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Abraham M. NussbaumDecember 16, 2021
A basketball net photographed from below.(Unsplash)

Being a Catholic father means rooting against Good Shepherd.

And you cannot do so in the quiet chambers of your own heart or behind the closed doors of a confessional. You have to stand in public, so others see you. You have to cup your hands to the sides of your mouth, so your opposition is broadcast. Stop Good Shepherd! It gets worse. In the coming weeks, you will need to root against women—Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Loreto—and men—St. James, St. Peter and St. Vincent de Paul—whom you were trained to revere. You have to root against them all when your children’s school asks you to coach a basketball team in your diocese’s youth league.

And as the pandemic’s social distancing restrictions are eased, they will ask again, so prepare yourself.

Be reconciled to the reality that someone always needs to teach Catholic kids how to tie their shoes, dribble a ball off those shoes and run into a teammate while searching for that errant ball. Your job will be to teach a child, quickly, how it feels to push their body hard and, gradually, how to put their body in the right place on a basketball court. They call that pee-wee basketball, and it begins in third grade. By the season’s end, a nailbiter is a game where one team makes six shots while the other team makes five shots.

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With each shot attempt, no matter how poorly coordinated, parents will cheer in the stands for their child to make the shot. Since most are misses instead of makes, the parents quickly pivot to cheering for their child to rebound the misses.

After the game, it’s a fruit juice box with a plastic straw punched into the top. That’s pee-wee.

Kids grow fast. By the end of elementary school, a few will grow into being players. They can tie their shoes. They can run. They can dribble while running. A few have the strength to put the ball in the basket. The best can dribble at speed and lay the ball in the basket. Games start to feature dozens of made shots. The parents in the stands, who have witnessed all this growth, start to cheer, not only for their individual children, but for their teams.

Defeat Christ the King!

Stop Immaculate Conception!

Staunch Most Precious Blood!

When the games are in the city, the chants ring out in poorly insulated gyms left over from the glory days of the Catholic ghetto, when the goal was to keep a parish’s many children off the streets. These gyms often double as the school’s theater and, for the Christmas Mass, the auxiliary church. A missed shot exits stage right.

The cheers remind you that the way you play basketball is, truly, a theology.

When the games are in the suburbs, the chants rise up to the rafters of newfangled gyms, where the goal is to maximize the athletic dreams of the school’s students. These gyms are usually purpose-built for competition, with locker rooms. A missed shot bounces onto a trainer’s table.

Despite their many differences—and it must be admitted that both kinds of schools often recruit more able athletes from outside their insular enclave, whether ethnic or economic, to make more shots—attending games at either can feel like living inside a medieval village. In either setting, you hear parents simultaneously cheer their team and shout heterodox theological statements. The cheers remind you that the way you play basketball is, truly, a theology.

Basketball was developed in 1891 by James Naismith, who earned his theology degree from Montreal’s Presbyterian College and put it to work as a physical education teacher in Springfield, Mass., at the School for Christian Workers. Naismith endorsed a pseudo-Greek ideal of the balanced man—body-mind-spirit—and the game is the lasting legacy of Muscular Christianity. You win men for the Master through the gym. Naismith wrote the original 13 rules of the game like he was Moses, but with the cadence of the King James Bible. (Rule 6 begins “A foul is striking at the ball with the fist....”) The resulting manuscript is perhaps the most valuable document this side of the Gutenberg. It is owned by the University of Kansas, where Naismith coached basketball and preached at chapel, establishing the vocational template for the basketball coach. As the game spread it took root in the places where it was taught in homiletic aphorisms, where basketball became theology.

James Naismith wrote the original 13 rules of the game like he was Moses, but with the cadence of the King James Bible: “A foul is striking at the ball with the fist....”

In California, the evangelical John Wooden created the Pyramid of Success, a character-driven pedagogical diagram that encouraged generations of American men to build their faith and patience so they could achieve their personal best. Make each day your masterpiece. Wooden read his own Bible daily and acclaimed his faith more important than the many championships he secured. He was the basketball coach for the Guideposts crowd.

In North Carolina, the Baptist Dean Smith spoke of the Carolina Way, a communitarian liberal Protestant theology. Smith was the coach for the Sojourners reader. Smith’s players had to register at a local house of worship before they saw the school’s hardwood cathedral and, once there, had to point to the passer to acknowledge a teammate’s assist. They had to play hard, play smart and most of all, play together. Smith preached often that he cared more about how his players played than if they won.

I tried to remember Smith’s guidance when I began coaching our oldest child and his classmates. Teaching them to play hard, smart and together could be mapped onto the cardinal virtues. Playing smart is a way to enact the cardinal virtue of prudence, and when the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes prudence, it quotes Scripture to the effect that “the prudent man looks where he is going,” a proverb that becomes the daily prayer of a neophyte basketball coach.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes prudence, it quotes Scripture to the effect that “the prudent man looks where he is going,” a proverb that becomes the daily prayer of a neophyte basketball coach.

