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Winning is Never Enough

The game was close. The clock was ticking down–twelve seconds, then eleven, ten. Dribbling down the court, I knew those precious seconds on the clock meant everything. Every decision I made from there on was crucial. The goal was to get to the three-point line, give the ball to our scorer, Lexey, and hope she could get us a last second bucket that would put us ahead by one point.

I crossed half court.

I searched for an opportunity to throw the ball to Lexey, but the other team was playing an extend two-three zone, keeping me from giving her the ball. If I threw it, I would risk the ball getting stolen by the other team. The smack of the ball against the wood floor moved in rhythm with my racing mind and the clock against the gym wall.

Something had to be done.

I drove toward the key, attempting to give myself some room. My man suddenly overplayed me, and I made a quick spin move in the other direction. With my man now behind me, I took a step into the key, lifted the ball into the air, and released it, letting it float in an arc from my hand toward the rim. The ball bounced on the back of the rim for a split second, the whole crowd waiting in silence as if their whispers might blow the ball away from the basket.

The ball rolled through the net.

The whole gym erupted into cheers while I backpedaled as fast I could, playing defense for the last five seconds of the game. The other team threw a prayer toward the rim. The buzzer blared. We had won the game!

I distinctly remember the excitement that followed me the rest of the evening. My teammates surrounded me in an embrace. Numerous parents congratulated me. I was interviewed by the newspaper. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my basketball career.

All the hard work and effort I had put into my sport over the years seemed to be paying off. Ever since I was in third grade, I had stars in my eyes, always playing for something that was just outside my reach. When I was in sixth grade, I played to get minutes on my All-Star travel team. When I was in ninth grade, I played for a starting position on my high school team. And as a junior, I played for that scholarship that I thought I wanted so badly.

And what about when it does not pay off to work so hard?

What happens when you get to college and realize many of the other players on the team do not want to be your friend? What happens when you put nine months of work into a sport only to lose again and again? What happens when your coach is fired halfway through your sophomore year and you are forced to decide whether you want to keep playing or give up?

Being the reflective person that I am, I realized that basketball, and sports in general, were not as important as I was taught to believe. At the end of my sophomore year of college, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I had two years left and I did not love playing basketball enough to keep suffering through all the struggles my team was facing. But more than anything, I wanted something different for the next two years of my life. For the first time, I felt as if I was finally growing up and realizing that college was more about friendships, God, and having an opportunity to learn for life and a future career. I was finally able to look back on my experience from a distance, an entire new height, and observe myself playing as teenager in front of all the parents and students from school and all the college coaches who were wondering if they should give me a scholarship and realize that my world was so small. Time goes by so slow as a child, and I had a difficult time looking at life past college graduation. I made sports my life and my career when it was never supposed to be that way.

However, I am not the only kid who has done this.

In the summertime, my dad offers cheap basketball training in our driveway and I have helped him run his program almost every year. One evening, I was standing in the driveway while twelve-year-olds dribbled with their heads down and threw their balls at the rim, when I noticed the long line of cars growing on the front of our lawn that would make our neighbors think we were hosting a graduation party. Some parents came moseying up the driveway to pick up their twelve-year-old, and others came for the next session, their kids trotting behind them and clutching their basketball like it was their life. The parents would stand or sit in the lawn chairs we provided and do the typical thing sports parents do–yell at their kid to shoot and drive, and brag about their kid to the parents beside them. And every year that we run this training program, many of the same parents return, and the obsessive, basketball cult practices begin all over again.

Winning one game or tournament, or even having one successful year, is never enough for these parents and kids. Everyone has stars in their eyes like I did when I was a kid, endlessly hungry for more and reaching for the next win, the next point, the next scholarship. Then, these kids suddenly become disappointed when they sit on the bench in high school or college, and realize the coach only views players as statistics for points or rebounds that will allow them to keep their job and continue their winning streak. Reality sets in, and many of these kids and their parents realize that very few people have the opportunity to become a star athlete at the collegiate level, and even those who do are often overworked and pressured every day for a meager four years of their life.

And yet this is American culture, and in America, we win.

We are the Rome of the twenty-first century. Our football stadiums stand at the centers of our universities like shiny trophies, each one a modern-day Colosseum where we can cheer and jeer at tall men in pads and old men with whistles instead of gladiators and lions. We sacrifice integrity and selflessness to satisfy our flesh by lounging in comfortable seats and indulging in entertainment to distract ourselves from the hardships in our lives and the lives of others. Many people argue that sports are a way of “connecting” people and uniting them together for something, but sports only seem to create superficial ties that keep relationships shallow. People prefer to talk about sports in order to avoid being vulnerable about anything else happening in their life. How can people in the United States continue to grow when sporting events, and other forms of entertainment, distract us from the roots of darkness that continue to grow in our communities?

This American belief about sports affected my family and community, and thus, it also affected me and drew me into its snare.

Out of every factor, the greatest impact on my attitude toward sports growing up was my father.

Although I appreciate my father and everything he did for me, I understand how much sports has controlled his life and his passions. Ever since he was little, my dad aspired to be a coach at the collegiate and professional level. For many years throughout his twenties and early thirties, he was a very successful high school coach, but his desires to have a family persuaded him to sacrifice some of his dreams as he got older. Eventually, I was born, and over the years I developed into a very successful athlete. Then, from the time I was eight years old, my dad was training me and winning vicariously through me. Over the years, my dad continually fed my desires and expectations for more success even as he fed them to himself, wanting more of the winning. I came to believe that getting a scholarship was the ultimate goal, and looking back, I don’t understand why that was my goal and why I cared so much. Rather than considering my sport and the short time I would be playing it, I should have spent more time thinking about my future career and growing in my faith.

Even now that I am done with basketball, I look at my father and see him absorbed in a basketball, baseball, or football game on the television, his attention unhindered. He has watched these games on the TV for as long as I can remember, but wins are never enough for him, and he comes back year after year. I wish that sometimes he would decide to pull out his Bible all on his own and read something that matters, that is lasting. For myself, for my father, for the kids in my driveway, and for society, I hope that we can come to have a healthier view of sports. I believe there is so much that God wants us to learn about him and to delve into deeper truths over superficial entertainments.

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