“Basketball is my life. Basketball is my wife. I am married to basketball,” the newly named Head Basketball Coach at our school insisted in the sweltering gymnasium on a balmy July day before my junior year.
We sat on our rears, crammed into our imaginary stall like alert labrador puppies in training, as we would before and after every practice for the next two seasons, “in the paint”---that painted rectangle between the foul and baselines where no offensive player (without the ball) is permitted for more than 3 consecutive seconds in a game, became our launching pad and our cooling quarters.
As first century Jews sat at the feet of Gamaliel for instruction in Torah, so we had gathered, unwittingly perhaps, to become disciples of our new basketball Rabbi in a game that was obviously more precious to him than we’d considered possible.
And I thought I adored basketball.
Clad in gym shorts and t-shirt with what we’d discover to be a ubiquitous metal whistle dangling from his neck (which could double as a projectile!), Coach laid down a charter for our team-being much like Moses delivered the 10 commandments to shape the Israelites as a nation as they stood on the Plains of Moab poised to cross the Jordan for their long awaited paradisal digs in the promised land.
“Only One Rule”
Coach didn’t need 10 commandments to constitute us as a team though, only one:
“We have only one rule,” he insisted, always using the first person plural (editorial we) in speaking about the administration of the program into which we were being incorporated, “Do whatever we ask and do it as hard as you can.”
A running commentary of what would become our community ethos ensued:
“We’ll never walk on the court.
If the ball goes out of bounds, we’ll sprint after it and give it the official. We WILL take hits. No one will play more aggressive defense than we...”
And so it began. A way of playing I hadn’t known before. My comrades and I were being initiated into a counter-cultural society for the formation of boys led by a man who’d tower over us despite easily being 7 inches shorter than my 16 year old self.
Twice-engaged, Coach apparently enjoyed enough self-possession to insist that each fiance´ brave a basketball season with him before they tethered themselves together with vows. Like Wendell Berry’s Uncle Peach “who never did marry, because he never could accomplish a short engagement,” both young women were apparently sufficiently spooked by his in-season persona and intensity. Neither engagement ended “in his favor.”
A Saban-Esque Hunger
So our Coach was a single-hearted bachelor.
Kierkegaard once suggested that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Coach’s bloodshot eyes of throughout the season suggested a missioned, insomniac man with a Saban-esque hunger to perfect a group of gangly boys in a game whose seriousness to him was rather more complex than could be surmised by the fact that we played it wearing baggy shorts and tank-tops.
But then, of course, he was a complex man, as I’d later come to realize, in ways that a 16 year-old would never suspect. And I’d imagine many of us regarded our tutelage as his basketball players as profoundly, and complexly impacted by this little, laser-focused, basketball Sensei with the slightest lisp and a giant vision of who he hoped we’d become on the court, and presumably, off as well.
A man of faith, he was, I am convinced, sure that this Naismithian game was a perfect purifying and bleaching agent for the self-seeking foolishness that so indigenously grows in us all like mold on a shower wall. The nature of the game itself demanded self-donation, not protection--always looking out for the other, never for ourselves.
Nerdy Tumors on Our Knees
That’s why we wore knee pads.
Thick, white, elastic-backed knee pads. So we could play with the humility of careless disregard for our own selves. Of course, these unwanted and clunky uniform accessories were a sort of brand inflicted on us as well.
We’d take the court, night after night, as the only players we, or our opponents had ever seen wearing such large, white encumbrances on our knees, like nerdy tumors. He wasn’t concerned about our style, because he was interested in our style.
Fashion mattered little to our basketball Captain, although he did always wear a gray pin striped suit and tie each game night, but our manner of play mattered specifically.
We played self-forgetfully. Aggressively. And for the benefit of our team members. We did “whatever he asked, as hard as we could.” So whenever an orange, leather Wilson Jet rolled unattended on the court in the game, the nearest of us would dive at full speed to gather it up under our wings like a hen with her chicks. Our effort was aimed at making Larry Bird feel soft.
And such effort wouldn’t be expended, he knew, if we worried whether we were going to get hurt. Thus, knee pads.
While thankful he never asked us to wear motorcycle helmets for similar reasons, we were a team of young men who regularly and fearlessly left our feet like we were stealing home with a headfirst dive. “Loose balls” belonged to us.
And of course, we later learned, this concern for our style of play, even if it meant a major fashion fail in the basketball world where cool is king, was born out of concern for us.
It turns out that years prior, his best player, eager, like many of us, to please this man who was asking for a herculean effort for 4 full quarters each game, had badly mangled his knee during a colliding dive for a ball on the court.
So we looked like fools, because he wanted to protect us.
I believed it. I think my teammates did too. And we all bought into it, mostly.
“Act Your Way Into Feeling....”
In time, I even think we came to take a certain pride in the distinctiveness and odd manner of our program and its play. We were being shaped to steward our lives by “acting our way into feeling” instead of being victimized by ourselves, always waiting to “feel our way into acting” in those duties, privileges, and acts of care that were ours to perform.
Marinating as we did in his instruction meant that each of us would forever have some of the distinctive flavor of his peculiar emphases regarding the game, his manner, and yes, even love, particularly demonstrated in the way we approach difficult tasks.
And after being stunned to hear of his death some months ago, it occurred to me that I never properly thanked him.
Now, as I pastor who aspires to breathe the grace of God deeply and regularly like oxygen, and who knows in himself and all other selves just how badly we need it, as we are, all of us, “a broth of false and true,” I have no aspiration for hagiography here. Our coach had his warts. And temper. And imbalances.
Straight Blows with Crooked Sticks
I’ve heard intimations that after our inaugural two years of his tenure, those warts may have proved more injurious to others than the sorts of hurts some of us may have incurred. If that is so, I hate it for the wounded, and for him, as well.
But, for my own life, in those wobbly years of adolescence, he brought stability. Amid the exhaustion of a teenager’s extreme self-consciousness and preoccupation with himself, Coach created conditions and aspirations for self-forgetfulness in service to our team, reminding us, pithily, as always, “that the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the pack is the strength of the wolf.” Our coach apparently appreciated Rudyard Kipling. And I was privileged to be part of our little basketball pack.
Our flawed but earnest instructor showed me how to embrace a way of life whole-heartedly, and that difficult endeavors could be precious and memorable ones.
It’s been said that “God often strikes straight blows with crooked sticks.” I suppose it’s the only sort He’s got, if folks like us are his instruments.
It’s a comforting adage when one knows his own defective crookedness. And I reckon, therefore, our Coach would have been relieved, and not a little surprised, to learn of the value that our Savior had brokered through his peculiar life and style as a coach into my life now as a husband, father, son, friend, and pastor. Perhaps some of my teammates would echo the sentiment.
I’m just sorry I didn’t get around to saying much about it to him.
So Coach, though a little too late, I wanted to tell you thanks.
Thank you for expecting more out of teenage boys than we thought we could give. You gifted us with the honor of impossibly high expectations. I’m grateful that you spent so much of your self to teach us your preferred way to approach this beautiful game of basketball.
Turns out, we were being instructed in far more than just that.
Oh, and just so you know, my hair doesn’t flop any more when I run down the court. I thought you’d be relieved.