Monday, February 27, 2012

From One Anomaly to the Next: Thoughts on Jeremy Lin & Steve Nash

When you teach a class called “Sports and Spirituality” its easy to guess what people want to know. And the answer is “yes.” Yes, we talk about the faith-driven athletes turned media icons Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. No “Tebowing” is required, “Linsanity” is optional.David Brooks’ article “The Jeremy Lin Problem” fit our recent study of identity well. He wrote, “Jeremy Lin is anomalous in all sorts of ways. He’s a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports. But we shouldn’t neglect the biggest anomaly. He’s a religious person in professional sports.”

Brooks certainly named the touchstones on which Lin has become a marketing success. And although they are more true than not, if you dig beneath the last two covers of Sports Illustrated and the headlines of Sportscenter you will see other anomalies abound. One has been getting the work done with the Phoenix Suns for the past eight years.

I remain a student in the school of Steve Nash. Whenever I go to the Warriors vs. Suns game, I find myself focusing my attention on Nash’s game. Consequently, I cheer at odd times. Strike that. I am cheering at times that are at odds with one another-- when the Warriors score and when Nash does, or when he leads his teammates to do so. That’s a whole lot of cheering.

But Steve Nash is anomalous too. In a league where 21% of the players graduate from college, Nash has a degree in sociology from Santa Clara University. He’s one of three Canadians in a league that has two of its 30 teams in Canada. At 38, Nash is a full 12 years older than the average player; he might be the only South-African born player in the NBA!

He may not be overtly religious, but I certainly reference him as an example of an athlete who exhibits admirable character traits. I would send my child to study at the school of Steve Nash. They might learn virtue without even knowing it.

To this point, Brooks contends, “Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.”

As someone who has led the league in assists, Nash knows what it means to lose himself or in this case—the ball—to find victory. In knowing his teammates strengths and opening his vision on the court, he has made everyone better. In losing the focus on himself, he became MVP two times. Knowing his work ethic and commitment to the fundamentals, I would not be surprised if he is the last to leave practice, even after being in the NBA for 16 years.

Steve Nash is another chapter in my course "Sports and Spirituality" Time will tell if Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow remain in the curriculum, but it’s safe to say that the future Hall of Famer and anomaly that is Steve Nash is in there to stay.

Photo Credits

Tebow and Lin
Steve Nash
Mr. Canada

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Remembering What It Means to Be Down to Earth: The Kid, Gary Carter

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Perhaps you heard these words today as you received ashes on your forehead. I dare say that’s one message that’s hard not to comprehend. The creation story speaks of the way our humanity is drawn from the earth. The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7). And at the end of our lives we will be laid to rest from whence we came.

It is humbling to think about one’s mortality. And humility is the proper term because its Latin root “humus” means "of the earth" or "close to the ground." No wonder we describe some people as “down to earth.” Said people are not arrogant or proud. There are not self-inflated; they know their limitations yet they are aware of their strengths.

One such person who fits this mold is the late Hall of Fame catcher, Gary Carter. When I heard he died of brain cancer, I felt the world lost a beautiful soul. The man’s nickname was “The Kid.” His smile and was it a perm? whatever it was, his affect said it all: down to earth.

Sports Illustrated’s This Week in the News said “As an Expo and a Met, Carter’s exuberance led some to think him a self-promoter, but he delivered when the spotlight was brightest, most notably during the ’86 postseason.” Kids are exuberant; this moniker was well earned.
Still, his love for the game was not limited to his role behind the plate or all that he brought to the line-up on offense. No. “A Californian who took French Berlitz classes and embraced the Quebecois culture, he was beloved in the City of Saints in ways that it has seemed only a Canadian could be.” He met his fans where they were. I am one of them.

I met Gary Carter backstage at the Concord Pavilion when I was 16 years old. As an employee of the concessions department it was my job as a “runner” to head to the storage unit that was conveniently located behind the stage to get any and all supplies we needed. The band Chicago had yet to play and it was nearly dark outside. A group of men where talking to a special security guard. I paid no attention until I heard a voice that was strikingly familiar to me.

It was a voice I knew because I heard it every night after a Giants game on KNBR; the voice of center-fielder Brett Butler. I could hardly believe my good fortune, standing before me were five San Francisco Giants. I approached the group and said, “Stop! You’re…. you’re Brett Butler.” Without missing a beat Gary Carter said, “Nah, Brett Butler is 4’10.” For whatever reason I said “no you’re not (talking to Brett). You’re 5”5” you weigh 160 pounds and bat left.” It’s a good thing I was young when I knew this and said it.

