Always a fan of senior night, I attended the final regular season home game of the boys' varsity basketball team at St. Ignatius College Prep on Saturday, February 18, 2017. I've probably attended this celebratory evening 10 of the 14 years I have taught at SI and yet, I continue to see anew that which is visible and invisible.
Athletes know the prestige associated with being named as a starter; basketball showcases this honor like few other sports do. Teammates and coaches form a line perpendicular to the bench while the player sits until his or her name, position and number is called out for fans to hear and cheer. Last night, the coach made a point to let that name be the four seniors on the varsity squad. Their teammates and the student body loved watching these four-year athletes play for the first few minutes of the game.
Before the game, these same athletes were honored with their families on Drucker Court. It's special to see brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents accompany the seniors in a treasured moment. Their presence reminds me that we never achieve anything totally on our own. Our families make sacrifices to help us achieve our dreams. They support us in ways the larger public will never know. The seniors present their mothers with flowers and the entire senior class of athletes come together as one with their families at half court for a group photo.
As I looked at this group—one that I hold such affection for, I was happy to see one of my beloved students was standing proudly with his mom and siblings. Yet I also saw that someone wasn't there. His father, who also played basketball, died seven years ago. Other athletes may have parents who are divorced or some years, family demands elsewhere have prevented both parents from attending. Moments like these are bittersweet. On one hand, it's an honor to be there, period. I know my own brother would have given his left one to play varsity basketball. On the other hand, peak moments are when we miss those we love the most. Because I believe in the communion of saints, I hope and pray—in some small way—that my student felt or saw some part of his dad's presence that evening. I hope the invisible was made visible, if only in his heart. And for the others, I hope the joy of the moment transcends some of the difficulties life too often affords.
Half way through the season as both teams hosted a league record of 6-0, many believed (and hoped) this contest would decide the WCAL championship. As sports fans know, every season brings unexpected twists and turns, wins....and losses. Bellarmine College Prep of San Jose traveled 45 miles north up the WCAL with the hope that they would post perfect league record of 14-0. With four minutes left, the odds didn't look good. The Wildcats were up by 5 points, maintaining possession of the ball. Junior shooting guard Brandon Beckman was clearly in the zone. As my Sports and Spirituality students know, Beckman was in the "flow channel" as he nailed one three-point shot after another. The Bells responded with good defense, ignited an offense that took advantage of the fact that the 'Cats were in the bonus; BCP capitalized by not missing any free throws. They pulled away to win 51-45
After the game, the players lined up to shake hands as they always do. In that moment, I saw a spirited and genuine exchange between Beckman and the player who was guarding him for much of the night. That moment manifested what the word "competition" really means—to strive together. Both young men extended their gifts and talents to the best of their ability. Competition also means that there will be a winner and a loser. Though SI lost, in their brief word and handshake, I could see a mutual respect and admiration for what each person did to help their side win.
I no longer take for granted that a ritual like this one will even happen. Quite often, opponents do not respect one another. Rivalries get heated and players get chippy, even dirty with their tactics to win. In other cases, as I saw in the game prior to this one, the last minute victory was so dramatic, the student body flooded the floor and the team. I watched as our team headed to the locker room having to swallow defeat. No wonder we refer to it as bitter. Not one of our players was given the chance to regroup to extend a congratulations. None of our athletes were tasked with putting aside the sting of defeat for an additional 3 minutes in order to say "good game." To me, that's unfortunate. Why? I believe moments like those prepare us for so many more in years to come. Sure, all hail to the victor! but where does that leave those with whom they have strived. Could it be different? Should it?
Saturday night's game affirmed what I believe is true. It's not easy to see the final home game end in a loss. It's tough to see a crew other than your own delighting in the W, hugging one another for reaching that moment: a great season has come to a close, and their story is different than ours. But, looking at those athletes—at their seniors and at their coach who hasn't had a league title since 2001, knowing how they played the game on this night and so many before, I had nothing but respect and admiration for that team. I know that they can say to one another "we did this." I applaud each and every one of you.
At a dinner party I attended on Friday night, each guest was asked to share their super power. At first, we were confused? Super power? I came to learn the hostess wanted us to name something that we are very good at doing. My answer was easy. I shared that I can find beauty in sports, all sports. For those who might seek beauty in sports...for those who want that super power, I suppose it all starts with seeing what's visible....and then look for what's invisible. Catholicism asks us to believe in both. Amen.
Visible and invisible
Communion of Saints