When I was on the court, they couldn’t touch me. They couldn’t touch me with their mind games, their lies, their angry words, their false religion or their violent fouls against my person. When I was in that gymnasium, I was safe. When I held a basketball in my hand, I didn’t have to hold all my problems and fears and worries that came in with me to practice. When the madness of March arrived, and my brackets were all broken, the game of basketball gave me a win.
Over the course of junior high, high school and college, I played six seasons of basketball. In looking back over those same seasons, they (not coincidentally) coincide with the years Mr.Magoo and (Un)incredible Hulk had their way with me. And yet, it seems like different worlds entirely. The years I spent on the court and in the field gave a confidence and a drive that my abusers were bent on eroding. Sports of all sorts protected me in a culture that wants to characterize young girls simply as objects.
Softball was my first love. Pitching for the all-star National Tournament is a memory I treasure. I am that old washed-up athlete who still tells her kids old tales about her glory days at the mound, or sliding into home.
Volleyball captured four seasons of my life, too. What could be better than setting your teammate up for a kill? Or digging down deep to recover a spike with a perfect bump? The sheer orchestration of a team working together to win volleys and sets and matches is a thing of beauty.
Then, basketball. I first played for the eighth grade team at a small Christian school. It was there that I learned all the rules, fell in love with stealing and realized that if someone is going to give you something for free, you’d best capitalize on it and make the shot.
I played basketball in college for two seasons. Starter. Guard. Led the team in defensive steals. Good free throw percentage and scored my share of three pointers. I was known for my hustle in practice and I followed the rules of my coaches. I wasn’t always there to have fun, I was there to win ball games.
In my sophomore season, sporting a 4.0 in my academic career, a class officer and an aspiring teacher, I broke the one proverbial coach’s rule: I dated a boy and got involved romantically with a person who took my focus off the game. Coach warned me. He didn’t plead-- he wasn’t that kind. But he took me aside and reminded me that I was a leader on the team and that romantic involvement (especially with the likes of my taste in boys at the time) nearly always compromises your performance on the court. It’s likely the one piece of coaching advice I rejected and failed to heed.
My first date with (Un)incredible Hulk and the first game of the season were almost a tie. Similarly, I waited to finish out my season and play in the last game of the National Tournament before dropping out of college with failing grades nearly the same time of my first break up with (Un)incredible. I was no longer a class officer nor an aspiring teacher. I was taking a break from the boyfriend and the beatings and moving far, far away. I had fouled out. I was sitting the bench now. The game of life got too hard and my skillz couldn’t keep up. Washed out, washed up, I was on the injured list and out for a time.
There is little I remember from those 20 games in 1987-1988. My memories are shot from those volatile days in my personal life. Apparently, I’ve been on a tournament road trip to Joplin and Bucksnort, Missouri but I have no recollection of that. I can’t recall the shot clocks or how many times I got called for traveling , offensive fouls or hanging out in the paint. I barely remember my teammates. My memory is entirely lost when it comes to anything about wins and losses that season. The main thing; the only thing I remember is the madness.
But, my￼ favorite thing about college brackets are the Cinderella stories. The upsets. The long shots.
I didn’t come back to the gymnasium after that. Technically, I still have two seasons of athletic eligibility hanging like an old jersey in a women’s locker room. I still regret that I didn’t get to shoot hoops again.
But basketball still gave me a comeback story. My healing was a long shot. My returning to college to marry a man who had been my biggest basketball fan was an welcome upset I didn’t see coming.
And if it didn’t sound so dramatic, I’d say that basketball saved me. It gave me the rebound I needed in life. It gave me the confidence and the stamina to run the suicides and practice the figure eight drills to get my game back, to get my life back.
We were driving home from the tournament. Coach sat in the driver’s seat. His assistant sat in the passenger seat. Cramped in between them on the cooler with my arms curled around my knees, I sat defeated. They were the first ones to know that I was a college drop out, leaving the next week to move up North for a new life, a new job-- lodging with my sister and her husband in the borrowed room of their two year old. I may have been running from my problems but I was out of options and certainly out of my league. College life and all that comes with it could not sustain the domestically violent dating relationship I found myself in.
All I remember is weeping. For miles and miles, tears streamed down my face. My coaches sat quietly. Listening. Caring for me in a way that belied the fist pounding, screaming types of Bobby Knight status, they were Jesus to me. They coached the person not the game. They knew the playbook for life was even more important than zone defense or full court press. They knew kindness and understanding and forgiveness were going to give me back my dignity far more than making an easy lay up after a steal.
The basketball court really was a safe place for me every afternoon between 3:30-5:30 pm and on every Saturday we had a game. It gave my emotions a safe place to diffuse with chest passes, decisive dribbling, sweating and mental concentration. It was a literal boundary that an angry boyfriend could not penetrate . Also, I was a part of a team. I was a part of something greater than myself. I was a part of people who were checking me, assisting me, cheering me and challenging me.
The thing I miss most about basketball is playing defense. I liked to box out. It gave some purpose to the natural frame of my lower back side. But what I really loved to do, I loved to steal.
“In basketball, a steal occurs when a defensive player legally causes a turnover by his positive, aggressive action(s)... To earn a steal, the defensive player must be the initiator of the action causing the turnover, not just the benefactor.... Stealing the ball requires good anticipation, speed and fast reflexes, all common traits of good defenders.... Steals, though risky, can pay off greatly, because they often trigger a fastbreak for the defensive team.” Wikipedia
The real Cinderella story. What they meant for evil, God meant for good. What the Great Opponent of our souls intends to use to kill, steal, destroy and defeat, we can steal back. All that ugly abuse from people playing dirty: throwing elbows; talking trash can be bought back, redeemed, stolen for a Higher Purpose than fun and games.
At the end of my abuse by two different men, spanning the exact same time as my basketball career, I was left defeated. I had lost one and a half years of college. I had lost much, much more than that. I was in the stands; not apart of the team or anything bigger than myself. The ball was in my court but my conditioning hadn't prepared me for this. Even breathing was labored until I gained strength.
The game turned around for me with a steal. The Cinderella story became reality and the momentum shifted when I took positive and aggressive action toward my healing. The rally began when I anticipated and initiated the risk that I could be loved again and that I was worthy of another chance in the game. My winning was more about kindness, safety and being Jesus to other injured teammates than it was points at the end of the buzzer. My winning was more about Jesus binding up my wounds than it was a record at the end of a season.
I don’t need basketball anymore. That is not where I feel safest.
I don’t need my stats rehearsed for some measure of college vainglory. I don’t need the steady voice of my Coach reminding me of another drill. Another saved me and healed me from much more than basketball ever could.
Basketball, you were good to me. This washed up athlete thanks you.
Jesus, You are good to me.
This girl, this woman, this grandma thanks You.
Thank You that nothing can touch me that hasn't been sifted through Your Hands.
Thank You that You are a sanctuary, holding me safe from all that ails.
Put me in, Coach.
Now, give me the courts of heaven; give me the cheers from
the cloud of witnesses— steal back for me the joy of my salvation.
When March madness arrives, Jesus gives the victory.
One of the best decisions my parents ever made was to enroll me in sports and dedicate themselves to the hard work of driving to and from practices and games. My Dad’s cheering at my ball games still remains one of my fondest memories with him. As well, as parents, we reared four daughters and gave them each at least one sport to excel in. The benefits are endless! If you have daughters, consider giving them a sport. Study after study proves it to be invaluable to their development.