I entered the world of basketball when I was twelve years old. I had not a clue that I was trying out for anything. We were lined up for gym class, all forty-five or fifty of us, along the baseline of the court, facing the coach as he stood at the foul line. This was the way physical education class usually started. He would have a few words to say about safety or cleanliness, or etiquette in the school’s crowded hallways, and then have us number off, “one, two, three, four.” We would then spread ourselves across half the court according to our numbers for calisthenics. Not this day. This time coach walked up and down our line, eyeing us up. We were all nervously silent, sensing that something was different; something was happening that was going to matter. He tapped a shoulder of a boy now and then and motioned for that kid to trot to center court. I could tell that the boys who were tapped were excited about it and when he tapped me I was excited, too, but I still did not know why. When he had ten guys picked he moved five away from the other five and told my group to shuck our shirts. He waved his hand at the remaining boys still standing on the baseline and told them to take their seats on the bleachers. I had been distinguished in some way, I gathered, and I felt good about that. Then coach stepped into his office and brought out a brand new leather basketball, the likes of which I had never seen, and my heart started to pound. I literally began salivating. Throw me in that briar patch.
I stayed with the lazy flow of that game for only a few times up and down the court. There were just a couple of kids on the floor who had the first idea of what they were doing and I soon put all notions of deference aside and stole the ball and scored layups on five straight possessions. When it became obvious that no one on the court could get the ball past me and that no one there could stop me once I had the ball, the coach pulled me out and put another kid in my place to allow himself a look at the other players. But he did not order me back with the other kids. He sat me on the bleacher at the far end of the court, nearest his office. He was not a talkative man, and he showed almost no emotion the whole time I knew him. But he knew what this meant for me and just as he sat me down he asked me my name. I knew that he already knew it, but it was his way of telling me that I had arrived. That I was inside the world of men. I have had very few thrills in this life that surpassed that one and the need to stay inside of this world of strength, achievement and ability, to be one of the guys who is respected and counted on; one of the guys who can get it done, has marked my soul ever since.
Because I was so strong, I never had to be brave. Because basketball perennially afforded me the privileged place it did I was never poor in heart. I never had to face the poverty of my spirit. I never admitted my need for grace. I never inherited the kingdom.