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Sports and the Place of Grace for the Least of These

Sports and the Place of Grace for the Least of These

There is a great pain in being one of—to borrow Biblical language—“the least of these.” It’s true in life and it’s true in sports. And this torturous awareness of being the smallest, the weakest, the slowest, the worst is only exceeded by awakening daily to the notion that everyone else knows it as well.

And yet being known in our weakness need not be the most tragic aspect of one's experience.

Perhaps it can be the best.

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By day I have the privilege of serving as a University Chaplain. I'm a minister. Nights and weekends when not at home with my wife and three daughters, I am a girls youth basketball coach. And, like most coaches paying attention, I learn far more than I teach.

Last season my 6th grade team was stacked. I coach in a wonderful league called “The Main Line Girls Basketball League” here in the Philadelphia area. It's a competitive league with several players who have gone on to play college ball over the years. The most beautiful aspect of it, however, is that it mandates equal playing time for all girls.

My squad last year was monstrous. Full of beasts. Did I mention that we were good?

Breanna, my starting shooting guard, was also playing on a Boy's AAU team. Handle. Legit three-point threat—in sixth grade mind you. And a good kid.

To compliment her I had two excellent point guards, two very strong bigs, and a bench full of role players and defensive stoppers. My daughter was a middle-of-the-road player who averages about a basket, a block, and a big steal a game.

But to go along with Breanna and my mini-UConn Huskie squad, I also had Nikki.

My daughter, when I showed her our team after the draft said to me, "Dad are you sure want Nikki on the team? She's at my school. I’ve seen her play in gym class and she’s not very good. She’s nice and all, but…well…she's special needs."

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I was 11 when I was first sent off to summer camp. Both of my parents died when I was young and my sister—12 years older than me—took me in. In order to keep me out of trouble during summers in Baltimore, she found a sleep-away camp for me to go to. This camp, which happened to be way up in Maine, offered me a full scholarship. Deeply generous. Seven weeks of sports camp awaited me.

But I didn’t want to go. Being separated from my sister who was now my guardian felt like another loss to me. And I wasn’t so into sports anyways. I preferred art or reading comic books.

I arrived and quickly realized that I was not only the only Black kid, but also the only Christian kid.

One afternoon during that first week I was at the basketball court during a free play period. Alone and holding back tears, I was throwing up brick after brick alone at a free basket. I was big and fast, but I had never really played organized sports.

So I stood alone on that blacktop court and the brick invested backboard, feeling bad about my inability to ball and feeling awkward about my inability to fit in.

The director of the camp was a man named Lee Horowitz. A tall, kind Jewish man who had coached basketball and lacrosse most of his life. In the gracious grandfatherly way that he was known for, he came over to me and asked if he could give me a “few tips” about how to shoot the ball.

It wasn’t lost on me that Mr. Horowitz wasn’t working with the stand out players who had started a pickup game at another basket. Or that he wasn’t doing whatever it was camp directors did all day. Instead he was with me—the below average homesick Christian Black kid.

A below average homesick Christian Black kid who ended up coming back to that camp summer after summer for 10 years, eventually becoming the head Basketball Counselor.

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We had the talent to win the sixth grade league championship last season, but we didn't.

We were knocked out the playoffs in the quarterfinals. We put up a lot of points, but whenever Nikki was on the floor she was a defensive liability. Never knowing where to be on defense when we were in a zone. Not knowing who to cover when we were playing girl to girl. Whenever she got the ball on offense she would travel or turn the ball over. We had the talent to win the championship last season but we didn't. And you know what? I'd pick her all over again.

In Matthew Chapter 25, Jesus speaks to His disciples about His future return when the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. Something He said here deeply convicted me last season and I think might be a word for all of who find ourselves coaching or playing with the "last man or woman on the bench.”

The Lord says, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

I had two assistant coaches and two parent helpers on my staff. (That's a lot for a sixth grade team—I know. Don't judge me!)

Something beautiful began to happen over the course of our first few practices.

When I would be teaching the offense or working with the team on one of our shooting drills, an assistant coach or parent would pull Nikki aside and give her one-on-one attention when she needed it. While my eyes were more focused on my scorers—on the greatest players on my team—my colleagues were working with the least of these.

