I Love Basketball... by Mike Thompson

Written for the News Herald, December, 2006

I grew up during the glory days of basketball: The days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Kevin McHale, the “Chief,” and Dennis Johnson were the men I transformed into during play-off half-times as I ran out to my personal cement arena in the back yard. I cannot tell you how many last second shots I made. When it is just you, the ball, the hoop and your imagination it is really difficult to lose. I dreamed of making it to the NBA. I was convinced I could make it. It didn’t matter how silly my dreams must have seemed to the adults in my life. I just knew I could make it.

Somewhere along the way the dream became a much more serious pursuit. My older, faster and stronger brother was my constant opponent. Even though I lost often in those early days, I learned to strive with every ounce of energy that I could possibly muster. I could not stand losing to my brother and he was not about to roll over and let me win. Short games were kid stuff. We would play to fifty by ones…win by two. Believe it or not, the games would last for hours and sometimes the final score would be something like 87-85. To this day he claims to have won more games over all, but I know better. He could beat me in every other sport, hands down. But I could take him in basketball.

In playing the game of basketball, I quickly learned that it was much more than athletic ability or having a good shot. It was about life and character. And that is how the subject of basketball finds its way into this column on truth and consequences.

You see, we, as Americans, love sports whether it be watching, playing, or talking about them. Like it or not, in one way or another, sports influence us. Therefore, thinking rightly about them is important if we are to honor God in every area of our lives. I would go so far as to say that if we engage athletics rightly, they will be used by God to make us better husbands and wives, better employees and employers, better church members and friends.

I learned to not be afraid of my weaknesses and failures. At the very heart of the Gospel is that God not only forgives sinners through the sacrifice of Jesus, but that he also continually works to transform them through his Spirit. The Christian life is a process of recognizing character flaws and depending on our Savior to root them out of our lives. We will always have weaknesses, but it is never good or right to ignore them. We must learn to face them, swallowing our pride, and take purposeful steps to overcome them. In this process there is no substitute for work. One personal weakness I distinctly remember was not being able to use my left hand with some amount of skill. So, in addition to drills, I began brushing my teeth, eating my food, and writing with my left hand. Sure enough, over time, I began to see this weakness become a strength. Applying this lesson to life, if I am ever to have the marriage that God intends, and that I desire, I must be able to recognize where I fail in loving my wife, and take purposeful steps to overcome those weaknesses by God’s grace.

I learned that basketball, and life, is about teamwork. One-on-one skills are wonderful, but learning to help make your teammates look good is one of the greatest joys of the game. Likewise, church, family, and society do not exist to serve me. I exist to serve them. Pride in the team is far more valuable than individual accolades. We live in a culture that glories in the individual and this can work to alter the gospel message to simply, “Jesus loves me” rather than “Jesus loves His Church, of which I am a member”.

I learned that defense, the combination of hard work, discipline and concentration, makes a champion. There is less personal glory in defense, and so, you must find your motivation from within and conquer laziness and distraction at every moment. Is the game of life any different? To “play the man” is to give your all even when you know that nobody is watching. Being a Christian requires absolute commitment in every moment, public or private. How our homes and our churches and our communities would be changed if more people took hold of this truth.

I never made the NBA. A small Division I school in Ohio was a far as I got. But I will never regret the all day workouts and doing the fanatical things like sleeping with my ball. God made me a better man through the game.

I still play a little, although my body is aging. I don’t play with my brother any more since he is now paralyzed after a diving accident. But to be honest, good games are hard to find. Most of the time my love for the game is mixed with the frustration of the changing nature of the game. Most of those fundamentals that I grew to love have been lost in the continual drive to “look good.” The commercials tell us that “image is everything.” and sadly to say it is true for many. If it is not image, it is winning, for the sake of winning. (Looking back on the games I deemed sooo important at the time, I now realize how very insignificant they really were in themselves). In reaction to this selfish attitude, others (often Christians like me) have tried to do away with the concept of winning altogether. How tragic! Winning and competition, properly understood, are the engine that drives you to strive harder and to be better than you ever would by simply having fun. I still love the challenge of being on a less talented team and scrapping a way to victory – ala Larry Bird.

Today, I have an eight year old son who I hope grows to love the game as much as I do. I pray that my knees hold out a bit longer for his sake. This past summer he attended a Freedom basketball camp with Coach Casey Rogers. Casey played the right way. From what I witnessed at that camp, I think he is committed to coaching the right way as well. He gave out many different awards at the end of the camp, but one award I did not expect. It was the Patriot Award. This was given for always working hard, being teachable, and having an overall good attitude throughout the camp. If Coach Rogers remains committed to the principles the game was founded upon against the tide of individualism, there are many kids in our community who will be greatly blessed and become better men along the way.