Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Beauty of Bookstore Basketball

Many people have not forgotten or forgiven the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama as the 2009 commencement speaker. People held passionate, principled arguments from many standpoints for why the University should and should not host a leader who stands in violation of many, but not all Catholic teachings.  However, I am here to say--yes, four years later--what I have not forgotten or forgiven.  

I have not forgotten that the President cut the tension his very presence brought to the podium by mentioning a great spring tradition: Bookstore Basketball.  Fears, disdain, and concerns were neutralized, even if slightly when he said 
Now, since this is Notre Dame I think we should talk not only about your accomplishments in the classroom, but also in the competitive arena.  No, don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about that.  We all know about this university’s proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world -- Bookstore Basketball. 
Now this excites me.  I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s tournament, a team by the name of "Hallelujah Holla Back." Congratulations.  Well done.  Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the "Barack O’Ballers" did not pull it out this year. So next year, if you need a 6’2" forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.  
The President said these remarks three minutes into his address and it's a good thing he did.  When I heard him throw down two team names--one of my favorite components of Bookstore, I began to relax.  His attention to a great ND tradition allowed me to take a breath, knowing that the more controversial topics were on their way.  Mentioning Bookstore certainly made that a little more palatable; sports can and does build common ground--something that is needed so badly in America today.  
Many students are reluctant to even apply to Notre Dame because it's in South Bend, IN a town of 101,000 in the northwest corner of the state.  It is 90 miles from Chicago, but may as well be 900; it feels so far away. 

College students will never be distracted by the allure of the city of South Bend, but I contend this has been more of a blessing than a curse.  The best part of Notre Dame is the people. Their commitment to academics, athletics and faith are outstanding.  The student body works hard, but it plays hard too.  The 739 teams who play in this annual tourney is but one example.

And there's nothing quite like Bookstore; one need not be a huge basketball fan to appreciate this 40-year tradition.  As mentioned on the Bookstore Basketball webpage, "The tournament is ENTIRELY student-run.  It is played every March and April with breaks for Easter and Notre Dame's annual Blue/Gold football game.  The tournament is played rain, snow or shine (except during lightening)." The campus has courts tucked away between dorms, beside the lake and more.  It's as though for six weeks in the spring the bounce of a basketball becomes the heartbeat of campus.  
People ask me all the time What is there to do in the Spring at Notre Dame?  What's life like long after football season is over?  I think Bookstore is one of the better answers.

In his book "Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games" the late A. Bartlett Giamatti captured a truth that describes Bookstore.  He said "I believe we have played games, and watched games, to imitate the gods, to become godlike in our worship of each other and, through those moments of transmutation, to know for an instant what the gods know.” 

The gods are aware of the importance of leisure.  They know in games and competition that we learn as much about ourselves as one another.  They understand that the memories that are made when we test ourselves physically and mentally, when we pass and when we play are ones that remain in technicolor.  They are not black and white.  And these truths are why I have not forgiven myself for not taking the risk of lacing up my shoes, reigniting my one solid move--the pivot to shoot and joining my friends to play in the annual tourney.  No, I never played Bookstore and I regret it.
I am however grateful that I watched the many games I did.  I love that even a few years after I graduated I saw my good friends, then seminarians Lou DelFra and Sean McGraw join Tom Doyle, CSC on the Stephan Courts for a game (Round 16).  It was already a joyful day; Tom was ordained the day before.  I know the opposing team enjoyed calling the foul on "Father" Doyle as we delighted in hearing his new name.  And that's just one shining example of what makes Bookstore—and Notre Dame special.  Good move Mr. President for taking notice.  I haven't forgotten.

Photo Credits
Obama 44

Sunday, April 21, 2013

7-Year Old Cancer Patient Jack Hoffman Runs for a TD & Transforms Suffering....

An hour after the 2013 Masters came to a close, a familiar sadness snuck up on me.  It was to be another year before my favorite major would take place.  The anticipation, the four-day journey and the glory of Masters Sunday was now in the rear view mirror.  I was still taking delight in another great finish, but sad knowing the moment was gone.  