They treated her as if she was the most important player on the team—not the most needy player on the team—and there is an important difference there.

This was something deeper than “a chain being only as strong as its weakest link.” This was more about a team only being as strong as how it treats its weakest players.

What was even more moving was what my players did.
I begin each practice with a drill that I picked up from the Penn Men's Basketball Team called the Quaker shooting drill. You split the team into smaller squads and they play a version of “around the world” at different baskets. Each team has to make a certain amount of shots at each spot around the world before they can move to the next spot.

Whatever team makes it around first wins. Last team does pushups. The sixth grade version has the winning team getting candy and the losing team doing jumping jacks—and then getting candy anyway at the end of practice!

Nikki seemed to love this drill. She was the smallest player in the division and could just barely muster the strength to get the ball up to the basket when standing in the key. She airballed almost all of her shots the entire season—except during this drill. She was money from the first two spots. And her teammates showed her so much love. They lost their minds whenever she would make a basket and her team almost always won.

After the season, my daughter and I bumped into Nikki at a school event. Nikki came up to me and gave me the greatest compliment of my coaching career when she said, "I can't wait to be on your team again, Coach!"

It was hard for me to not get emotional when thinking about that. Partly because I was glad Nikki had a great experience and grew to love this game that I love so much, but also because I have been and in many ways am still just like Nikki.

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This to me is the good news, the healing and hopeful grace of the gospel.

Being known in our brokenness, imperfection, weakness, and marginalization, and yet still being loved. "Broken yet beloved" to borrow a phrase from scholar Sharon Thornton.

And yet this is not simply a grace to receive. It is a call and invitation to a work that we might also participate in.

I was introduced to the Rabbinic notion of Tikkun Olam by dear Jewish friends from the aforementioned summer camp. It means "repair the world" and implies that a part of being God's people is doing Godly work in repairing brokenness where we encounter it. Each of us has the opportunity to do this in small ways in our small corners of this great big world.

And one way this repairing happens is in how we treat the weakest players on our teams. I've found that these small efforts can have tremendous impact causing ripples that we may never be aware of. I picked up from my assistant coaches and my players that learning how to treat people right is far more important that learning proper shooting form or the one-three-one defense.

One of the coaches in my league is a middle school teacher in our area.

She compared coaching a team with a range of talent with teaching classes that have both gifted students and students who may at times struggle academically. Working through a lesson plan, making sure that students learn, that the brightest students don't get bored and that the students who need more time don't get left behind isn't always easy.

But she's sees herself as being committed to and loving all of her kids regardless of their grades. A strategy that she's picked up over the years is to have her brighter kids actually work with the kids who may be struggling. This fends off boredom on the one end and allows for peer to peer educating in a way that can help those who need more attention.

This translates to sports as well. What if we empowered our stars to work with our weaker players?

Mr. Horowitz did this with me as I grew in my knowledge and ability with basketball. I was asked to help out with some of the youth coaching even when I was still a camper. And then I ran clinics for kids who wanted to work on specific aspects of their game.

Finally, I was asked to be a counselor and then coach. My being asked to help out my peers and other campers made me a better player, planted the seed of coaching in me, and—most importantly—I think helped me become a better person by presenting me with an opportunity to show love and repair brokenness just as it was repaired and healed in me.

I had a great high school coach. He saw basketball as a metaphor for life instilling in us lessons around teamwork and reliance upon each other, ideas like diving for loose balls reflecting a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause and many other substantive lessons. Coach would see a greater societal lesson in this challenge of how we treat the weaker players on our teams.

"Who," he would ask, "are the weaker players in society? How are they being treated by the world? What is your responsibility to them as fellow member of ‘Team Human Race’?"

It's a challenging question because if I'm being honest, I tend to, just like I did early on last season, give the majority of my attention to the "best players" in society—people who are close to me, people who I like, folks whom I am a fan of.

But what about those who I am very different from or don't particularly like?

Who are the bench warmers in our society? And how are we—how are you—treating them? Do we let them rot at the end of the bench? Or do we follow the witness of Christ and love them, treating them as if they were a star?

That's what God has done for us.

I'm praying for the grace to do the same.