Sunday, April 24, 2016

My Favorite Award: Defensive Player of the Year

I love awards and award ceremonies. I'm a total sucker for the anticipation and the hype. Months prior I guess who will be named Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated. I anticipate distinctions in sports with abundant enthusiasm. I know some sports fans who could care less, but that's not me. If you earn it, I will forever remember you as Rookie of the Year, a Cy Young award winner, Golden Glove recipient, MVP, and more. That being said, my favorite award is one that generates little to no hype. It's the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. In a sport that is all about points, dunks and anything but playing defense, this award is worth enjoying...promoting and thinking more about.

I have to admit, I'm not sure I ever paid attention to it until I saw one of my favorite 30 for 30s: Bad Boys. A young and clean cut Dennis Rodman earned this honor on May 8, 1990. He accepted it with tears and with humility. I still think that moment shines a light onto who the true Rodman really is.

“I was so happy to win that award. I was like “Oh my God!” I knew what it meant to work hard and get the satisfactino that people actually appreciated it.He added "they could have given me a lollipop for the award and I wouldn't have cared. I just...Oh my God! I won something in the NBA! It was so overwhelming, I just! I owed it all to my teammates, actually. Coach Daly...the entire organization."
And he is a significant reason why the 1990 Detroit Pistons earned the second NBA Championship. As we see in football, baseball and less obviously in basketball: defense wins championships!
It's worth noting that this year's recipient, San Antonio Spurs' forward Kawhi Leonard is the first non-center to the win award in back to back seasons since Dennis Rodman. Leonard led a Spurs' defense that allowed the fewest points per game (92.9) in the league this season, three points better than the Utah Jazz. He finished the regular season with 1.78 steals, 5.5 defensive rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game. He also averaged career-highs in points (21.1) and assists (2.6). —Sports Illustrated 

Leonard's reaction however couldn't have been more different. While Rodman wept like a baby, According to GQ's Jack Moore, Leonard "let 18% of a smile creep through." But they share something in common, an incredible work ethic. And that is what I believe this award honors;  the athlete who is earning this distinction isn't mailing it in on any part of the game. Quite the contrary. For example, this year's second place vote getter—Draymond Green—is the first player in NBA history with over 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists, 100 blocks and 100 steels in a single season.

Though awards are often political, biased, and limited, they can serve as an effective framework by which to measure other athletes. For example, during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Warriors center Andrew Bogut played excellent (and charged) "D." Up against Dwight Howard, it was easy to think "maybe he should have earned Defensive Player of the Year!" It was as though the announcers heard my question as they quipped "Does Bogut look like Russell Crowe in Gladiator or what?!"

Or a friend recently sent a clip from Airplane (see below). .....I think your the greatest but my dad says you don't hustle on defense and he says lots of times you don't even run down court....It's hard not to love Kareem, but even one of the greatest of all time (on many players' Mt. Rushmore) was limited in his abilities—defense being maybe the only thing.

Looking at athletes who win this award, among others, I am reminded of Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians in which he writes:

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit
There are different forms of service but the same Lord;
There are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

There's not a coach or teammate that doesn't understand the benefit of a strong defensive player. It's an invaluable form of service. One I love to celebrate!

Photo Credits

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Vocation of Prince: A Sports and Spirituality Tribute

Driving to the gym this morning, I heard multiple tributes to Prince, who died yesterday at the age of 57. Several radio spots summarized his body of work and the influence he had. Others discussed the pending details of his death and the outpouring of flowers, signs and memorials near his home. If I were to contribute a thought, I would like to weigh in on his vocation, yes—Prince's vocation. I would like to make the claim that this musician had one that brought joy, reflected God's glory, was and remains needed in the world today. Here's how. Here's why.
Last week at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, where I teach, we hosted our third annual Vocations Promotion Day aka VoPro Day 2016. Seniors at SI were able to hear the stories of young men and women who have responded to a calling, one to religious life from both the Verbum Dei community in San Francisco and Jesuit community in Berkeley. 

