Monday, August 22, 2011

Life Lessons from Unlikely People and Places: Remembering Don Casper

As summer comes to a close, I think of how I filled my days—What were the highs and lows, the graces and the gifts? This year, it began with my fourth Immersion trip, nine students and I spent two weeks with the L’Arche community and Catholic Worker Home in Tacoma, WA. It doesn’t matter where I go, or what I do on immersion, "a program that engages participants in service within a context that calls for solidarity with people on society's margins," Immersion continues to invite me further into a world of contradiction. And the irony is that contradiction has never proven more true than in reflecting back upon my very first one and surprisingly so--the life and tragic death of SI alum, Don Casper.
In June 2005, I left Pacific Heights, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in San Francisco for Dolores Mission Church, the poorest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. If the name is familiar to you, it’s because the poet, prophet and priest Greg Boyle, SJ was its pastor for many years. It is the seedbed for Homeboy Industries, which “assists at-risk, recently released, and formerly gang involved youth to become contributing members of their communities through job placement, training and education.” Their motto is their mission: Jobs not jails.

Fr. Boyle’s book “Tattoos on the Heart” recounts two decades of working with and in this community. He says, “the church is nestled in the middle of two large public-housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Together they comprise the largest grouping of public housing west of the Mississippi.” It’s no Pac Heights.

In just two weeks time, I learned about gangs, why young people join, why they stay and why they leave. I also learned about the senseless killing and violence, the cycle of poverty and despair and the importance of a good father for so many young men. I learned many life lessons, but what surprised me the most was contradictory.
Boyle Heights isn’t a place you would describe as “beautiful.” The public housing appears institutional; there are few trees and no manicured yards. The sidewalks are uneven, the roads are not swept, and yet despite the threat of violence, there is something very real and live about the neighborhood. Everyone knows one another.

Good, bad or otherwise, people know one another’s families—their abuelas and tios, “homies” and “homegirls” know who lives where and who belongs to whom. The community has banded together in many ways. Yes, out of necessity but also in prayerful and powerful support. Basta ya! Enough already.

What a contrast Boyle Heights was to my home on Fillmore and Washington streets—the very heart of Pac Heights. Homes around me sell for over a million dollars. The colors of the buildings are cool, soft pastels accented by gingerbread woodwork and designer landscapes. The streets are cleaned every morning at 6:00 a.m. Parking is a premium. Safety is rarely if ever an issue.

As much as I love my neighborhood, I realized a sad truth when I returned. I can count on one hand how many of my neighbors I know. I live in a building with five other apartment units. I know the names of no one. To a large degree, I am anonymous and so are most of the people I live beside. What a contrast. What a striking contradiction.

But somehow, someway our humanity always breaks through. I think of these tiny flowers that break through the concrete of the sidewalk. They say to me that beauty is a necessity in this life. It finds us, even in unlikely places, amid unlikely circumstances.
And in case I needed a reminder, I got one in the sad news of the death of my roommate’s close family friend, Don Casper. He was a prominent San Francisco Republican, attorney and vice president of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission. Don was out running and hit by a drunk driver; he was 63 years old.

As Vicki was describing this loyal St. Ignatius and Georgetown alum, I realized I actually knew whom she was talking about. I never knew his name, but at least once a week, if not more, I saw a middle-aged man run down Fillmore Street. This man was loyal to his Hoyas; he always ran with a classic Georgetown t-shirt. Just recently I noticed he switched from a long sleeved navy Georgetown shirt to a fresh white Georgetown tee. He too opted for the classic script.

As a fellow runner, I would look at him in wonder. He often ran late at night, he ran in the rain, he ran in the “oh so rare” heat, and he always ran at a good clip, even if he did have the downhill. He too ran without headphones, I could see the way running cleared his mind and stilled his conscience.

I didn’t’ know him…but I did. He was a member of this community and his presence will be missed. His quirky humanity was expressed in something I could relate to, something I valued, it was a passion we shared. I think of Fillmore Street without this warm soul pounding the pavement and something is missing.