I looked to commiserate with a friend, a fellow golf fan who responded...well...with the way I should have known he would.  He said, "It's another event done and we are now that much closer to football season."  Wanting to enjoy the current season--spring and not have to think about fall--I responded by saying "It feels as though football is always in season. If it isn't the NFL draft, it's national signing day or spring football."  But, in the story of the 
 Heroic 7-Year Old Cancer Patient Scores TD in Nebraska Spring Game, I'm glad it is.
Sadly, it is a story that is in a small way, too familiar.  A young boy named Jack Hoffman was diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer in April 2011.  When former running back Rex Burkhead learned about Jack's struggle, he reached out and a friendship was born.  This special bond led to what fans identify as the highlight of the annual Red & White spring scrimmage.  Dressed in a #22 Cornhusker jersey--Burkhead's number--Hoffman lined up in the backfield and ran the ball for a 69-yard touchdown. The entire team met him in the end zone, lifting him in the air to recognize the athlete who had the most yards rushing in that particular game.  According to ESPN, the 60,000 Husker fans inside Memorial Stadium were clapping and crying.  It would be hard not to do both.

When asked what he was thinking about while running with the ball, Jack responded like every great athlete does, "I was thinking about scoring!" I however, was thinking of something much different.  How is it remotely possible that a 7-year old boy is battling cancer?  Why does that happen?  He was able to play because he had a two-week break in his 60-week chemotherapy regimen.  60 weeks!  I simply couldn't wrap my head around that.  It was just too painful until I remembered some beautiful insights on suffering by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In "8 Spiritual Heroes" Brennan Hill remarks,

He encouraged his people to suffer with the belief that Good Friday may reign, for a day, but that ultimately it will give way to Easter.  In an unusual article published in 1960 King shared the sufferings he had endured in the previous few years.  He reviewed how he had been arrested five times and put in an Alabama jail; his house had been bombed twice and almost daily he and his family had received death threats, and on one occasion, he had been nearly fatally stabbed.  He said at times he felt he could no longer bear the burden and was tempted to retreat to a quieter life.  He came to realize that he could react with bitterness or he could find ways to transform the suffering into a creative force.  He decided to see his suffering as a virtue, to see his ordeals and an opportunity to transform himself and to heal people involved in the tragic situation.  King found that unearned suffering was redemptive.  He concluded "The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God."

Many people discourage comparing one person's suffering to another's, but King spoke openly and honestly of his own suffering for the purpose of what we can all come to understand in and through our struggles.  Because of Jack Hoffman's suffering, Rex Burkhead is now a champion for increased awareness for pediatric brain cancer; he cared enough to find a way for a 7-year old boy to do what he should be able to do--play football.  He "transformed the suffering into a creative force."  
Seeing Jack on "4th and 1" take the ball from quarterback Taylor Martinez only to find a seam and run to the end zone may help "heal those involved in the tragic situation."  His father Andy said "Husker fans have been incredible to my family."

His son's suffering is certainly unearned and yet it is redemptive for those of us who have been able to see and not take for granted just what a precious gift life is.  I hope the Hoffman family understands that their son's journey through cancer and to the end zone has drawn me closer to God--if anything just to pray for him and others who share his pain.  

The 2013 Red and White spring football game was a day of celebration, one like the 2013 Masters that I just don't want to put in the rear view mirror....

Photo Credits 
Jack and Rex

Running for TD
With Coach

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Am Adam Scott

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. --Proverbs 16:9
I am Adam Scott. I wrote those four words in July 2012 when the 32-year old Aussie golfer led the British Open by four shots with but four holes remaining. Golf fans watched knowing it was his to lose.  Instead he bogeyed every one of them and handed the Claret jug to South African Ernie Els.

It was a remarkable meltdown and he was at a loss to explain it. In the Australian on-line journal, Jim Tucker reported
What I saw was something much different.  In fact I couldn’t believe how remarkably calm and composed he was after losing what was sure to be his first major.  Were there tears? Not hardly.  Scott replied "Maybe it hasn't sunk in yet. Maybe there will be a bit more disappointment when I get home and kind of wind down. It's all a lot to digest.”  
David Ferherty jumped all over this remark.  A former professional golfer himself, Ferherty said "I am sure it will hit him later this week and unfortunately at times in the future."  How could it not? 

I looked at the photo of Scott with his hand on his head reflecting his disappointment as he missed the 8-foot putt that would have put him into a tiebreak and I recognized something in him.
I remembered his composure in the post-tourney interview.  I felt as though I had been there. 

I thought of who he hired to be his caddy.  Steve Williams (well known because he worked as  Tiger’s for 12 years) was so mad that he walked to his car and slammed the trunk closed.  He was unwilling to talk to anyone.  Scott hired his alter-ego. I totally get that.

I put the pieces together, and something was revealed to me. I am Adam Scott. 
His actions, his reactions—I get it.  I am no different.  I’ve been that athlete who was up 7-0 in an 8-game pro-set vying to make a spot on the varsity tennis team as a freshman…only to lose the next 9 straight.  In life, I have had metaphorical victories within my reach, only to watch them slip away, to lose my grasp.   It’s not an easy way to be.  I wish I were the clutch player.  I would love to rise up when the stakes are highest. 

