March Basketball: More Magic than Madness

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to appreciate – at least a little – the frenzy around March Madness, when 68 men’s college basketball teams and 64 women’s teams line up in a three-week frenzy to chase a national championship.

I was a piddling part of the madness 20 years ago when my son Nathan’s team, the UNC Greensboro Spartans, won the Southern Conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Our reward was a trip to San Diego to take on Stanford, the No. 1 team in the country. 

UNCG featured Nathan after his selection as Academic All-American.

The story would be incomplete without recalling the dramatic way we won the Southern Conference championship. We led Chattanooga the whole game, until they scored a couple baskets at the end, including a length of court layup to take their first lead, with about two seconds left. 

The roar of Chattanooga fans’ delirious exuberance thundered through the gym like an Amtrac Express. They were sure they had just snatched a victory, the championship, and an NCAA bid. But, a 79-foot pass to our junior center David Shuck, who dribbled once and laid it in at the buzzer, snatched it right back and UNCG fans raised our own roar that would have collapsed the walls of Jericho. 

We won. We were champs. We were in. Shuck’s two-second trip down the lane validated all the turmoil, trauma, tumult and thrills of Nathan’s basketball career. It rewarded his work and sacrifice of 16 years, including midnight shooting practice in the cold rain after a bad game. 

Bounce, bounce, bang, rattle, swish. We woke to the sound of Nathan shooting on the garage rim after a rare junior high loss. “Tell him to come in out of the rain,” Sue Ellen said to me. I considered it a moment, then said, “Nope.” He was working toward March, eight years hence.

When he was being recruited, one of his considerations was to choose a school and team that he thought could make it to the NCAA. A couple schools he turned down made it there first, but as a four-year starter, he was instrumental in getting the Spartans their shot.

Winning any championship is a rare moment and I was incapable of fully absorbing its majesty, through the chaotic elation spilling through the shouts, laughter, hugs and screams of our fans. After a few moments immersed among them, I walked quietly to the other side of the floor, to observe it, to open the aperture of my senses wider, to get a wide-angle view of it all and etch it like a chisel into the marble of my memory. 

As I turned back toward the action, Nathan was suddenly there. He had followed me, pulling away from his teammates, fans and well-wishers to wrap his arms around me in a long, sweaty, exuberant embrace that was 16 years in the making. He’d been playing basketball in a uniform since he was six years old. 

It was our best hug ever, until 18 years later when – at a men’s retreat he facilitated – I discovered in myself and confessed to him what drove me through life to keep from being caught from behind. 

In fourth grade, in a new state, we walked into a gym full of strangers for the local county league “draft.” The coach who picked him said later that he’d seen Nathan walk into the gym and he “walked like an athlete.” By sixth grade Nathan was player of the year in the conference. By senior year of high school he was North Carolina private school player of the year and by senior year of college he was first team Academic All-American. 

One day I asked Sue Ellen to name her top three basketball memories of Nathan’s career. I knew what mine were. She named hers. We matched. 

First, the high school game in which, with his future college coach watching, he scored 27 as Wesleyan Academy beat rival Greensboro Day for the first time. 

The Spartan’s basketball program Nathan’s senior year implied this was the year to win it all.

Second, on a cold night with ice pelting the roadways, UNCG was scheduled to play at Davidson, a school that had recruited him early, then backed off because he was “too slow to play at this level.” Nathan’s wife, Robyn, had driven to our house so we could drive to the game together. Caution urged me to stay home, until I noticed Robyn’s Jeep in the driveway. Hmmm…Jeep. Four-wheel drive. Off we went.

We trailed by 15 in the first half as the falling snow seemed to freeze our shooters’ blood. As far as I could tell, in a packed Davidson on-campus arena, there were no more than six UNCG fans, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stands. In the end zone, a round, fuzzy haired, flush-faced Davidson fan kept pointing at us and laughing as we fell further and further behind.

After halftime, we kept edging inexorably back within range and with the clock racing all too quickly toward zero, “too slow” Nathan earned a defensive stop on their guard, so we got the ball back, and Nathan promptly hit a three. 

Under 10 seconds, trailing by one, we had to foul their senior captain in an attempt to get the ball again. Incredibly, he missed both free throws. We rebounded the second and our guard Courtney Eldredge took the ball down the court full speed and hit a three at the buzzer to win it. 

The gym crashed totally silent except for six UNCG fans screaming like maniacs. I hugged the woman next to me, whoever she was. Then I hugged Sue Ellen, looking over her shoulder for the flush-faced Davidson fan in the end zone. I laughed and pointed at him and he was so mad I thought his head was going to come unscrewed and zip through the gym like a balloon suddenly untied. 

