Falling Away

I sure do love me some March Madness. Wall-to-wall basketball for the better part of a month. If it’s not being played, it’s being talked about. Nobody mailing it in, every team playing their hearts out because they know it’s win-or-go-home. The best time of the year to be a basketball fan, hands-down.

freakout_1_-_1.0_standard_500.0I used to devote hour upon hour to watching every second of basketball I could during the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. I obsessed over my bracket every year, cursing the names of every losing team that made me look foolish for picking them to win. Much to the chagrin of nearly everyone around me, I was a Kentucky boy rooting (for no particular reason) for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Yelling at the television, throwing stuff, biting my nails… Yep, I was that guy.

I say all that in the past tense because I’m not really that guy anymore. I mean, I still watch quite a bit of the tournament, but I don’t feel very emotionally invested in it anymore. I still fill out a bracket, but I don’t really care what my overall record is once the dust is settled. Not only do I not root for the Tar Heels anymore, I don’t throw my support behind any particular team these days. I still care … but, then again, I don’t care. Know what I mean?

Maybe my slow fade from tournament junkie to semi-casual observer started several years ago when I read Alexander Wolff’s Raw Recruits during the breaks in a lengthy trial I had to cover for the newspaper I was working for at the time. Or maybe it began nearly 12 years ago, when my wife and I welcome our first child into the world and our lives and priorities got turned upside-down. Or maybe it was when I realized I was finally older than all of the players (and now I’m actually older than a lot of the coaches,too).

Whatever the case, I found myself sitting down to fill out a bracket this year and suddenly realizing I had no idea what I was doing. Even stranger, I wasn’t really bothered by that. I’m certainly not criticizing anyone still knows the starting five of every team or dresses up in their favorite team’s gear just to watch them on television. If your heart still lies there, I think that’s awesome. Somewhere down the line, mine sort of moved on … and I’m not entirely sure that’s such a bad thing.

All my life, I’ve heard that God will take things out of your life if He doesn’t think they’re fruitful. I’ve always envisioned that as Him having to pry whatever it was I was holding onto from my clutching, angry fingers as I kicked and screamed through the entire process. Whatever it was, it would be something I desperately didn’t want to give up, and He would cause me great pain and discomfort by taking it. After a while, with this mentality, it’s easy to start thinking that Christianity is less about joy and freedom and more about sucking all the joy out of life in an effort to conform.

As with most things in life, though, God needs to change the heart before he change the behavior. Had someone come to me and said, “Hey, you’re really obsessing too much over basketball. You need to stop watching so much.”, I probably would not have responded in a very compliant way. Stretched out over time, though, I saw my time going to other things – writing, kids, friends – that made me happy in my heart. And while I never lost my love for the game, I did lose that feeling that I had to be plugged into it constantly during tournament time.

There are certain things we’ll have to give up in life. For example, if you’re an alcoholic and you’re destroying your liver with booze every night, you will have to give up drinking. Something will have to move the heart away from the liquor store, however, before the body will follow. So from ending sports obsessions to chemical addictions to ingrained behaviors, the same madness is at work. The good thing is, it’s not just limited to the month of March.

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Upward & Onward

Wait, wait, wait… This can’t be right. My daughter is smiling.

Sports has occupied some space in my life for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I can’t say all my athletic experiences have been positive. Through my own insistence on perfection, demeaning and cruel coaches, and a body that would just never quite do what I wanted it to, participating in sports probably did as much damage to my psyche as it did good. I never gave up watching sports live and on television or reading about them in the newspaper or listening to them on the radio, but even today I can’t do any of those without feeling the sting of those awful years I went through.

The prospect of any of my children wanting to seriously pursue sports today absolutely terrifies me. If I heard a coach address any of my children in the manner some of my coaches did me, I’d tell them to quit on the spot. No “hang in there, it will build your character, blah, blah, blah” speech from this dad. The price of my children’s dignity and self-respect is worth more than whatever some coach might want out of them will ever be.

When my wife and I had two girls first, I thought we might be able to avoid sports altogether. That may have been stereotyping on my part, but I seem to notice more girls who never pay much attention to sports than I do boys. Of course, my hopes were dashed when both girls wanted to play soccer as soon as they were old enough. We’ve done a little tee ball and a little more soccer since then, with my oldest son getting into things.

So far, there hasn’t been anything negative to report. In fact, everyone seems to be having quite a bit of fun. I still have this uneasy feeling, though, that things will change as they start to get older. Practices will become more frequent. Coaches will be more demanding. Pressure will be put on us to travel every weekend. This could all be ridiculous speculation on my part … or it could be the way we’re headed. Only time will tell, I guess.

For now, though, I have been most pleasantly surprised this year by my 10-year-old daughter’s first experience with Upward Sports. Upward Sports LogoShe wanted to play basketball last year, but we felt like we had too much going on. Plus, the logistics of getting her to and from practice weren’t really going to work out, so we waited until this year to let her play. Even knowing that Upward is a Christian-oriented, non-competitive organization, I still worried that basketball could turn my happy child into a brooding competitor or snarling perfectionist.

I’m happy to report, with one game left in the season, she hasn’t become either one of those things. She does have one problem – giggling. She smiles and giggles all the time. In practice and during games. To the credit of Upward and its coaches, no one seems to have a problem with this. She’s actually enjoying herself. I can honestly say I don’t remember what that ever felt like. I don’t want the season to end because I’m having so much fun watching her have fun.

If we have it figured right, she has one more year she can play Upward basketball. The thought of anything beyond that causes the same old fears to rise up in me, because I know coaches at “the next level” tend to frown upon giggling when their players are on the court. Whether she wants to go farther will depend on a number of factors, mainly whether or not she wants to continue playing. At any rate, I’m glad she’s getting to know what it’s like to enjoy sports. And I’m glad I’m getting to remember.