In the same way that Boyle Heights knows loss, unfortunately all too well, Pacific Heights has experienced a loss. Don Casper will be missed. And the contradiction in this is that although our communities seem different, we are the same. The presence of one person can and does make a difference. Our humanity always breaks through.

Photo Credits
Don Casper
Homeboy Industries
Father G
Flower breaks through
Running at Sunset

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Bus Leaves in 40 Minutes….

My friend Kevin and I walked out of the bar as if we had just heard the verdict of the Rodney King trial. Disgusted. Disappointed.

It is unfair of me to compare what most Giants fans consider to be “the worst loss of the year” to a matter of injustice. But the dramatic walk-off exit is an appropriate gesture. And sometimes we sports fans take matters far too seriously, which is why I appreciated what KNBR radio host, Brian Murphy said this morning: The bus leaves in 40 minutes. What does this mean? And why is it important?When the Giants re-entered the club house after what was a huge loss, what do you think they heard? Nothing. It was silent. What did they smell? Fear? Probably not. I think they smelled a lot of sweat; it’s Atlanta in August. We were leading by two runs at the bottom of the 9th. The Braves and Brian Wilson certainly made the Giants sweat. What did they taste? They almost tasted victory. Who didn’t mentally and prematurely include a game in the win column? What did they feel? I know what I felt as a helpless fan 3,000 miles away. I felt torture. But what did the players see? They saw a sign that read: The bus leaves in 40 minutes.

And that’s the truth. The bus left 40 minutes after the conclusion of the game. Players had 40 minutes to shower, talk to the media, eat, change, and do whatever they need to do. Pack up your things and go. We’ll be back at it tomorrow and play again. There will be another bus tomorrow. I think it's an important metaphor for life. Some events—some losses are indeed life-changing. Some are a bleeding injustice, a deep betrayal, or an inconsolable grief. But other losses or misgivings, although they sting, are just that—a loss. It’s important to remember many losses trials and challenges are going to happen in a season; the collective whole is always a sum of its parts. Yes, last night was one part...but there's another part tomorrow...and the next day. The bus will arrive and leave on those days too.

Photo Credits
Braves win
Wilson after a loss. He only had 5 last year; last night was his 5th

Friday, August 12, 2011

When God Made Basketball, He Carved Out Chris Mullin

I don’t remember the date or the opponent, but I remember what I was wearing: a red St. John’s University sweatshirt. It even featured the politically incorrect red man mascot in the middle. I was sitting with my dad in good seats watching the Warriors warm-up. Chris Mullin saw me in it and gave me a “thumbs up.” I was wearing it for him, #17 who will be enshrined in the basketball hall of fame in Springfield, MA today.

Talk to any fundamentalist of the game and they will tell you precisely why Chris Mullin was a great player. Bruce Jenkin’s article Chris Mullin's game demanded respect will add to that. He writes “Mullin wasn't just anyone, as it turned out. He was one in a million.” He was revered by the African American basketball community, he was a revolutionary passer and for a man of ordinary speed and jumping ability, he was an unstoppable one-on-one player.

A "three-time Player of the Year in the loaded Big East - he was doing things seldom seen at any level, in any era." Jenkins’ identifies his accomplishments as a Warrior, but I believe his single greatest accomplishment is one that is critical to his success as an athlete and a human being: he is a recovering alcoholic.In his 1992 article “In a Golden State” Rick Reilly chronicles Mullin’s daily commitment to not drink—just for today. At the time, Mullin was four years sober; today he has gone without a drink for 23 years. The unofficial statistics reveal that about one-third of alcoholics fully recover, one-third go in and out of sobriety and one-third never do. What individual, family or work place doesn’t know the sad and detrimental affects of this disease? A person can lose everything because of alcoholism. For Mullin, it was a basketball career and his relationship with the woman who is his wife for 15 plus years and the mother of his four children, Liz. Fortunately, he listened to his coach Don Nelson.