The third best memory, of course, was the championship game. As Nathan recalled in a retrospective published by UNCG this month, it can’t possibly be 20 years  since that incredible game, that amazing experience. But it has been and to all those kids who are playing this month for their “one shining moment,” God bless them all. 

I know what it took to get there, and it’s an experience they’ll always remember.

You won’t regret it, if you live

Next to a 5,000 lb. bale of cotton in eastern North Carolina

I ride a bike. A lot. I’m within spitting distance of 5,000 miles this year. 

Some days on the bike are sheer joy. Like when the wind is at your back, the sun on your shoulders, fields’ fertile pheromones filling your senses as you flitter by, cars giving you a wide berth and hitting 45 mph on a nice downhill and you’re smiling so much you get bugs in your teeth.

Some days are agony. Getting caught in a cold rain, or dark descending before you get home, or a friend crashing or another idiot throwing his Dairy Queen cup out his truck window at you makes you glad to reach your own garage.

But when I get home safe and sound, my skin tingling, my legs gorged with blood, every sense in heightened alert I’m always glad I went. Witnessing my children and grandchildren at the moment they learned to defeat gravity with that one extra push of the pedal to stay upright, stick out among my happiest memories. 

I remember the day I learned to ride.

I must have been 8 or 9 years old. We had no bike at home and we lived in the country where I never really saw cyclists, so it wasn’t like I lived longing to swing my leg over a bike saddle. That is, until we were visiting some family friends who lived in a tiny town and all of Richard’s buddies and him were zipping around the neighborhood like cowboys around their herd. 

On a bridge over the New River near Todd, NC

They weren’t shackled to the picnic table listening to the adults chatting. My sisters were talking boys or playing dolls with Richard’s sisters and I was going to have a long, boring, lonely day if I couldn’t latch onto the guys on their bikes. 

As much as I was intimidated by their easy rider skills, I ventured that it would be better to risk and fail than to consign myself to the outside looking in. Because the Almes had lots of kids, there was a spare bike and Richard encouraged me to come with him. 

Not having yet adopted the mantra “fake it ‘til you make it,” I confessed I didn’t know how to ride. “We’ll show you,” he said. And they did. 

I think the potential embarrassment of failure prompted my determination to succeed and I knew they didn’t intend to waste their afternoon teaching me a skill they were itching to employ. So, within probably 20 minutes, I was gallivanting around the neighborhood with all the vigor, confidence and windblown thrills of the gang. 

My legs still tingle remembering that critical moment of revelation when I trusted Richard and pushed the pedal one more time as I was about to fall over, instead of putting my leg out to catch myself. Risk, push, success. 

In a moment, I went from a near knee-scraped, broken-armed failure to being a rider. That day remains one of my favorites. I rode the wheels off that thing and when the other boys went home, I didn’t want to stop riding. 

And now, many of my favorite memories involve a bike. Riding with my kids and grandkids, RAGBRAI, hitting 50 mph down a hill, organized charity rides with friends, packing a clean jersey and a pair of shorts and riding for six days to the North Carolina coast, watching the fields we pass regularly transition from fallow to plowed to planted to harvested. 

A bike will take you to places, at a pace, you simply can never achieve on foot because you can’t go far enough or behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle because you can’t go slow enough. On a bike you’ll smell the teeming, loamy fields and the fresh cut grass – and people’s dryer sheets – and feel the warm womb of a wet breeze that heralds a coming storm.  

Deer won’t know whether to dart in front of you or hang by the ditch. Kids on porches wave and shout as you pass. And car-bound mortals fuming at stoplights as dusk falls shake their heads behind headlights and windshield wipers and mutter insults at the women who gave birth to such crazy guys in garish garments.

Still, any day on the bike is better than a day on the computer at which I write this. I concur with Mark Twain, who said, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

Play the music, not the notes

classical-music-1838390_960_720 (2)We enjoyed an orchestra at church Sunday, to accompany our choir and lift our spirits with the resounding crescendo that instruments provide. I noticed that orchestra members get involved with the music at different levels.

The first chair violinist sat on the edge of his seat, one foot behind him, leaning toward the music stand. Every stroke of his bow pulled his body left and right. His head moved up and down, his mouth close to the instrument as if whispering, coaxing it to produce glory like a jockey leaning over a horse’s neck, urging it to go faster, harder.

Fingers on his left hand pressed the strings in various combinations against the instrument’s neck and his hand shimmied to draw forth a plaintive vibrato.

Two rows behind him another violinist played, a young man not yet as accomplished, not yet as sure. He sat stiffly in his chair, leaning toward the music stand as if he couldn’t quite make out the notes. The bow was more an implement in his hand, rather than an extension of his own fingers. Nothing moved as he played except his arm and the bow.

