Basketball Fever

So love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Memorize the Holy One's laws and tell them to your children over and over again. Talk about them all the time, whether you’re at home or walking along the road or going to bed at night, or getting up in the morning. -Deuteronomy 6.6-7

This is one of my favourite basketball stories, written by Walter Wangerin about his son, Matthew.

It is the world, not our children, that will prove selfish and unrepentant. What will we do to keep them from becoming like the world?

Teachers will be unfair. Coaches will scream. Friends will trash them for other friends. Bosses will play favorites. Promises will be made and not kept. Will they buy into an unjust world, looking out for number one? Will they become helpless victims? Will they decide never to trust anyone?

The saddest change of all would be for them to accept the guilt for all the hurt visited on them, believing they must deserve whatever they receive. And if they cannot discern what wrong they did, soon they will conclude that it is the wrong they are.

For three years in high school, Matthew played the point position on his basketball team. Something of a leader. Even off court he wove the players together by driving them hither and yon in the LeSabre, by gathering them at our house before games and giving them haircuts. I remember with pleasure the laughter booming in our basement. All but two of the players were black.

The team was more nervous and less easy when being bussed into the counties of southern Indiana to meet small-town high schools in all-white communities. In the dark mid-winter of 1988---just as the bus and the team were slowing down to turn off the highway into the parking lot of a rural school a violent fire flared beside the windows. Their eyes went wide. The driver gunned the engine. The team was perfectly silent. It was the first time any of them had seen a cross afire.

Matthew couldn't believe that anyone would burn the cross of Jesus. Nothing had prepared him for this. It was so vile, so obscene. Everyone else in the gym was happy, laughing, ordinary. He entered the court, wood-legged with your blank-eyed mask, the slack-faced declaration that nothing matters. You pretend indifference even while your heart ticks so quickly that you feel pulse in your throat, and your ears are acute, hearing the whispers of “n____, n____.” It doesn’t show in your face. Take the ball, shoot, warm up, stretch, don’t look to the stands. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

At the core of our Christian faith is something stronger than fairness: grace. It is absolutely necessary for life. Without it, our children die. With it, they see their own worth. With it, they can forgive. With the knowledge that Jesus Christ loves them unconditionally, that he loved them enough to die for them, they can stand up to the unfairness of life. With grace, they can see the worth of others. They can see the need for fairness and see the unfairness in life. They can see that they need not be ruled nor crushed by the world. They need not buy into it’s injustice, need not be helpless victims, need not blame who they are for the evil that happens to them. God is with them.

Matthew’s team won. No razzle dazzle, no slam dunks, no show---a steady game, a solid win. That’s all. The fans in the stands were not happy. Neither was Matt's coach. He was angry, jumpy, nervous. As the teams walked off the court, one man halfway to the rafters bellowed about the “n____ win” and the coach blew up. With a roar he began to climb the risers, prepared to split the skull of a very fat and very frightened fan. At the same time, people began to scramble toward the coach, balling their fists and shouting. And then both teams swept up the stands like birds in flight. Amazingly (Matthew told me), he was not afraid. He was the first to reach the coach. He tried to restrain him and got tossed aside for the effort, but he wasn’t scared. He truly did not expect a fight because of what had happened during the game.

Early in the second half---by habit I suppose---Matthew complimented his opposite on a good shot. Just a nod. An acknowledgment of skill between equals: “Hey man.” And “Hey.” said the opponent. Not once. Several times over Matt indicated by glances and touches his praise and his pleasure in the contest. In response, the white guard smiled---grinned. Matthew was an outstanding player. His compliment carried weight. There was a mutual relationship here, independent of the other noises in the gym. Matt’s mask cracked. He smiled too.

The rest of the team observed this weird, uncaused behaviour (except as God causes things that otherwise would not have happened). Both teams began to shut out the idiocy of sinful fans and apoplectic coaches and all the players attended to what they liked anyway: the game! That’s why, when the coach arose in a rage, Matthew wasn’t really afraid. It was a single team, a mixed team, white and black, all of the players, rural and city that swarmed into the stands and interposed itself between a choking coach and a fat fan and a possible brawl among adults.

You see? The children are free.

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