Friday, May 29, 2009

My Church Basketball Career

Some years ago I wrote this as a speech and offered to give it in church "if they were really desperate" and needed a long speech. No one has ever been that desperate.
My Church Basketball Career
My initial Church basketball career was very short.
As a young man growing up in the Church, I was blessed to be a part of a very active youth program. Our leaders were dedicated and saw to it that we had many opportunities to participate in all kinds of activities. I was the student body president of our high school, and so was active at school, but far and away my fondest memories are of the many activities at Church. Music, drama, speech, writing, and, or course, sports, were all on a busy agenda. Although very active in every thing else, I didn’t participate in the sports program, mostly because I had, as a young boy never developed the skills necessary for the games.
Sensing, perhaps, that I may have felt left out, the ward athletic director approached me at the beginning of basketball season one year and told me that if I would come out to the games and suit up that he would see to it that I got to play. Excited, I reported for the next game. True to his word, he put me in for about 10 minutes at the end of the game. Even more excited, I reported again for the next game. Apparently, too much was riding on the game for him to risk even a few minutes of my caliber of play, so I sat out the entire game. Much less excited, I reported again for the next game, with the same result as the previous game. Too proud to risk the same result one more time, I quit coming.
Do I resent what happened? In hind sight, at least, not at all. I made no real effort to become a more effective basketball player. I never went to practices, nor did I attempt to improve my skills on my own. In a sense, I was really hoping for the reward of recognition with little or no effort and I realized, even at the time, the small humiliation involved in the experience was a good thing. For one thing, it taught me that if I wanted to receive recognition, I needed to merit it. I also decided that sports was not an area into which I was willing to put my efforts, and I concluded that my basketball career, brief as it was, was over.
Years--a mission, a college education, and a stint in the army--later found me in a Singles Ward in the Avenues area of Salt Lake City. I was sitting peacefully in Priesthood meeting, contemplating the wonders of eternal bliss, when a counselor (I was the other) in the Elder’s Quorum Presidency, Mark Anderson, announced that he was passing around a sign-up sheet for basketball. He said it with a grin, because in the two years I had been in that ward, no one had ever signed up for any sport. We were not a very athletically inclined group. But, of course, at the beginning of every season, we would dutifully pass around a sign-up sheet, because--well, I’m not sure why we did it--I suspect that we sort of somehow, someway, felt we were supposed to.
We were well into our lesson that day, detailing I’m sure, some duty incumbent upon us to achieve the aforementioned eternal bliss--most likely, home teaching--a rather frequent topic in that particular ward, since each of us who were active had between 15 and 20 people assigned to us to visit--as I said, were well into the lesson, when all of sudden from the back of the room heard--without his having been called on or anything--a roar sounding something like,"hey, what is this! Nobody has signed up for the basketball team."
Mark quickly jumped to his feet and explained, "We’ve never had a team. We’re simply no interested in sports."
The man responsible for the disturbance also jumped to his feet. I recognized him as a new-comer to the ward, so new, in fact, the he didn’t even have a home teaching beat--which, in that ward meant that he had probably come for the first time the week before. He waved the blank basketball list--wildly, I thought--and threatened, "If we don’t have a basketball team, I’m going to stop coming to this ward."
My own thoughts at that moment were, as I remember them, "although it would be nice to have had you stay and help with the home teaching, it is obvious that we are incompatible, so I can only hope, in all charity, that you can find some other place to contemplate eternal bliss. Depart in peace."
Just as I was thinking these most charitable thoughts, I was handed a note saying, "There will be an emergency meeting of the Elder’s Quorum Presidency immediately after church."
I suspected, as I walked into the little room where we held our presidency meetings, that this was not one of those meetings where I would be asked for counsel, and I was right. The president, Joe Harris, was very to the point. We needed this brother in our ward, he declared in no uncertain terms, and if it required a basketball team to keep him there, then we were going to have a basketball team. "How can we have a basketball team?’ I demanded to know. "Nobody want to play basketball."
"We are going to have a basketball team," President Harris continued unflinchingly, "because everyone in this room has just received an official Church calling from his Elder’s Quorum President to be on the ward basketball team. Here’s the schedule."
