I have been thinking…which is always a problematic affair…but I may be on to something here. When I went to the Y last week to do my walking, I saw a sign-up for men’s Church League basketball. I felt my heart do a between-the-legs dribble.
See, I used to play basketball. I am the first to admit I was not very good. I was slow, but I couldn’t jump either. Or shoot very well. I had no real knowledge of the game and almost no court awareness—my peripheral vision has always been suspect. I could not run the floor, had poor ball-handling skills and had trouble remembering which way to cut on set plays. I could not run backwards at all and I had no stamina. Maybe I could have made up for most or all of those deficiencies with hard work and enthusiasm, but laziness is my constant companion, has always dulled the edge of my little gung-ho. And still, I was on the school team for a short while—second- string B-team at MBA, a small, all-boys prep school in Nashville.
MBA was the “model” for Dead Poet’s Society (if any of you remember that movie). I attended there for one terrible, horrible, no good very bad year, and like Alexander (if any of you remember that book), there were many days I wanted to mail myself to Australia. Part of my misery was that some sort of athletic endeavor was required for all freshmen, and for me it came down to basketball or cross country. I chose the former, thinking the latter would be even more embarrassing.
I lasted a month, until the afternoon when the first-string varsity was running their offense against the second-string B-team defense (we were supposed to represent, however vaguely, the next opponent, and why in the world they put me on point in the one-three-one zone, I have no idea). A whistle started the play and next thing I know I had been sandwiched by a upperclassman’s screen and my knee cap had come to rest at the back of leg somewhere. A few weeks later I had the first of my seven knee surgeries.
After rehab and a change of schools I began attending a church that had a pretty good church league team. I had kind of gotten the bug, in spite of my failure and injury, and so I played church league ball for several years –even played on the graduate school team while I was in seminary. But after a surgery here and a surgery there I finally had to give it up in hopes of preserving what little orthopedic integrity I had left.
Injuries were not the only reason I put the ball in the rack and threw my sneaks to the back of the closet. With age I grew increasingly tired of fellows playing as if there were scouts for the Knicks in the stands (or the Yankees—you see this kind of behavior in softball, too, guys who seem to imagine they still have a shot at the bigs). They are WAY too wired considering the reality of the situation. A professor friend used to say that academic battles are so intense because there is so little at stake. Little league parents, too, some of them. I personally know of one such parent who had a heart attack and died after arguing, and all the way to the parking lot, a third strike call at his youngest son’s game.
Anyway, the other day at the Y, staring at the announcement for church-league sign-ups, I was thinking, remembering, wishing I could play a little more church league basketball, knowing, though, that there is really no place much, even on the bench, for a fifty-five year old who has had two separate replacements of the same knee. Then it hit me…
What we need is a league just FOR old guys and their prosthetics! We could call it Shelby JAMs (Men with Artificial Joints, JAMs being a backward acronym). Fifty and older, with no illusions that we are going to impress anyone, and least of all ourselves. I can see it now: old guys who don’t look so great in shorts, hobbling up and down the court only fast enough to get our heart rates up and break a sweat. We would take it easy each other, and laugh a lot. We would cheer each other on, even the guys on the other team, and pick each other up when we fall down on the “fast break,” and maybe keep score, you know, but no one really would much care about that part of it. We would just be thankful to be alive and breathing, to be able to still move at all.
It would not have to be a church league, but it could be, because big parts of it—we all are injured; we have no illusions about ourselves or each other; we are not trying to impress each other, just help each other; picking each other up when we fall down; cheering each other on—all of that sounds a lot like what the faith, and church, ought to be, and not just when we are playing ball.