He was just playing the notes. The first violinist played the music.

When I played baritone in the high school band I practiced hard for the annual competition at which a judge would listen, grade us and grant an appropriately colored ribbon – blue for A, red for B, white for C. White was kind of a “thanks for coming” award.

Eager and ready when my time came to play, I pressed the mouthpiece to my lips and ran through those notes perfectly. Didn’t skip or misplay a single note. Hit them all in tune and on time. And got a white ribbon for the effort.

Shocked, I looked at the judge, my face begging a reason. “Anyone who practices can play the notes,” she said. “I’m looking for someone to interpret the music.”

I just played the notes. I missed the music.

An old story tells of a curious lad coming to the site of an enormous construction project in his medieval village. He wandered from workman to workman, each busy with his various tasks, and asked them what they were doing.

The first wiped his brow, grunted impatiently and said, “I’m sawing timbers for cross beams.”

The second didn’t pause from his work pouring mud into forms, scraping off the excess and lifting heavy weights onto a trailer. “I’m making bricks,” he said with a scowl.

The third, when asked, paused, looked over the construction site with exposed beams and holes for windows and the nascent beginnings of a spire reaching into the sky and told the boy, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Our Bible study class was in Romans 7. There, the Apostle Paul encourages the new church in Rome to realize the law is no longer their standard for living. They have died to the law, as Jesus died to free them from it. Instead, they are to live in freedom, under grace.

That is our charge, to live under grace. To live in freedom. Ours is not a check box religion: Don’t smoke. Check. Don’t lust. Check. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Check. And on and on and on, each box a note, each check mark a note played.

The goal of Christian living is not to check the boxes, to just play the notes.

To live under grace is to play the music.

 

 

 

 

Handling Grand Things

Nature awes us at points where it convulses, where it snorts, sneezes and shudders, shaking its head to rise above the “ordinary” and astound us with a glimpse of grandeur.

Gentle waves sooth us, but we are awed when the ocean flails its fury against beach walls.

Rolling hills comfort us, but our mouths drop open when we first see a July cardigan of snow lying across the shoulders of Pikes Peak, which rises above Colorado Springs like Neptune from the ocean.

A cool breeze refreshes, but when winds wrap around themselves and drag a furious funnel tail through a city, we cannot comprehend its power.

We live in the womb of nature and pattern our lives on its dependability. We install no furnaces in Key West homes; no air conditioners in Juneau. We wear shorts in July and store our lawn mowers in November.

Predictable nature comforts. For awe, we search the fringes of nature for majesty, grandeur, depth, color, number or brilliance.

One summer almost 20 years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon with extended family members. During our first day down the icy Colorado River we stared until the wind dried our eyes.

Sheer rock walls towered 1,400 feet and more above us, close enough to touch. Frigid, 48 degree water poured over boulders that had crashed off the mountain walls maybe centuries before, forming rapids over which ran water in a volume of 24,000 cubic feet per second.

Big horned sheep scampered down barely visible scars across the rock face to pull juicy tufts of grass from sandy bars at the canyon floor. It was all new. It was all amazing. We wore out the ball bearings in our necks arching, craning and turning to absorb it all.

In a day or two, we settled in and motored mile after mile before the hum of a 30-horsepower engine. We huddled in rain suits to fend off the deluge of water cascading over us from the rapids, and we sat with backs to our equipment and watched the walls slide by on either side.

The canyon was every bit as majestic on the fourth day as it was on the first, maybe more so. The rapids were as big, the sheep as entertaining, the night sky as brilliant. But because our senses were so completely saturated with the marvelous, the equally marvelous had no chance to elicit a higher degree of awe. The next turn presented merely another incredible view.

Grand things lose their grandeur with familiarity. Proximity to things precious renders them ordinary.

That is something of what Jesus meant in Matt. 7:6 when he warned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. We handle precious things too casually.

We polish a new car every week. By the second year, we’re barely changing the oil.

Babies make us coo, giggle and jump with every sound. Six months later we roll over and moan a prayer that they will sleep through the night.

Newlyweds get cavities from their sweet, sugary murmurings. Before the first anniversary wives seethe restlessly, feeling ignored.

Those hungry cries that brought us quickly to our child’s room in the middle of the night mature into a pained cry as our teenager struggles with identity or a broken heart or embarrassment at school. But we’re too tired to stay up and talk, or too busy to give them our attention.

How does the grand become so mundane?

The car, the child, the wife, your worship become ordinary. We’ve floated that river for years. Where once we craned our necks and laughed, cried, cooed, huddled and prayed, the grand became ordinary with casual handling.

When we handle grand things with casual touch, our pearls are downtrodden and we become the pigs.