And so we had a basketball team and I can look back on a Church basketball career that lasted one entire season. Of course, I was not planning on it lasting one entire season. Unlike my first time, I never went to the game excited--not the first game, not the last, not any in--between. But, unlike the first time, I got to play in every game--every minute of every game. It turns out that of the four of us forced--that is "called"--to play, myself, Mark, Joe and Doug Anderson, I was the tallest at under 6', which proved to be a bit of a handicap since, it turns out that in basketball, having tall players is an advantage. Of course, I personally do not think that the height disadvantage would have hurt us all that much if any of us could have dribbled or shot the ball. To make matters worse, it turns out that the other wards in our stake took basketball very very seriously. Most of the other ward teams had players who had recently played on the varsity teams for BYU or the UofU. None of the teams other than ours had any players that I ever met who had not at least been first string high school players. So, as you might suspect, we did not fare well, score wise, at least. The only person who really had developed the basic basketball skills was the newcomer--whose name I forget. I forget his name because after the first very sound defeat, we never saw him again. I’m not sure he moved, but I am sure he moved on.
Then why did we continue playing? Because--as so often happens in this lone and dreary world where weeds grow everywhere and bliss never lingers eternally--someone else moved into our ward who wanted to play ball. At our second game Glenn Fenn showed up. Glenn, at 6' 4", took over my place at center, and I took over the spot of the newcomer--who, as mentioned, had ceased to come. Glenn was a really good ball player and to this day I admire his sportsmanship. He seemed happy just to be playing, even though it meant playing on a team that counted it a victory if they lost by only 40 points.
And for all the fun I make of that experience, it really was a very unpleasant one for me. I really don’t know how Glenn felt, or for that matter how Mark or Doug or even Joe felt. For my part, losing never bothered me, not for a minute. After all, I was there because I was told to be. What really bothered me, what bothers me still, was the violence. Of course, the hurts and the bruises have long since healed. Fortunately, they were never very serious, even at the time, but they were deeply resented.
The problem was that, with all our disadvantages, we had one very important advantage--we were, all of us, in excellent physical condition. For my part, I swam a mile almost every day; the others on the team either did that or ran for several miles. Our opponents were, for the most part, in poor physical condition, at least in the sense, that they were out of shape.
The result was that our games, which I can at this distance view philosophically, took on an interesting but unpleasant patter. Always it became quickly apparent in a game that we were not here dealing with a real contest. Usually, within minutes, we were as many as twenty points behind. In the early part of the game, our opponents were courteous to a fault. If there was a hit or other physical violation, they generally apologized. But as the game wore on things changed. For one thing, the difference in the score began to narrow. This occurred initially because the opposing team relaxed after they had a very comfortable margin, but as they became tired, we began to get points simply because we had more stamina (and also, because we did, after all, have one player who could actually play).
It was usually at this point that the game became, in my opinion, violent. I, or one of my teammates, would run down the court with the ball. One of the opponents would come behind, and , unable to block the ball fairly, would simply strike, or shove, or even kick the man with the ball. Of course, the first few times this happened, the offender was punished with a foul, but then the thing occurred which I found, and still find, most offensive of all.
The official in our games was chosen from the young men, usually a volunteer who had just completed a game in the junior team games which preceded our own. Early in the game his decisions were treated with respect, but as the game wore on and the players became tired, they were not. In the latter part of the game, as a team member found himself being called for a foul, he would often yell, sometimes even swear at, and on a few occasions, even threaten, the official. After that happened, the young man would essentially retreat from the game. He would stay on the floor, but it was fairly clear to everyone that they were free to do as they chose.
By the end of the game, frequently I felt like I had been beaten up. Fortunately, the one thing the official always retained the courage to do was to blow the final whistle. As we would change our clothes in the dressing room after the game, I can remember feeling deep resentment toward many of those who, in my opinion, at least, had been so brutal.. I’m sorry to say that on more than one occasion, my resentment got the best of me. On a member of the opposing team attempted an apology, "I guess things got a little rough out there and I got carried away," he said. I’m afraid that my own resentment boiled over at that point. I’m sure he expected me to say, "that’s O.K., its only a game" or some such. What I actually said was "They did, and you did." He walked away obviously a little miffed.
