story, set in the summer of 1990 in a medium-sized Dutch city and Berlin, had always been deep inside him.

It was also his own search, even though the book is not autobiographical. It’s a “study in loneliness” in times of significant societal upheaval. He was lonely on his quest, even though he always found happiness in love. “I took facts from my life and colored them with my imagination. Almost all the characters are an amalgamation.” Characteristics of many characters, including Achilles, the friend of the protagonist Johan van Geesteren, who is, of course, not named after the Greek mythological hero.

Combining his two passions – literature and professional sports – was not feasible for van den Berg. Perhaps in terms of time, as there are always breaks between training sessions, but not in terms of mindset. On one hand, there was basketball coaching, which required a deep understanding of psychology, pedagogy, and, of course, athletic expertise. On the other hand, there was writing – where he could explore his love for philosophy, mythology, and societal critique through literature.

This had been the case during his student years as well. Van den Berg had studied journalism without ever wanting to become a journalist. He studied history afterward, not to teach it someday, but to acquire knowledge. He has always maintained his thirst for knowledge and is an auditor in comparative philosophy at Antwerp.

The book delves into life paths, the search for meaning, all written with a light touch, devoid of hubris, and free from dogma. One of his friends had become a Buddhist in his early twenties and stayed that way. This is explored in the book. Others put everything into materialism and financial success to secure a place in the “rat race.” Or they embrace hedonism.

“Eastern philosophies have much to offer, but so does our tradition. I’m not a Christian, but I find it unfortunate that traditional Christian values are disappearing,” says van den Berg. Humility, respect, and compassion, for instance. “The church hasn’t adapted its narrative to the present.” Yet, the world desperately needs shared values, “a moral language that all cultures can understand – we are far from that.” When the conversation turns to social media with a TV reporter, his cultural pessimism emerges: “These are forums for insults and lies, where people are manipulated. It has become normal to lie and get away with it – look at Donald Trump.”

Marco van den Berg is currently working on his second novel, with no decades-old blueprint in his mind. “It will be about the theme of freedom,” he says. The timeframe will be larger this time, with the story spanning from 1985 to 2012.

Why he doesn’t plan to return to coaching soon

This is due to a promise van den Berg made to his daughter, who lives with her mother – his ex-wife – in Groningen. “I promised her that I wouldn’t coach a team until she turns 18 – that’s two more years. I want to be available until she finishes high school.” In the basketball world, where almost every weekend is filled with nine months of the year, this isn’t feasible. “I wasn’t there for her during difficult years, such as her adolescence.”

He still feels connected to Trier’s basketball, a club he shaped during his nearly five years as the Gladiators’ coach. The motto “Invictus” largely stems from him. “I worked for the club with heart and soul,” he says. He was disappointed at the time but not bitter: “In hindsight, it was logical. I don’t hold anything against anyone.” The club had also treated him fairly. Basketball is still very much on his mind, of course: he praises Germany’s performance (and championship) at the World Cup and still watches the games of the Trier Gladiators.