Reilly's article reports how he became sober.
"I want you to take care of this problem right now," Nelson said. "I want you to call your parents and your agent." Mullin was the fifth player Nellie had suspended for drug-or alcohol-related infractions. None of the players ever made it back to the league. Nelson wasn't leaving any lights on for Mullin.

Mullin checked into the clinic, but he wouldn't buy into it. He was denying all the way. The night before, he called Liz, crying. "You may not want to go out with me after this," he said, "but I'm checking into an alcohol rehab clinic tomorrow."

"Are you kidding?" she said, crying too. "This is the best Christmas present you could have given us."

But that's not how it felt. Mullin went to Centinela with a jam box, CDs and pictures and had them all taken from him. His room was done in Early Leavenworth: a cot, a desk and a closet. Here was a millionaire NBA player thrown in with heroin addicts, street winos, career drunks and crack heads. Still, the door out was unlocked, and Mullin almost used it. A lot of guys left and never came back. You're in there on Christmas Day, and on New Year's Eve the urge gets pretty ripe. Back home the New York Post pasted a picture of Mullin's face over a Heineken bottle. Happy holidays.

A.A. is a 12-step program, and that first step is a doozy: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. What? Me, like these bums? Have I lost my job? Have I lost my family? "It was easy to say, 'Hey, you're messed up, not me,' " says Mullin. Still, something kept him there. "I remembered my dad always said, 'You can always take the easy way out. But the easy way is usually the wrong way.' I guess I just felt if I did the right thing, I'd get rewarded in the end."

What he almost got was dead. Part of his Centinela program was an A.A. group that met at night in a dicey section of Inglewood. One time the members were standing around in front of a church during a break. Some kids were fistfighting next door. After a while they disappeared. There was calm. Then, suddenly, a van pulled up, and somebody inside started strafing the church with an automatic. The rehabs dove for it. As the bullets flew, Mullin thought, Damn, I'm trying to get sober here, not get killed.

Maybe there's something about nearly dying with 10 addicts and bums in a gang shoot-out in a Ripple section of a town you don't even live in that gives your recovery efforts a certain urgency. Mullin came to realize something about the winos and the horse heads in his group. "Their stories were the same as mine," he says. "I just hadn't gotten to their degree yet." He stopped blaming himself for his alcoholism. He looked at it like a disease: If I were allergic to pizza, he thought, I'd stop eating it.

After he got out, he gave full credit to Nelson. "He might have saved my life," Mullin said. As soon as he was home, he and Grabow went to a gym on the University of California campus for a little workout. Shoot a few free throws, Grabow said. Mullin hadn't touched a basketball in 30 days. He made 91 straight. Are those great hands or what?
We love those hands—especially that left shooting hand. Basketball is as fundamental to Chris Mullin as his shots are to the game. I am grateful for his example as a player and a person who has struggled and triumphed. "When God made basketball," Magic Johnson says, "He just carved Chris Mullin out and said, This is a player.' " Knick coach Pat Riley calls Mullin "the consummate pro," and Mullin's consistency can be amazing.

When asked about his career, Mullin said “I loved making All-Star teams, stuff like that, but it was the respect part that meant more than anything else," he said. "Respect from your peers, coaches, in the street - that's what it's all about to me."

Chris, you have earned so much more than respect from your fans; thank you for sharing your gifts and talents as a player and a person.

Photo Credits
Mullin and Nelson
Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame Plaque--in the United terminal at SFO!
NBA Hall of Fame

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tiger Woods & Steve Williams: Another Look at Winning and Losing

I hate to admit this, but when Tiger Woods returned to golf after the exposure of his sham of a marriage, I secretly hoped he would win the Masters. Yes, I read the Vanity Fair exposé piece, I heard the voicemail messages he left, and I even listened to all 15 minutes of his apology speech. Like many people I could not stand to look at the Sports Illustrated "Athlete of the Decade (2000-2009)." And yet, I waited with bated breath for his return. Quietly, I pulled for him. Why? How?

I wanted to see just how great an athlete he is. An athlete competes—its inherent in the definition of the word—and from that viewpoint alone, I wondered: Could check all that had happened at the door? Was that humanly possible?