Their lack of discipline on the court, I am sorry to say, led to a lack of discipline on my part at stake meetings, where I would encounter these brethren in their official Church capacities, and occasionally as these men were called on to speak or otherwise give instructions, I would find myself asking, "How can you speak of love and compassion now and yet be so brutal on the basketball court?"
This was, of course, years ago and I had all but forgotten about it until recently when, in bishopric meeting, it was reported that a member of the High Council had gotten into a very nasty fight during a basketball game. Apparently, such fighting is common, but the Stake President was a little disappointed that a member of the High Council would be involved.
I have asked myself, why men act in a manner so obviously contrary to all that they profess and admonish. As I expressed this question to some of my fellows they have simply responded, "You, being not interested in sports, do not understand." That is probably true. My Bishop told me about being deliberately hit with a baseball bat during a fight after a Church baseball game. He laughed about it and said, "That’s just the way it is in sports. People sometimes get carried away." While I probably don’t understand everything about it, I do understand enough to know that to all a game to become violent in even the slightest degree, to lose one’s self control, is wrong.
I sometimes regret not having been involved with sports, because the discipline of sports is, I recognize, extremely important. We are often told that next to religion it is the most important discipline, particularly in the life of youth. But there is a vast difference in the two as disciplines. The apostle Paul outlined the difference best, I believe, in his comment in Corinthians, about those who participate in athletics, "they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible." (Icor. 9:25) The only real reason for participating in athletics at all, in my opinion, is to develop the discipline of living by rules when the competition is terribly, terribly intense, but the stakes are very very low. The crown is, as Paul said, "corruptible". In his day it was a laurel wreath which would last for a few weeks. It is probably with this in mind that he made his famous comment, "Bodily exercise profiteth little" (I Tim. 4:8) He certainly did not mean that we should "let our bodies go", so to speak, because in the Corinthians passage, he tells us that he feels that his very salvation dpends upon keeping his body in subjection.
In religion, in almost complete contrast to sports, the stakes are very very, almost infinitely, high, but there is little if any intensity of competition or urgency. Those who can exercise discipline when there is great intensity but almost nothing at stake--or at least, nothing of any value, are better prepared, we are told, to exercise discipline when there is something of value at stake but the intensity of feeling is lower.
But of the competition in my basketball games, it could be said, not only was there little at stake, there was absolutely nothing at stake, not even a game. All that could be said to be at stake at all was a little momentary glory, a vain imagination. I have decided the real problem was that those men had ceased to be what they saw themselves as being and they were unwilling to pay the price to really become what they wanted to be, so they simply made up the difference by taking a shortcut. As so often happens in the world, that shortcut involved violence and the breaking of the rules. It was excused with the feeling that "this is only a game and, therefore, this time doesn’t count.
The testimony of scripture is that ever conscious moment counts. Eternity hangs on every moment. If we are willing to take shortcut, to compromise values, when only a bit of vainglory is at stake, what will we do when we perceive our livelihood, our basic needs, our standing in the community, our respectability are at stake? I suspect that we will find ourselves more and more saying, "this time doesn’t count." We will make exceptions for not only "only a game" but the vacation, a trip, a time of stress, "I’m out of work", "he made me mad", until the exceptions encompass life.
When the imagination runs too far away from the reality, we say a man has gone insane--he thinks he is something that he does not even closely resemble. Fortunately, this is rare. Less rare is the case in which the vain imagination, nurtured while neglecting the subjection of the body, leads to actions that a labeled immoral or irresponsible--a sort of temporary insanity. But most often those kinds of actions begin with actions that we simply label as "inappropriate" or even "inadequate". Many of the actions on the sports fields fall into this category.
My basketball career, I feel confident, is completely closed, but as I contemplate it I can’t help but feel that what I learned--the subjugation of the body and the "casting down of vain imaginations" are as important now as then. I feel that therein lies the key to peace--in life and even on the basketball court.