The System

In college basketball-crazed Kentucky, being a fan of the NBA makes me something of an anomaly. Most of the time when I mention I like professional basketball, the responses will almost always be the same…

“They don’t play any defense.”

“It’s a thug league.”

“Too much one-on-one basketball.”

“I don’t have time to follow it.”

Almost all of those assumptions are untrue. Defense in the NBA is actually pretty intense on most nights. Yes, there may be some thugs, but show me any professional sport that doesn’t have its share of bad apples (I’m looking at you, NFL.). There are some isolation plays, but no more than you would see in the average college game these days. And with the internet, apps, and 24-hour sports television, a person can basically be a follower of any sport they want.

san-antonio-spursTo me, the best example of how entertaining the game of professional basketball can be is the San Antonio Spurs. Granted, the Spurs have not quite been the juggernaut they were in the NBA Finals last June when they were steamrolling the Miami Heat, but they do still possess the sixth-best record in the loaded Western Conference this season. But, my goodness, the Finals! I don’t know that I have ever seen a basketball team, professional or otherwise, share the ball like the Spurs did in that series. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

I had a chance to watch the Spurs play the Chicago Bulls today on ABC, and I was reminded of that series. In addition to the ball movement, though, I remembered another thing that always amazes me about the Spurs – the way they can fit nearly any player into their structure and turn him into a valuable part of the team. I’m not saying players like Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, and Patrick Mills aren’t talented, but would they have the kind of impact on another team that they do for the Spurs? It’s difficult for me to imagine they would.

Even though I feel like the term is overused these days, the Spurs certainly posses a “system” of some sort. Everyone seems to know their roles. They seem to get along with one another. They don’t mind taking a backseat to each other. They don’t appear to be selfish. And despite the fact that they’re getting older (by NBA player standards), they keep on winning. Whatever the system is in San Antonio, it works.

I’ve wondered for years how certain people can be total failures in one place and then go on to success somewhere else. I think maybe my bewilderment stems from never quite feeling like I fit in. Everyone has weaknesses, everyone has flaws, everyone has strengths, and everyone has areas they excel in more than others. Somewhere inside me, I’ve always felt I work better as a part of a team, drawing upon the strengths of others to make up for where I am lacking. I have been looking for a system.

There are definitely times when we are forced to stand on our own. For instance, being a writer forces you to put yourself out there in a very individual kind of way. Even outside of work-type situations, though, there is a system somewhere we’re all looking to plug into. It may be a lifestyle regiment to bolster us. It may be a support network of friends. It may be a regular routine of giving. Whatever it may be, it involves accentuating strengths and reducing weaknesses. It reduces selfishness. Most of all, though, it wins.

I haven’t found my system yet. I’ve caught little glimpses of here it here and there, but it never seems to last. I either break it down myself or someone or something else does along the way. When I see a system working, though, it gives me hope that the right one is out there for me somewhere. It may take me a while longer yet to discover. Even the Spurs weren’t always the way they are now, and they don’t win a championship every year. A system that works, though, is a winner every time, if you ask me.

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Reclaiming The Beauty

rick reillyDamn you, Rick Reilly.

First of all, you made me curse, which is something I’ve been trying to cut back on. You did it, though. You unsettled me enough with your farewell column that those were the first words I thought of. Second, why did you have to go there? Why did you have to write about how sports can make you a better person and can inspire you and can create families for those who don’t have them?

And, third, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.

Jocks aren’t going to like this post. My old coaches and guys I played with probably won’t enjoy it, either. Heck, I don’t even want to write it. But Rick Reilly made me do it, with his stories about father-figure coaches, teammates who supported disabled teammates, and athletes who cared enough about a disabled fan to drive him back and forth from games. He painted a picture of sports as a place where beauty could exist, where miracles could happen, where people could rise to the occasion not just as athletes but also as human beings.

That was not my experience with sports.