Well, in the year plus that has passed since the fall-- sex rehab, his comeback and injuries have certainly proven one thing is true—Tiger is and was much more human that any of us thought possible. Being human means that we are capable of sin and redemption, even utter transformation. Easy to say, hard to believe.The irony for Tiger however is that transformation and redemption do indeed surround him. It seems as though it is happening to everyone but him—this two time former Sports Illustrated "Sportsman of The Year" (oh the irony, eh?)

Who can forget the emotional victory for Phil Mickelson in the 2010 Masters? His wife Amy, battling breast cancer summoned enough strength to congratulate him with their three children on the 18th hole. And who did not take great delight in Adam Scott’s victory on Sunday at W.G.C.-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. Tiger Woods finished the tournament at one over par, tied for 37th, and made $58,500. Scott finished 17-under, earned $1.4 million and who was by his side? None other than Tiger’s once beloved caddy, Steve Williams.

Williams, who had been at Woods’s side for 13 of his 14 major championships and the bulk of his 71 tour victories, had assisted Woods at Firestone Country Club, a course he had won seven times. Williams even picked up 10 percent of Scott’s $1.4 million first-place check, or $140,000; Woods earned $58,500.

When Williams said “It’s the most satisfying win I’ve ever had. There’s no two ways about it. I’m not denying it.” you have to wonder what victory he was really talking about. Woods was the best man in his wedding. After his split from Greg Norman in 1989, the Kiwi vowed that he would never get that close to another golfer again. I’m sure he did; maybe Tiger didn’t allow it. Williams swore he did not know the extent of Tiger’s affairs. Based on what we have learned from Tiger and his dual life—perhaps he didn’t.

My students advocate for learning from your mistakes—and they should. We all should. At the same time, I caution them about this because some of them are not reversible. Some mistakes have dire consequences and harm others, future lives and relationships—permanently. Unfortunately, in Tiger Woods we have a case study of where and how this is very true.

More on "Bag Man," Steve Williams to come!

Photo Credits

Sports Illustrated Cover
Woods and Bag Man
Williams and Scott

Monday, August 8, 2011

From the Free Throw Contest to Helping Haiti: Knights of Columbus live Sports & Spirituality

Walking out of mass at St. Mary’s parish in Walnut Creek, I was encouraged to see the Knights of Columbus still host their monthly pancake breakfasts. In a world that is increasingly more hostile to families and to their budgets, this event is both affordable and builds community. And, in case delicious pancakes plus the aforementioned reasons don’t suffice, the proceeds provide scholarship funds for seminarians and needy grammar school students. Thank you Knights!Perhaps your familiarity with the Knights is from your dad, an uncle or grandfather who served as a loyal member. Maybe as a child you entered their pro-life essay-writing contest, or purchased a steak sandwich at Notre Dame on a football Saturday, or participated in their free throw shooting contest….ok, maybe it’s the regalia?!

Considering the state of free throws in the NBA, this is one contest I believe many more players should enter. Any basketball purist cannot watch a game today and not leave it in total disgust. They are called “free throws” for a reason; those are free points. Long are the days of Chris Mullin who completed his career with a 86.5% free throw average (I am however pleased to report Steve Nash has a 90.5% average to date). It seems that performances like those of Shaq (52.7% lifetime average, he missed his 5000 free throw in 2008) are all too common. Practice, practice, practice! and make that practice a little fun—as the Knights’ competition did, while raising funds for CYO programs!

The Knights may have a way of instilling fundamentals, but they are also responding to new needs in our community. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti a great need emerged—for prosthetic devices. Thus, through a partnership with Project Medishare, the Knights launched “Healing Haiti’s Children.” The medical group crafts and fits prosthetic devices and provides ongoing physical therapy. The Knights provide the funding, awareness and support. Some recipients are members of an amputee soccer club called Team Zaryen. This team “is about more than soccer. The players are committed to setting an example for all those who face difficult and life-changing circumstances.” We all have something to learn from these talented and spirited athletes.