With his playful spirit, Gary Carter was the first to say “that’s pretty impressive" as he extended his arm for a handshake. I managed to get the only thing I had for them to sign, my Spanish workbook. Carter was the first to give his autograph.

New York paid tribute to “The Kid” by shifting the lights on the Empire State Building to Mets' blue and orange. To have to say goodbye to anyone, let alone a spirit like Gary Carter at 57 years of age is not easy. Were reminded today or our humble beginnings and in the example of Carter, some humble endings.

Lent is not necessarily a time to fixate on death. Rather we are called to renew our baptismal promises during this penitential and holy season. As we seek to “turn away from sin and live the gospel” perhaps we can exhibit some of the same exuberance for life and humility that Gary Carter brought to the plate—literally.

Photo Credits

Gary with the Mets
Empire State Tribute
A Beautiful Life

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Look To You: Whitney Houston on Talent & Jeremy Lin on Charisms

Although the seed of truth was planted at the “Called and Gifted” workshop, it took watching Whitney Houston’s funeral for me to admit that many talents are in-born. I don’t know why I was close-minded to realizing natural talents like music, art and athletics can be inherited from our parents. Fortunately, “Called and Gifted” a program that teaches Catholics how to discover and use their unique spiritual gifts, opened my mind to another way of thinking. We all have talents and we have charisms. God gives them in abundance both naturally and supernaturally. Come Holy Spirit!Prior to the televised memorial service I was already aware that Houston’s mother—Cissy Houston, along with cousin Dionne Warwick, godmother Darlene Love and honorary aunt Aretha Franklin were all notable figures in the gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, and soul genres. But as I watched Pastor Marvin Winans at the piano as his sister CeCe, brother BeBe and at least four other siblings sing a soulful rendition of "Tomorrow," I realized their shared gifts are more than coincidence. Our talents are gifts from God; they were poured out in the form of music in the Winans. Indeed, the evidence that talents may be passed down from one generation to the next is glaring in popular culture and close to home. I’m not sure I needed the eye to see it. Rather, I needed the mindset to understand. Speaking of close to home, upon reading that USF defeated Gonzaga in men’s basketball last night, I remembered the Don’s Angelo Caloiaro has an athletic family par excellance. Caloiaro's player profile reveals that "His younger brother Vinny is a sophomore midfielder on the USF soccer team and his younger sister, Joanie is a freshman setter on the Dons' volleyball squad." In case that doesn’t make a statement, perhaps that his first cousin is professional volleyball player Kerry Walsh does. And just down Palo Alto way, Andrew Luck was not the first athlete to play for the Cardinal. His older sister Mary Ellen played volleyball. They must have received some athletic talent from their father, Olie, a former Houston Oiler and West Virginia quarterback who currently serves as the athletic director at West Virginia.

In the August 1, 2011 posting "No" to Sibling Rivalry & "Yes" to Sibling Success--What Serena Williams Made Me Realize, I stood fascinated by families that met athletic success. I said “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?” But since writing that column, I have noticed how often it does happen. And it should, especially if natural talents are largely inherited.

So what about charisms? How might they be known or understood in the sporting world? I think the hottest subject in Sports and Spirituality, Jeremy Lin provides a great example.

According to The Catholic Spiritual Gifts Inventory, "Charism is simply the Greek word used in the New Testament for favor or Gratuitous gift. They are special abilities given to Christians by the Holy Spirit to enable them to be powerful channels of God’s love and a redeeming presence in the world. Whether extraordinary or ordinary, charisms are to be used in charity or service to build up the Church (CCC, 2003)."

Charisms or long-term charisms need to be discovered and developed just like talents. It should not take much discernment for Knicks basketball fans to determine that their All Star point guard has the charism of Faith.

Weddell writes, "This spiritual gift enables to an effective agent of God’s purposes through an unusual trust in the love, power, and provision of God and a remarkable freedom to act on this trust."

