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The Greatest Basketball Season Ever

February 13, 2014

Years ago, when I taught in a small Christian school, I had some memorable experiences.  

The intrigue of being a Bible teacher in a small school is that … well, you get to broaden your horizons in an active way.

Look, I’m trying to put a positive spin on this.

Let’s say you get to be real busy.  Reeeeaal busy.

This is not to say that Bible teachers who serve in sizeable educational institutions  across the world aren’t just as engaged.  Even at my current large-enrollment school, Grace Christian Academy, I teach seven periods and stay active from the moment the morning bell rings until the late afternoon.  I usually arrive at school around 6 in the morning in order to get myself prepared physically, mentally and spiritually (coffee helps).  Heaven knows I am not complaining; I love my work, and I know quite a few colleagues who put in amazing hours around the clock. There’s plenty to do in any Christian school.

It’s just that in a diminutive school, as my friends who work in smaller academies will agree, the workload can be so … so diverse.

Fresh out of the university, when I accepted the teaching position a small school in central California, I was originally assigned to high school Bible and a study hall for middle schoolers.  Before long, I was teaching Current Events, teaching Bible, leading and speaking in half of all school chapels, running a drama presentation, editing the yearbook, tutoring a small Koine Greek class, overseeing detention, leading P.E. classes for both high school and middle school, and coaching numerous sports.

Oh, yes, coaching.  Let me tell you about my coaching experience.

In Girls’ Basketball.

Our principal sidled over to me at the beginning of my second year of teaching at Hollister.  “Brad, I need your help,” he said.  “My workload has been increasing over the summer, and I have to drop out of coaching the high school girls’ basketball team.  You’re going to need to be the next coach.”

I raised my eyebrows.  This was not going to be a good fit, for a number of reasons:

1. Our two star players who scored at least 90% of the points of the entire team, had transferred to a competing school across the county.

2. I had a sneaking feeling I was being shuffled in to be the fall guy for a disastrous season-to-be, since most of the remaining girls could not even dribble.  I am not making this up.

3. I had never coached girls basketball.

4. I had never coached basketball.

5. I had never coached girls.

6. I didn’t know anything about basketball.

However, none of the above problems seemed to bother the administration and I immediately went about to study plays and schemes and anything I could do to get us through a 12-game season.  I took the girls out imageto the basketball court and laid out five basic plays. Pastor Brad, as I was known then, was going to be the new basketball coach.

“We’re going to walk through these plays until you know them like the back of your hand,” I said.

“I broke my fingernail,” said Barb.  “Do I have to play?”

“Yes, you have to play,” I said.  “We only have seven girls as it is.”

“I don’t like the team from Prunedale,” said Anna.  “They shove you.”

“I don’t want to play next to Sharon,” said Tammi.  “She thinks she knows everything.”

“”I heard that,” said Sharon.  “Just because Mark won’t sit next to you in chapel, you start pouting and getting all sensitive.”

“Please,” I said.  “Our first game is in two weeks and you guys haven’t even figured out how to shoot free throws.”

“You’re raising your voice,” said Sharon.  “Why are you yelling at us?”

That was the tone of the season.  Tammi cried in the first ten seconds of our opening game (“those girls are so big!”), which we lost 63-10.

We went on a streak after that.  We lost the next ten games in a row by an average of thirty-five points. Sharon set the record for throwing the ball into the stands.  Libby would stand and stare at the backboard with her hands at her side, more than once getting a pass bounced off of her head.  Barb set the record for burning all of our time-outs in order to use the bathroom.

We had no wins and eleven losses.  Our final chance for a win was against Watsonville, a miserable team who also had a winless record.  This could be our moment.

The opposing team trudged onto the court and an unusually tall and hefty girl immediately walked next to their basket and raised her hands.  She stayed fixed at that position the entire game, never running down the court nor moving from that spot.  Hands stayed raised the whole contest.  I guess they planned on using her to get offensive rebounds.

The other team jumped out to a 6-0 lead because Anna kept running away from passes and Tammi started crying again.  Throughout the first half we fell and slipped and even though they only had four girls playing defense, we went into halftime down 10-4.

By the end of the third quarter I felt the veins in my head slowly bursting.  Prayer was the greatest need right now.  It didn’t help.  The play of our team in the fourth quarter was as smooth as scratching your nails across a blackboard.  Tammi walked off during a time-out, sobbing and flopping down on the bench. “Pastor Brad, I just can’t play,” she said.