To me, the Knights of Columbus are a wonderful example of a community that models Sports and Spirituality at its best. They are a gift to the Church and I hope we support their efforts in a church and a world that needs their example of service, community, discipline and generosity. Again, thank you Knights!

Photo Credits
Team Zaryen
Chris Mullin--Lefty Free Throw
Knights & Team Z

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Catholics and Work; Catholics and Sports

America magazine’s annual vocation issue presented a series of short pieces that featured several thoughtful reflections on Catholics’ experiences of faith and work. The “and” is noteworthy. Theologian Richard McBrien emphasizes that Catholic spirituality is “both/and” not “either/or.” The testimonies did not address “faith versus work.” We live in a world where pitting once against the other is easy to do.It said
Over a lifetime, work is the single most energy- and time-consuming pursuit of most adults today, for both men and women. Work, whether paid or unpaid, is also a source of identity, community, creativity and meaning for many. The phrase meaningful work has been used to describe socially redemptive jobs like social work, church work and health care, as well as government, science and engineering jobs that attempt to solve social problems. But the term can be misleading. For honest work itself has meanings that go beyond the economic necessity to support oneself, one’s family and the local economy. Work develops and hones skills, builds character, frames time and sets up a public rhythm. Work challenges assumptions and faith.

How, exactly, does work intersect with faith? The particularities may depend on the work itself. We have asked practicing Catholics across a variety of fields to describe briefly how they regard their faith and their work when they consider them together. What is the interplay between the two? In what ways has their faith influenced their work—perhaps strengthened certain decisions they have made, governed relationships with clients or co-workers, been instrumental in their very choice of what work to do, given them tenacity and hope, shaped their positive view of the work they do? Just as important is this twin consideration: In what ways has their work influenced their faith—perhaps caused them to understand some particular tenet, sparked certain questions or reflections, enabled them to see in their very own lives some contemporary application of biblical truths or ancient Christian wisdom?
Naturally, I looked to see if one of the profiles included a statement from a professional athlete. Obviously, I am fascinated by the relationship between faith and athletics. To be a recreational athlete is one thing; to do it professionally to support one’s livelihood is another.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a parent who is a professional athlete since the time I completed my application for the University of Notre Dame. It required me to list my parents’ names and professions. I thought about what my parents did and what some other students might write. I wondered “do Joe Montana’s children write: “Four-time Superbowl Champion,” “NFL Football Player” or “Greatest Quarterback in the modern game?” When I graduated from ND, an alumni survey asked me to indicate my profession. One of the options from the drop down menu was “professional athlete.” I realized how that is a legitimate option for people—not a fantasy.

Unfortunately for my reading pleasure, America did not profile a professional athlete. But the people it did feature had some thoughtful input in the realm of business, politics, not-for-profit organizations, media and medicine.

I stared to think rather than “work” to what degree could we ask the same questions about athletics. Undoubtedly sports are a significant “energy-and time-consuming pursuit of most adults today.” One of the reasons I stopped running marathons was because of the sheer time commitment involved in training for the 26.2-mile venture. Conversely, a significant reason I believe I ought to pursue golf is because as teacher, I have the time in the summer to hit the links.Sports “is also a source of identity, community, creativity and meaning for many.” If it weren’t for the community that cross-country provides, I’m not sure why anyone, unless he or she is a glutton for pain, would join our team. Furthermore, I have come to know and love my students in a much different way through their identity as a basketball player, a rower or swimmer. Athletics “develops and hones skills, builds character, frames time and sets up a public rhythm.” The school where I teach encourages teachers to coach because we know that sports are fertile ground for instilling virtue. John Paul II said “Sports are the true school of human virtue.

I think America magazine’s piece offers questions for all of us to consider not only in work but in athletics as well. After all, that’s’ what vocation is about. What am I called to do? Who am I called to be? Vocation demands a response to both. So do work and sports.