Fortunately, the 2013 Masters revealed something different, a deeper understanding of Scott that spoke to me.  I recalled his remarks when he was probed further about the collapse; Scott said, "I'm a positive guy. I want to take all the good stuff that I did this week and use that for next time."

Make no mistake about it, Adam Scott did that.  I saw a new level of confidence in him as he entered the sudden-death playoff.  While the world may have predicted another meltdown, Scott rose up.  He was calculated, calm, confident and positive.  He lived up to his senior quote (featured in his high school yearbook): When in doubt, birdie the 18th hole.  He did.
Adam Scott stayed the course.  His love for the game, working with his strengths and managing his weaknesses played out well on the course of Augusta National.  Did the good Lord determine where his steps led at the finish?  No, but I think He enjoyed the sudden-death playoff just as much as we did. 

I do love that passage of Scripture shared by my student Patrick while on Immersion last summer.  He said it as I felt a metaphorical collapse around me. But hearing the Word, I came to remember at times we plan our course, at other times it is determined for us.  Having the faith to believe that God determines our steps, takes the pressure off.  Yes, sometimes it leads to a second place finish...but other times it also shapes the path to the glory of Sunday at the Masters.  Thank you, Patrick! Thank you, Adam Scott.

Photo Credits

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday at the Masters: Two Winners, No Losers

Professional golf is the most selfish endeavor in the world.  Everything revolves around what you do.  That’s the way it has to be because the team is you.  It’s not a team, it’s you. —Casey Martin.  
I will never forget when I heard the current University of Oregon men's golf coach Casey Martin share this insight. I had not heard of a sport being described as "selfish," and ranking one of them as the "most selfish" isn't a distinction I wanted to associate with something I love.  But, I knew what he meant and to some extent, he's right.  Other than national allegiances the team is you. It lives with you; it dies with you.  The final round at the 2013 Masters, however, revealed something much different.

Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera finished 9-under par with an even 279.  They got there by way of great shots, near misses and creative solutions.  The world watched with bated breath as the 32-year old Aussie nailed a 20-foot birdie on the 18th hole of regulation to tie for the lead.  And when he did, his response surprised me.  He said, "C'mon Aussies!"  It certainly was a break from "the team is you."  It felt different.
And yet, it wasn't a given that Scott was the winner.  Cabrera, in the final group, watched Scott from the fairway knowing he had to hit a brilliant shot on the last hole. He did. The 43-year old Argentinian's ball pulled up 3 feet from the cup for an easy birdie that sent them into the sudden-death playoff.  If this is reminiscent of last year, that's because it should be.  Bubba Watson and Louis Ossthuizen faced the same fate on Easter Sunday 2012.

And from the moment, it wasn't hard to see that this sudden-death playoff was giving life to something more: the face of sportsmanship.  In some sports, your opponent is so clearly "the enemy."  A rival is to be slain, the competition is to be conquered.  But every once in a while, athletes recognize that it isn't the other person who you must beat--but the game.  

I have been a witness to this spirit in but a few cross country races.  The runners as competitors have so much respect for one another that they are able to see the clock is who they must defeat.  Other runners propel one another to get to the finish harder, stronger, faster.  

I recognized this beautiful truth on the very first hole of the playoff, Scott and Cabrera's shots landed literally side-by-side, evidence of their equal talent and skill.  And they finished that hole accordingly--an even par.  As they moved to the 10th hole for the second shot of the playoff the skies grew darker.  But the energy between these two men who have been teammates before (President's cup) shined brightly.  After their second shot on the hole, I noticed they flashed a thumbs-up to each other.  That small gesture spoke volumes; it was a  mutual recognition of golf well played, of let's beat this game, keep at it!  Cabrera hit a 15-fit birdie putt that grazed the right side of the cup.  So close, but close doesn't cut it in golf.

When Scott nailed his 12-foot putt for birdie and the victory,  Cabrera was there to hug him.  It was an embrace that only a man whose nickname is "El Pato" could give (It Spanish for "The Duck" because he waddles like one).   Even after Scott made victory rounds and hugged his caddie, Stevie Williams several more times, he walked with Cabrera, linked arm and arm for much of the exit.  David Steele of SportingNews captured the significance of this and the entirety of Masters' Sunday perfectly.  He wrote "If ever a sports championship of this magnitude and history could actually come away with two winners and no losers, this one did.  Together, Scott, the winner and Cabrera the almost-winner, elevated the game."  
And that's what Masters Sunday offers--every year it's something different. Every year, the champion elevates the game. Yes, I say this while riding an emotional high.  But I also write this with a sense of incredibility about the wonder of it all.  And  I also say with total sincerity, today the most selfish endeavor in the world was something much different.  It was one of the greatest displays of sportsmanship--subtle and beautiful--in golf's history.  And on this day, golfers triumphed over golf.  