One of my earliest sports memories is from a little league baseball game. I was small and timid, and my coach pulled me aside before one of my at-bats and told me not to swing. I was short and had a small strike zone, he said, so I would have a good chance of drawing a walk. I can see how in an adult mind this strategy would make sense, but I was a kid; I wanted to swing the bat, to prove I could get a hit. He was adamant, though: Do … not … swing.

Translation? There’s no way you’re good enough to get a hit, so pray they walk you.

I became a decent baseball player in the years after that, and I was actually a pretty good pitcher until I overused my arm and basically burned it out. I also played basketball and ran track for a couple of years in middle school. My downfall in track was simple: I wasn’t fast enough to outrun anyone. This kind of failure was fairly easy to take, mainly because I didn’t like running all that much anyway because of my flat feet. Giving it up was a simple decision.

From the seventh grade on, though, basketball was a form of pure torture for me. I loved the sport, and I still do, but it nearly drove me insane before I eventually decided to stop playing in the tenth grade. Some players thrive on coaches riding them; I wasn’t one of them. I was always skinny, and no amount of time in the weight room ever seemed to change that. I wasn’t aggressive enough, I was told over and over again. I had an assistant coach was decided to call me “Cheryl” for an entire year. I guess they were trying to toughen me up. All they did was break me down.

I remember in the eighth grade running this ridiculous drill that was basically a free-for-all to try to get the ball. Ever hear of a DDT,jake the snake the wrestling move made famous by Jake “The Snake” Roberts? Another kid did one on me, driving my head into the gym floor. In high school, an upperclassman elbowed me on the bridge of my nose, cracking the bone. My nerves were shot, and my stomach was upset constantly. I was embarrassed at who I was.

As I said, I quit basketball after my sophomore year of high school, and not making the baseball team my freshman and sophomore years effectively concluded my adolescent athletic career. Looking back, I wish I had quit everything sooner and been in the band. Somewhere, though, that kid who was told not to swing was still inside me, and he desperately wanted to prove he could get that hit. But he never did.

I’ve always known how that anger carried over into my sporting life since those days. I don’t know how many tennis rackets I’ve destroyed in frustration through the years. I actually had to apologize to my wife before we were married after she attended a basketball scrimmage I was taking part in because I was so inconsolable about my performance that I wouldn’t even talk to anyone afterward. In those moments, it’s always the same: You ought to be better than this. You’re letting everyone down. They’re all mad at you. Look at how well everyone else is doing. You’re going to lose … again.

What I didn’t realize, though, is how my past had colored how I view sports in general. In my eyes, no one in sports is a good guy. The ones who appear to be must be hiding something, or they must have sacrificed their families to get where they are. Every college coach is cheating, every professional athlete is greedy and disingenuous. If the team I want to win is losing, I get angry, and if they’re winning, I almost can’t stand to watch because I’m afraid they’re going to blow it. I hate arrogant and cocky players like Kobe Bryant, and I want them to lose so badly it hurts.

So, no, Rick, sports did not exactly better my life.

Upward Basketball LogoSomething started to change in me about two years ago, though, when my oldest daughter started playing Upward Basketball. She smiled when she played. She didn’t beat herself up for mistakes. She seemed to genuinely love what she was doing. “How can this be?” I thought. She challenged the bitterness I had built up inside me. Then I watched the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA title over the Miami Heat last week, and I had the same sort of feeling. They played together. They weren’t selfish. They were beautiful to watch. “How can this be?”

And then, Mr. Reilly, I opened up a link to your column this morning, and I felt myself fighting back the tears, just like you probably did when Sox Walseth put his hand on your shoulder all those years ago. I saw how sports were supposed to be, and I lamented the fact that it wasn’t like that for me. Then I realized I had to put those events of my life behind me, just like you had to put the bad man you were behind you to become a great sports writer and, more importantly, a better man. “Never let anyone tell you sports doesn’t matter,” you wrote, and I realized it had mattered to me all this time … for all the wrong reasons. And I also realized it wasn’t too late to forgive, forget, and reclaim what I had lost.

Damn you, Rick Reilly.