Photo Credits

Catholics at Work
Montana Family
Catholic Community of Sports

Monday, August 1, 2011

"No" to Sibling Rivalry & "Yes" to Sibling Success--What Serena Williams Made Me Realize

The success of Serena Williams as witnessed at the Bank of the West Tennis Championship match got me thinking about a lot of things. How she came from Compton—a part of Los Angeles that people have heard of but never visited. Renown for crime, gangs, and drugs “the city of Compton” was made famous by 2Pac after the Williams sisters left town.

What a great athlete she is. I would not want to guard her inside the paint; she is physical and aggressive. I would fear seeing her on the other side of the net in volleyball. Her reflexes are super quick and she is sure to fire up her teammates. As a rower, I am confident she would tare up the erg; she could eat the proverbial rowing machine for lunch. She has one of the strongest and most consistent serves in the game. She hits winners from the baseline. No wonder she has been number one in the world 5 different times.

How she has changed the face of the fan base at tournaments in the United States. The Palo Alto crowd was exceedingly diverse and quite obviously there to support her. Although tennis is truly an international sport, in the US the vast majority of professionals are not African American (with a few exceptions). Perhaps Serena’s example and success will change that among black youth.

And most especially, I started to think about the success of two women from the same family. You can’t talk about Serena without mentioning her sister Venus. In fact her older sister has 43 career tennis titles whereas Serena now has 38. Venus has a three-match lead in the head-to-head series, 13–10 (including the last four in a row). They have played one another twelve times in Grand Slam singles tournaments and eleven times in other tournaments (including eleven finals). They are the only women during the open era to have played each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals. Thinking about the Williams sisters I realized, It’s not sibling rivalries that fascinate me, but sibling success. I love to think of the many that have colored the pages of professional sports over the years—Peyton and Eli Manning, (football) Roberto and Sandy Alomar (baseball) The Bryan Brothers (men’s doubles), Tiki and Ronde Barber (football), Reggie, Cheryl and Darrell Miller, (basketball & baseball) John and Patrick McEnroe (should I go there?).

On May 20, 2011 Catholic San Francisco ran a story on the WBAL and CCS Section IV championship team from Sacred Heart in Atherton not because of their success but rather, there were three sets of brothers on the varsity team (including one set of twins plus their younger brother!). “During practice, the brothers’ familiarity with each other sharpened everyone’s skills. They were familiar with their counterpart’s style of play and move, which made it tough for them to score on the other.” So much for sibling rivalry!

I love to ask what was going on in the Manning household that cultivated the success for not one but two Superbowl MVPs. But after today, I started to think I may be asking the wrong question. Rather than “How can it be that from the same family came x, y and z….” Isn’t the question—why isn’t this happening more regularly? Siblings are drawing from the same gene pool, they have similar access to opportunities—lessons, facilities, programs, etc. and one common home environment to encourage and develop talent.

Considering the common forces in play, siblings who succeed in athletics should not be an anomaly. I believe the same can and should be true with regard to the spiritual life. Dickens wrote “Charity begins at home” and it’s true. A home that cultivates virtue, commits to a faith tradition, prays together and practices the faith together should be fertile ground for a rich and real relationship with God.

And we have plenty of examples to serve as role models to prove its possible. Among his apostles, Jesus chose two sets of brothers—Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. Jesus obviously came from a holy family—his grandparents Joachim and Anne and his parents Mary and Joseph and his cousin John are each regaled as saints. We have married saints such as the peasant farmer St. Isidore his wife St. Maria and sometime in the near future, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux—the Little Flower. Her mother and father Louis Martin and Marie Zelie Guerin were beatified by Benedict XVI in 2008.

Rather than emphasizing how dysfunctional our families are, I wish we could look to the holy ones for their example. There is no perfect family, but I do believe there is a spectrum of those who love and live differently.

And the same is true for athletes. I think it might be worth considering what these families have done to instill athletic success in one another. I have no doubt it's tough to manage sibling success over sibling rivalry, but for those parents who can and do--thank you!

Photo Credits
Serena WinsWilliams Sisters
Manning Family
Therese of Lisieux's parents