Coach Darden didn’t mince words; being old-school meant that you weren’t expected to. Let the younger coaches care more about a players feelings than about building their character or producing results. This wasn’t his way and there was no need for him to apologize for it. Issues were meant to be dealt with, not pondered on and then hidden. He loved his players, but he believed that loving his players, and loving people, brought with it the responsibility to tell them the truth. And if hearing the truth stung them, so be it. Learning that love often produces pain is essential to coping with the mess of life.
My goal was to not just be a member of the high school basketball team; I wanted to be an integral part of it. To play, play a lot, and bear responsibility for the team’s success. Seeing my physical limitations, I understood that I probably would go no higher in my athletic endeavors. It’s fine to tell children that they can be whatever they want to be; it’s just not altogether true. We all have deficiencies that prevent us from being and doing certain things. I am tall, but not extremely tall; I’m 6’7” not 7’1”. And my quickness and jumping ability were lacking. High school basketball would be it, if I was good enough for even that.
I had tried out for the middle school team for three years. I never made it. But I didn’t stop trying. Fortunately, I also didn’t stop growing. By my first year of high school, I was 6’2” with the prospect of getting even bigger. I tried out for the freshman team and made it. The next year, I was 6’4” and on the junior varsity team, edging closer to my goal of being a varsity “baller.”
By my junior year, I was 6’5” and on the varsity team. I had hit my goal with a year to spare. Then something strange happened. After starting the first three games and playing a lot, I didn’t play at all the fourth game. Or the fifth. Or the sixth. Coach Darden had decided that someone else gave the team a better chance of winning. He moved me back to the junior varsity team and I was a substitute for the varsity team. I played occasionally for the varsity, but it was nothing like I had hoped.
I wanted to quit. To give up. But I couldn’t. My father had raised me to persevere, to stick with it during tough times. He had warned me countless times through the years that my coaches would often do things and say things that I didn’t agree with or like. When that happened, he said, I had to keep going. Keep pushing. Keep looking up.
I grew another inch that year. For those keeping track, I was now 6’6” (I grew an additional inch during my early 20’s). The season ended and I wondered what my role would be during my senior year, or if I even would have a role. I didn’t have to wonder long.
Coach Darden wanted to talk to all of his players who would be returning for the next season individually. This included me, I hoped. I was nervous when it was my turn to meet with him, like a child meeting his principal for the first time. He started off by telling me that he liked me. This was good, I like him, too. In fact, I had grown to love him in the way a young guy loves and admires a mentor.
He told me that I was “coachable.” He knew that I was trying hard. He told me that I was going to be on the team the next year even if I didn’t improve much at all over the summer. But if I wanted to play, to be an integral part of the team, there was some work that I needed to do.
He wanted me to run a mile every day; this would increase my stamina and speed. And hopefully help me lose some of the weight that had kept me from being as explosive as I needed to be. He wanted me to be at the gym during the summer every time he opened the doors to work on my skills and toughness. He wanted me to lift more weights and run more sprints and take more shots and run more drills and do more of everything else that would help me to improve.
He told me that I would still be on the team even if I didn’t do those things, but I probably wouldn’t play much, if at all. But if I followed his instructions during the off-season, he was confident that I would have the opportunity to make a difference for the team. I would get to play and play a lot. To bear responsibility for the team’s success. I would achieve my goal.
I took his words and ran with them. Literally. Every day I ran a mile, often more. When the gym doors were open I was there; taking shots, lifting weights, running sprints, doing the drills. I gained muscle and lost fat. By the time the season started I weighed 210lbs, could run a mile in six minutes, finally had the ability to dunk a basketball, and was making more shots than I ever had before.
And I got to play, to play a lot, to be an important part of the team. I hit my goal.
Let me be like Coach Darden for a moment, to convey some hard truths that you and I both need. In the coming year those of us who are followers of Jesus will be on His team whether we seek to improve or not. We are loved by God and held closely in His arms. But if we don’t follow his instructions, we won’t get to truly enjoy being an integral part of His team.
There are tremendous blessings with being able to be more effective in God’s Kingdom. But being more effective doesn’t happen by chance. It happens as God’s people being filled with God’s spirit commit to doing God’s will.
Let’s commit to not being satisfied with merely being on God’s team. Let’s seek to grow in faith, to hear His voice, to decrease and allow Him to increase in our lives. Let’s see 2011 as an opportunity to get closer to the goal of Christ-likeness.
Coach Darden taught me a valuable lesson that wasn’t just applicable to basketball. It is applicable to life in God’s kingdom.
I’m thankful that he told the truth with grace and that I had ears to hear.
(What life-lessons did you learn through sports? What are some of your goals for the new year? Let’s hear them!)