I had the privilege of coaching 15-year-olds in basketball for several years. My last year, we had a great team. We had ten players in total, and nine of them were playing on their high-school team. The whole nine had been playing together for years, and some of them went on to the local Catholic high school and came one game away from winning the state championship. We beat everybody pretty easily, and it was so lopsided that I didn’t have to coach. Timeouts would come and I would have nothing to say. We won our league, the local playoffs and then lost a touch game in the state tournament.
Now after all that, you might say, you must have some great memories. You know what? There are really only two moments that I remember clearly. One was a really heads-up timeout that one of our players called near the end of our last game.
The other memory isn’t about winning at all. It’s about what happened with the tenth player. Keith was our tenth player, but, unlike the other superstars we had, Keith had never played basketball before in his life. The dribbling, the shooting, all the rules were new to him – he was starting from scratch. Let’s just say that competitive athletics probably wasn’t his thing, and with his gym shorts pulled up a little too high and the timid look in his eyes, he didn’t quite instill intimidation in our opponents.
But he loved being on the team, and the team loved having him on the team. Keith got a lot of playing time, but he couldn’t score. When he was in the game, the guys would do everything they could to get him the ball and set him up. But he couldn’t quite understand it. Game after game went by, and still he hadn’t scored. In fact, I don’t even remember him ever making a shot in practice either.
One game, he was sitting next to me on the bench, and we were winning by some huge margin. He leaned over to me and said, “Coach, we’re winning by a lot.” We are, Keith. A few minutes later: “Coach, there’s no way they can come back.” Well, we’ll keep on playing, Keith. “We’re gonna win again.” He loved being on the team.
In the next-to-last game of the season, we were winning big again. The final minutes were winding down, and Keith was in the game in a crowded gym. There was another young man covering him who probably shared Keith’s basketball acumen, and he was playing the tightest defense imaginable on the poor kid. It was getting physical, too. Everyone noticed. Our players called out to the referees, but no response.
Then something happened. Keith got the ball far outside, just inside the three-point line. The other kid was all over him, hacking away with arms and body. Keith wielded the ball in frustration, and gave it an awkward heave toward the basket.
Just then, the whistle blew for a foul on the other player … and then what seemed like a long pause passed as the whole gym held its breath …
SWISH! In it went!
Our whole team erupted. All the parents who had been coming to our games erupted. We were all cheering ,and word must have got around that it was his only basket the whole year. The whole gym as abuzz, and Keith’s face was red as a beet.
And, he was going to the line.
“Keith you got fouled – now you get to go to the free throw line. You get one shot Keith.” One of the players showed him where to go, and everyone lined up. The referee tossed him the ball.
Everyone paused. He couldn’t hit the free throw, too, could he? Another awkward heave, and, bang, off the backboard …
This time, the whole gym erupted, both teams, all the fans, everyone, you name it. A three-point play for Keith? Impossible! I jumped up with a loud, “YES!” The whole place was alive. I don’t think Keith knew what to do, but he kept smiling in his embarrassment. I almost cried, I was so happy for him.
They were the only points he scored all season.
At the end of the season, we had a team picture taken. In that picture, in the front row, in the very center spot, sits Keith – holding the team ball.
He loved to be on the team, and the team loved him to be on the team.
There are many great saints in the Church, a lot of people who have done really remarkable things and lived amazing lives. There are many holy and talented men and women who have been Popes, bishops, priests, sisters and nuns. They have achieved the greatest accomplishments in human history. Even today, there are great achievers of great things for God and men in the Church. When you look at them in action, you come away thinking, there’s no way the enemy can win.
But what if you’re not at that level? What if the Church and discipleship are all new to you, and you find that you don’t know how to pray, you stick your foot in your mouth, you don’t even know the ropes, and you feel out of place?
Just be on the team. Just be in the Church. Love to be in the Church, and know that the Church loves you to be in it.
And don’t be surprised if the greatest moment is about you.
Be on the team, and the Lord will put you in the prized spot.
Front and center.
“So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Mt 20:16) “For my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
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