Lin’s life has been so overrun with requests for interviews that he agreed to speak with Warriors beat writer Marcus Thompson II on one condition: questions must be limited to the issue of spirituality. The exclusive interview: Jeremy Lin says faith in God triggered ‘Lin-sanity’ reveals his charism. Thompson reports,
before he was crowned star of the Knicks, Lin was ridden with doubt and anxiety. So he doubled down on his commitment to God. And without that, he believes, there would be no Lin-sanity.

What the country sees is a Cinderella story, Lin's meteoric rise from the NBA Development League to unstoppable star. But for Lin, it's a story of faith, the beautiful struggle he's now convinced he can win. Most importantly, it's a story of how he'll be completely fine if he doesn't.

"I'm not playing to prove anything to anybody," Lin said. "That affected my game last year and my joy last year. With all the media attention, all the love from the fans (in the Bay Area), I felt I needed to prove myself. Prove that I'm not a marketing tool, I'm not a ploy to improve attendance. Prove I can play in this league. But I've surrendered that to God. I'm not in a battle with what everybody else thinks anymore."

He started every morning with a devotional before heading to the gym to work out. Whenever the anxiety tried to creep in, he whispered a Bible verse to himself: And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

Even with the glittery trappings that can accompany an NBA lifestyle, Lin's devoutness has always been his compass, friends say. "In high school, a few of us were known to party on Friday nights after the games. Jeremy was known for teaching the bible to kids and spending time with his family," said his Palo Alto High teammate Brad Lehman. "None of the usual distractions were an issue for him."
Every Christian has a vocation or “mission” in life, a work of love through which each individual is called to follow Jesus and for which they were created (Ephesians 4: 7-16). God may have made Lin to be a basketball player. His background provides little to no evidence that his talent is inherited. His father taught his two brothers and him a game he never played at the YMCA. I have no idea if his father had an opportunity to play hoops in Taiwan or not. Let’s be clear, talents need not be inherited, but it seems obvious to me this talent may have been created as a platform by which his charism of faith is now magnified.And in some way, Lin is no different than the late Whitney Houston. Her talent was clearly music but so too was her charism. This charism "empowers a Christian to be a channel of God’s creative goodness to others through writing or performing music for the delight of others and the praise of God." It is unfortunate that her talent and charism lost to addiction. But death and tragedy did not have the last world. As the Newark Star Ledger reports: "As world-renowned singers, family members and friends testified to the star's unshakable faith, the service grounded Houston's life and music firmly in the gospel tradition."

"I Look To You" Whitney Houston and Jeremy Lin and I see the greatness of God in your gifts.

Photo Credits

Thank You God
Holy Spirit
Caloiaro Family
We Are All Witnesses-Lin

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Body: Temple of the Holy Spirit vs. The Norovirus

The survey reports that 935 students and 68 faculty members at St. Ignatius College Prep were infected with the Norovirus. This “group of viruses that cause the 'stomach flu' or gastroenteritis” prompted the school’s closure for three days.
I wanted to return to the classroom with a clever yet meaningful way to get students to discuss all that had happened during the past week. I wanted call attention to my increased appreciation and respect for the body—both as a survivor of this virulent airborne virus, but also as a spectator of athletic feats in Super Bowl XLII.

The first passage of scripture that came to mind are the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (6:19-20). Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.

Indeed the temple had been taken hostage for 48 hours by the Norovirus. In no way did I feel or believe that I was my own; I felt little control over my illness. I slept, waited and hoped in anticipation that my immune system would eventually triumph.
As the battle finally began to lean in my favor, I watched the New York Giants and New England Patriots, modern day gladiators wage their own warfare. However, these men, both healthy and strong were purchased at a price. A price that I think we need be critical of in our society. Still, I am sure they believe when they play, run, hit, tackle, pass and receive at the highest level they have a unique opportunity to glorify God in their body. This year's Super Bowl may not have revealed that in the way other games have, but Manningham's catch that put the G-men in the position to take the lead merits some consideration.

If there is one Super Bowl MVP who was able to glorify God in his body, it was without a doubt Jerry Rice. Jerry had such command of his temple that he once said he was at his best when he maintained a body fat of 8%. When he was at 9% body fat, he ran a little too slow; when he was at 7% he was just a little too lean. Recovery time for the Hall of Fame wide receiver took longer when he was at 7% body fat. Talk about precision and discipline!
While few of us need command of our body in the way a professional athlete does, ultimately St. Paul delivered a message we still need to hear today. Because we belong to God, we are holy and integral parts of the Body of Christ. His concept of responsibility to the Body includes taking care of our physical bodies and those of one another. Richard T. Ritenbaugh writes "Under the Old Covenant, God is mysterious and distant and dwelling in the Temple. Under the New Covenant, we become the Temple, and God becomes knowable and personal." It shouldn’t have to take the flu to remind me that the body is indeed sacred. We say “life is a gift!” quite often. In this past week, I am humbly reminded that so too, is good health.