Our practices felt like those of any other team, with shooting drills and layup lines, but the crowd’s medieval chants at our games reminded us that we needed something more. My son Eamon and his classmates played for Blessed Sacrament instead of the secular powerhouses of Kansas, UCLA and Carolina. Our home games were preceded by prayers to a large portrait of Our Savior rather than a pledge to Old Glory. So our starting five—Eamon, Max, Paul, Peter, and Jack—slouched at attention beneath a picture of Jesus pointing to the Sacred Heart instead of the passer.

I do not know what the boys prayed for.

I know I prayed for growth spurts, elite effort and smooth shooting. When I felt guilty for praying for that, I prayed for just player rotations and temperate sideline behavior. I did not want to embarrass the team.

After all, I myself never got the growth, coordination and shot-making of a basketball player. I love the game and have played in pickup leagues throughout my life. But I am capable of only the first of Dean Smith’s injunctions—my only gift is the fortitude to play hard—and never learned to play smart or together. And yet I was, somehow, supposed to coach the theological game. I shared Smith’s focus on process over outcomes, character over wins, and saw it as a way to develop what the catechism called the “habitual and firm disposition to do the good... [which] allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself.”

I read coaching books. I secured practice time. I recruited a fellow father to help me out.

And my reward? The boys practiced and developed skills. They could defend, pass and run. They could, at least on occasion, execute the pick and roll, the high screen, the 1-2-2 zone defense, the full-court press. In gyms all across town, some of those medieval village cheers were directed at our team. In our penultimate season, the cheers grew louder. I even added one of my own, cheering defensive steals by yelling “Jesus loves the good thief!” from the sidelines. We were good enough to nearly win the Catholic Schools Athletic League. Our near-miss raised hopes and a spot in a higher division, for the boys’ final middle-school season. Blessed Sacrament gave me my own key to the gym. I used the key to open the gym even after the school year ended. The boys practiced all summer and their hopes swelled in the summer’s heat.

How did all of the efforts that had borne buckets a year ago result in so many losses in our final year? Could I pray to accept that?

The competition would be more intense in a higher division, but the boys thought they were up to the challenge. Then injuries derailed the final season. The opposing teams’ defenses double-teamed our only remaining shooter. Other teams caught a better growth spurt, and we were suddenly undersized. Instead of chasing a championship, we sought to secure the occasional victory. We kept on practicing. I redoubled the Protestant work ethic of practice, but it did not translate in the Catholic games. We suffered blow-outs and received more piteous claps than theological taunts.

And yet, that is when the limit of my theology of basketball became clear. I needed a further fortitude, something beyond playing, practicing and coaching hard. I had to accept that our team had peaked in seventh grade. None of our boys could play well enough to displace any members from my fantasy All-Star All-Time Catholic School starting five—John Stockton, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar—nor were they pious enough to replace that team’s chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt. None of our boys would play for Naismith; they were not especially muscular. None of our boys would play for Wooden; they had made no masterpieces from their basketball days. None of our boys would play for Smith; they had not learned to play smart enough.

Our boys would, in fact, switch sports in high school, heading off to cross-country or football or baseball. Or they would simply hang up their athletic careers entirely.

But not before they left me in tears.

“The spiritual path that Joseph traces for us is not one that explains, but accepts.” That’s no basketball coach. That is Pope Francis, from “Patris Corde,”his apostolic letter on St. Joseph. Francis reminds me that although Joseph accepted something far greater than I ever did, I could join Joseph in being left without explanations. How did all of the efforts that had borne buckets a year ago result in so many losses in our final year? Could I pray to accept that?

Catholic school basketball gave me the chance to be, in some way, a father to the boys on the team. Our loss meant that that time, and that role for me in their lives, was over.

Probably, but I cried instead. Watching our boys try to Stop Annunciation!, I marveled at their effort, their growth and their inability to sink shots. They had all played their last game of organized basketball. They would play pickup, like the rest of us. They would no longer have a coach who set the schedule. They would organize games themselves, keep their own score, call their own fouls. They would form their own informal league, founded on friendship and love of the game. They would not need a father to coach. They would not need me. I cried so hard, harder than I had in years, that I felt ashamed. The tears seemed unceasing and unnecessary. It was just middle school basketball, right? I had volunteered to coach because no other parent was available. Why the messy tears?

“Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person.” That is Francis, too. Catholic school basketball gave me the chance to be, in some way, a father to the boys on the team. Our loss meant that that time, and that role for me in their lives, was over.

Francis pressed his theme. “Every child is the bearer of a unique mystery that can only be brought to light with the help of a father who respects that child’s freedom. A father who realizes that he is most a father and educator at the point when he becomes ‘useless,’ when he sees that his child has become independent and can walk the paths of life unaccompanied. When he becomes like Joseph, who always knew that his child was not his own but had merely been entrusted to his care.”

In that final season, I became useless as a coach. Three nights a week of practicing, and still the shots did not fall. But that is not the kind of uselessness Francis means. Francis meant that they still needed the Father, but not this father.

So I cried unceasing tears because I sensed that our time together had ceased, that something was irrevocably over, that my work was done. I had coached like a father and was now, like Joseph, useless. As the time expired on our final game, it was the opposing team’s cheers—Beat Blessed Sacrament!—that had come to pass.

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