When I was in grade school, I forced myself to try out for the basketball team. I never liked basketball, wasn’t particularly fast, couldn’t shoot the ball, and preferred to sit on the bench. But, everyone else was doing it, and their participation convinced me that I needed to join in.
The seasons were miserable for me. If I enjoyed the company of my classmates, it was heavily outweighed by my sheer embarrassment at never developing any skills on the court. In fact, at a basketball camp one summer, the counselor wrote on my final evaluation: “Jake is the best passer on our team.” Not to brag, but I was excellent at ensuring I wouldn’t be expected to dribble or — God forbid! — shoot.
I was returned to those unhappy times as I read Pseudo-Dionysius for a theology class last semester. He proposes that evil doesn’t actually exist. Instead, our experience of evil represents our distance from God.
I’m not saying that basketball inherently distances us from God. But I’m pretty sure that the NBA never was and never will be my ultimate, God-given purpose.
It has become clear to me that my forced participation in an activity that matched none of my skills wasn’t what God had in mind for me. Instead, I spiralled into painful self-loathing. I absolutely hated myself for being so bad at something all of my classmates loved and thought was important.
When I was in eighth grade, I joined two choirs with active Christmas schedules and escaped the basketball court for good. But this removal by default meant that my self-loathing never had a chance to resolve. I surrounded myself with actors and artists and music types and thought I’d insulated myself from basketball for good.
Then I became a Jesuit.
After eighteen short months as a Jesuit, I got sent to work at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, NY. In addition to teaching a theology class, they placed me in the counseling office to help tutor and mentor students throughout the day.
In my first day on the job, I met with my predecessor and asked for a run-down on the students on his list. I felt familiar fears arise when he assured me that “this guy only really does his homework so he’s eligible to play basketball.” Over the next week, I anxiously anticipated meeting this devotee of my least favorite sport.
Soon after, I met Lebron. That’s not his real name but it might as well have been. I noticed that his algebra grades had slipped from the first quarter into the second. Asked for an explanation, he complained, “it’s impossible to get my homework finished because I have basketball practice for three hours a night.” I looked at his schedule further, “you practice basketball that much every night and you still go to gym class?”
At my insistence, he stopped going to gym class and instead we worked on his algebra homework. While the meetings started as a bit of a slog for both of us, they quickly became the highlight of my day, full of laughter and stories in addition to the endless problem sets.
After a few weeks, Lebron invited me to come and see him play. I made up excuses. I really enjoyed our time doing math, but I didn’t think I could revisit a place I so loathed. He asked a few more times, though, so I relented.
Even walking into the gym gave me pause. School gyms are the same: the smell of the floorwax, the sound of sneakers skidding and buzzers buzzing. I remembered the hours I’d spent bargaining with myself that simply showing up to this miserable place would help me to finally fit in. I had spent fifteen years avoiding basketball gyms precisely so I didn’t have to feel that rejection again. Now I was choosing to walk into one. It wasn’t quite Martin Scorsese’s Silence, but it felt like a mission where survival wasn’t guaranteed.
Imagine my shock then, to find myself enjoying the game! Lebron and his teammates were skilled ballplayers, exciting to watch and fast on their feet. Two quarters in, my fears had lifted. Unlike fifteen years prior, this basketball arena was the site of my ultimate, God-given purpose. God had not created me to be a basketball player, but He had created me to love and support my student, Lebron.