Photo Credits

Jerry Rice
Manningham's Catch

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What the New York Giants Should Learn from Cross Country Runners

Although any press that cross country receives in the sporting world is a good thing, I wish it wasn’t (once again) about a runner collapsing at the state meet. Even though I am not a New York Giants fan, I should have been excited to read that Coach Tom Coughlin recently showed the team an ESPN video of University High senior Holland Reynolds crawling over the finish line to help secure the 2010 CIF Division V State Championship. His intent was to motivate his players, to help them visualize and understand what a true "fight to the finish" looks like—how gritty victory can be.

Don’t get me wrong, Holland’s feat was remarkable. Her will to complete the race truly shows an athlete who is unafraid to demonstrate much of St. Ignatius’ prayer of generosity: “to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not seek for rest," but I see other heroic acts in cross-country all the time. So, with those respective sports in mind, let me offer an example of what I might show the Giants, were I head coach…

Considering that “The Nielsen Co. said an estimated 111 million people watched the Green Bay Packers outlast the Pittsburgh Steelers in professional football's ultimate game,” I believe the Super Bowl should be a showcase for sportsmanship par excellence. To me, the post-game ritual is a small but significant moment where sportsmanship is on display, revealed and necessary. And on October 16, 2011, Forty Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh sent sports-talk radio a-buzz as his over-exuberant handshake with Detroit Lions coach Jim Swartz that was analyzed for nearly two weeks.
According to the Huffington Post, "Schwartz didn't take it very well. He appeared to say something to that effect while the two were meeting on the field, but Harbaugh kept running toward the locker room. That's when Schwartz chased Harbaugh down and started yelling at him. Harbaugh looked as if he said "get out of my face" as Schwartz had to be separated by several staff members. Soon enough the players were taking cues from the emotions of their coaches and a scuffle ensued."

Harbaugh admitted that emotions got the best of him. He promised to “work on his handshake” which is funny to read but worth considering if you want to lead with class and poise.
I love his competitive nature. I also love that the Niners took down an undefeated team in their house. But, true sportsmanship loves something else. Sportsmanship in this moment is gracious and poised; it is pumped but it is respectful. And in that way, I think what I have witnessed as a cross country coach can serve as a shining example.

During the 2006-2009 school years, I coached a great runner at St. Ignatius College Prep, Katy Daly. Katy was a three-time WCAL champion, two-time CCS champion and as a junior, she was the CIF Division III State Champion. She excelled at every level, but her greatest title in my eyes is that of the consummate sportswoman.

After every race, Katy would wait for her opponents and her teammates to congratulate them. She would look them in the eye, give a high five or a pat on the back and say “good race." After the big races when Katy battled it out with another girl, without fail, she would initiate a hug. It was something I have rarely seen in this demanding sport. Girls are crying, writhing in pain, trying to open their lungs and Katy had the clarity and desire to extend her arms in a gesture that modeled true sportsmanship.
Runners may not speak to one another during a race, but that does not mean they are not communicating. Runners are dealing with an inner-monologue, they are assessing their opponents' strengths and their weaknesses while determining their own and that of the course. When Katy hugged an opponent, I saw this as a sign of reverence—for both the sport and the athlete. She would never say “look at what I did!” or what you did. No, to me it was Katy’s way of saying “3.1 miles of blood, sweat, and tears—we did that."

If you were to ask me what I would like a coach before the Superbowl to show his team, it might be something like that. But the irony is, as one of Katy’s coaches, this nothing we asked her to do. We never gave her any advice or input on how to handle victory or defeat—I don't know why. I suppose that’s the joy of being a witness to greatness in athletics. We get to take in the beauty of the moment and pass it on. And clearly, that’s why the stories of Holland Reynolds and Katy Daly are worth telling. One demonstrates a desire to get to the finish and the other is one of to be at the finish. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Photo Credits

Holland Reynolds
Harbaugh Handshake
Head CoachesKaty Daly--and I know she'll kill me for writing this!