“Fine, fine,” I said, waving at the girl at the far end of the bench.  “Libby, go in for Tammi.  Check in over at the scorer’s table.”  She checked in and the game resumed.  I stood up and watched a Watsonville shot roll off the rim, barely.  We had possession of the ball and immediately threw it into the stands again.  I threw up my arms in frustration.

Then I looked down.

What I’m going to tell you next is the Absolute Truth.

Libby was standing on the court.  Two feet to my left.  Facing me with her arms down.  She had been standing their since she checked in, looking at me blankly while the ball was whizzing up and down the court.

I was dumbfounded.  “What are you doing, standing here, Libby?” I yelled.

She shrugged.  “What am I supposed to do?”

That was my defining moment of despair.  The season was more than bad, it was disastrous.  The girls were in a full-season state of confusion. I had no idea what I was doing.  We were the basketball equivalent of the Marx Brothers. I had just hit my limit.

So I got sarcastic.

“Here’s what you do,” I said, pointing at the Watsonville girl who was taking the ball up the court.  “Libby, I want you to run over there and steal the ball from her.  Then I want you to dribble alllll the way down the court to our basket – see that one there?  That’s ours.  And I want you to put the ball into that hoop so that we can get two points?  How does that sound?”

“Good” said Libby.

“Go,” I said.

Libby wheeled around, roared across the floor, deftly stole the ball in mid-bounce, darted down the court and made a lay-up.  Our entire bench was speechless.  Everyone on our team was speechless.  Libby had never shown any athletic ability whatsoever during the entire season. Now, however, she had just shown us moves that would get her a starting position on the Syracuse men’s team.

She ran up to me and stood two feet away, arms at sides.  “What do you want me to do now?”

I swallowed.  “I want you to do exactly the same thing.”

Again, Libby wheeled and shot like a bullet out of a rifle.  She snared the ball and glided down the court, finishing with as smooth a lay-up as you’ll ever see.

The entire place was dumbfounded.  The Watsonville coach was waving his hands and shouting.  It was now 10-8.  Libby had scored four points in nine seconds.

She came over to me.  “What do I do now?”

“Do it again.”

She darted across the floor and sped down the court but, ah, the opposing team was ready for her.  As she made the lay-up, two girls bum-rushed her and knocked her out of bounds before falling on her.  It was a veritable dog-pile and Libby came out of it looking like she had stepped onto the L.A. Freeway.  She was so woozy she was done for the game.

We were tied 10-10, though.  Twenty seconds left in the game.  My mind was racing.  Maybe I could get Tammi to make a shot if we get this rebound.  Or maybe at least we could get an overtime…

Watsonville players were confused as our team gathered their resources and finally put a defensive display that looked like a competitive team. The Watsonville team fruitlessly looked for an opening.  The Tall and Hefty Girl just stood there with her hands over her head.

Ten seconds…

Nine seconds…

Eight seconds…

A Watsonville girl slipped and almost lost the ball.

Seven seconds…

She picked it up as Sharon advanced at her…

Six seconds…

Five seconds…

The girl pitched the ball toward the basket in a sling-like motion, sending it flying way too fast.  I almost smiled.  We had a chance in overtime.

Except…

…the basketball hit Tall and Hefty Girl’s elbow, ricocheting upwards toward the basket.  It glanced off the backboard and rolled around the rim. And – with time running out – it went in.

We finished the season winless. I hung my head.  The girls plopped down and hid their faces in towels.

Disastrous season, right?  Total waste of time for me, wasn’t it?

I mulled this over as I walked out of the gym.

No, I realized, as we piled into the school van and headed out of the parking lot.  I learned a season-long lesson that would do me well in the succeeding years as a Bible teacher.  This whole season-long lesson was important.  My mind raced to the passage in the Gospels, and I recalled that the fifth chapter of Matthew quotes our Christ telling us how the Heavenly Father sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous – we all get trying times once in a while.  Some of those experiences may be drawn-out and wearying, just as this basketball season had been.  God is giving me the first of many on-the-job training sessions in facing failure.

More of these times would come.  I would continue to learn.  Moreover, there were plenty of students who would be under my care who would be facing trials and losses of different sorts.  Long drawn-out problems.  I was seeing the Lord preparing me.  Crisis will come – how will Christians respond?

I looked back in the van’s mirror.  The girls were dejected and despondent.

For about two minutes.

“Pastor Brad,” said Tammi.  “There’s a Tastee Freez up ahead.  Can we get an ice cream cone?”

I felt in my pocket.  I found a handful of one-dollar bills.  “Sure.  Let’s celebrate the season.”

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