Photo Credits
Green Jacket
Abrazo muy fuerte
C'mon Aussies

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gender Matters

As someone with a serious heart condition, I was thrilled to read in "The Daily Domer" a weekly e-update, Mike Brey Partners With American Heart Association To initiative that aims to raise awareness surrounding men's heart health. An issue near and dear to me, his efforts commence with an event called "Tip-Off for Heart." I was impressed with the creative and active nature of the opportunity.  
"Our coaches and support staff will run those in attendance through the stretches and drills our players work on, we'll have a nutritionist and a doctor on hand to give you helpful information, and we'll talk Notre Dame basketball."  I came to learn that "Participants will receive a hands-on experience while learning about nutrition, heart risk factors, tips on getting active and the game of basketball. The event will conclude with dinner in Club Naimoli with Coach Brey, where he will lead a film breakdown session with the group and discuss his support of the lifesaving work of the American Heart Association."  

I thought to myself, I would love to attend that event.  It will be both informative and fun.  And then I read "The event is open to men only."

I paused.  Even if I lived much closer, I wouldn't be able to attend.  It truly is an evening for men's heart health.  I thought that was great.

I'm sure some people agree with me and others will think the gender discrimination is unfortunate.  But I wondered if men will act and talk in a way that is different because their wives, girlfriends, sisters, and daughters aren't there.  I'm ok with that.  

I ask these questions on the first evening of my favorite of the four major championships of professional golf--The Masters.  Established in 1934, the US Masters is the only major played at the same course every year--Augusta National.  Its traditions are attractive--the green jacket to the victor, the white uniform of the caddie, as are its colors--the fuchsia of the azaleas against the spring green of the lush fairways.  
And yet both its traditions and colors serve as symbols of its own discriminatory past.  In 1990, a color barrier was dropped as it no longer required caddies to be black and it finally admitted African-American members.  And until last year, the tradition of its membership (by invitation only/without an application), was limited to men. A private club, Augusta is free to abide by its own rules, and those  rules maintained that women were allowed to play the golf course as guests, including on the Sunday before the Masters week begins.  Doug Fergueson of Huff Post Sports, Huff Post Sportsreported that 'Martha Burk and her women's advocacy group first challenged the club 10 years ago over its all-male membership." Finally, on August 30, 2012 "In a historic change at one of the world's most exclusive golf clubs, Augusta National invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to become the first female members since the club was founded in 1932."   
And once again, I raised questions about gender.  Different than an event for heart health--or is it?--I could not justify why membership should be limited to just men.  I was heartened by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem's response. He said "At a time when women represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and following the game of golf, this sends a positive and inclusive message for our sport." 

These two events as well as so many others in our world today force us to confront gender matters.  To what degree does gender matter?  Should it? When should it? When should it not?  Why does it matter? How? What are its implications? What does our culture say?  What does our tradition say?  
YouCat, the Catechism of the Catholic Church for youth says "Men and women have absolutely the same dignity, but the creative development of their masculinity and femininity they give expression to different aspects of God's perfection.  God is not male or female, but he has shown Himself to be both fatherly (Luke 6:36) and motherly (Isaiah 66:13).  Furthermore, "it is unchristian and inhumane to discriminate unjustly against someone because he is male or female.  Equal dignity and equal rights, nevertheless, does not mean uniformity.  The sort of egalitarianism that ignores the specific character of a man or a woman contradicts God's plan of creation."

I found this to be important, because everywhere I look in sports, I see accommodations made for female athletes. In volleyball, the nets are lower. In basketball, the ball is smaller. At the highest levels of tennis, women play 3 sets vs. men who play 5. In track and field, the shot put and discus weigh less. And there are many more. We have similarities, but differences as well. Once again, I'm ok with that.  

Gender matters. Make no mistake about it. How, why, where in why is what we're all trying to determine for the good of our society. In the meantime, I will certainly enjoy the men playing at this year's Masters, even if Michelle Wie didn't make the cut.

Photo Credits
Tip Off for Heart

Masters 2013
Green Jacket for Rice
Is that Condie with a 1 Iron?!