Though SI students aren't totally unfamiliar with religious vocations—we have several Jesuits in various stages of formation on campus—in order to prepare them for the purpose of the talk, they read the article "Three Key Questions" by Rev. Michael Himes. The reason for that is because, as Jim Heft writes in the article "What Does it Mean to Be Catholic?"

The Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone is called to be holy. All of us, religious, priests and laity, are called by Baptism to be lovers of God in Jesus. All life's possible vocations ought to be sources of great holiness. The task for each of us is to figure out in which lifestyle God's love will flow through us most fully.    
Himes, a theology professor at Boston College states that anyone deciding on a career or seeking to determine a new way of living life to the full ought to consider holiness via answers to three key questions on where their life is going.  They are:
  1. What gives you joy?
  2. Are you good at it?
  3. Does the anyone need you to do it?
In a class like Sports and Spirituality, I asked my students what question they thought professional athletes might struggle with the most.

A few responded to the first. They felt the allure of money or fame could detract an athlete from a love of the game. They questioned if the pressure to win, sometimes at all costs, might detract from the joy of sport. I believe their claims were valid.

Others though not as many, thought the second question has bearing. What athlete doesn't struggle from time to time? Find him or herself in a slump? or struggle with injuries. Furthermore, the pervasive presence of social media weighing in on all things at all times is an unfiltered (an unwelcome) voice affirming or denying one's talent. It's no secret that certain sports towns will let their athletes know loud and clear whether or not someone is any good at something. 

The majority of the class (and me) identified the third question as the most poignant. And, it was the primary question of my lesson plan. Does the world really need a professional athlete? 
I shared with my class that I walked into The Masters and had a bit of an existential crisis. I traveled thousands of miles to arrive in Augusta, GA  to watch a bunch of men carrying sticks. I asked myself, What am I doing here? I am happy to say I can answer that question.

Ultimately, the class agreed the world does need professional athletes. We need them because they serve as a source of inspiration. It's hard not to be inspired when you hear the stories of countless men and women who rise above adversity, who serve as lights in under-resourced communities and prove what hard work, self-sacrifice and dedication can yield. Professional athletes and teams can bring entire communities together in the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. When I see their talents—the mental strength of Serena Williams, the speed of Usain Bolt, the versatility of Jackie Joyner Kersee, and the hops on Derrick Rose, it's hard not to marvel at God's creation.
And yet for me, the most compelling reason that I believe the world needs professional athletes is because I believe in what Dorothy Day spoke about quite often. She quoted Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said "the world will be saved by beauty." I find beauty on the golf course and on the gridiron. I encounter beauty when I see an ally-oop pass that a player intercepts to dunk. My eyes look up, my heart is lifted. 

While humanity has basic needs for survival, beauty is necessary for thrival. It's transformative power can draw us out of ourselves in communion with others. And it should go without saying that beauty is not limited to sports, but is found in the arts, in architecture and in music.

I'll let all the radio spots speak to Prince's contributions to music and the beauty of it. The breadth and depth of his work is astounding. Most music fans know that he wrote all of his own songs, but if you take just a few moments, you'll get a sense of how many songs he wrote for others. "Nothing Compares to You" be gone. Try Chaka Kahn's "I Feel for You" a great dance song that underscored a good bit of the mid-80s (thank you Stevie Wonder for playing the harmonica on that too). However, my favorite has to be the story that Stevie Nicks told about his assistance on her solo hit "Stand Back." Inspired by his song "Little Red Corvette," she was struggling to make it work. She placed a call in to Prince who came over to her in-home studio. He added the synthesizer (for which he is uncredited) and the rest is Rock n Roll history. I love that song.

Prince was good at music, he found beats and melodies unlike any other artist. Was he any good at it? So good that he wasn't willing to be exploited by record labels—an interesting chapter in his career. Does the world need his music? Over the course of the next few days, you will hear a lot of it. I'll let you answer that one for yourself.

Photo Credits
Kobe and LeBron

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Counterintuitivity of the Masters

Talk to someone who has been to the Masters and they don't say a whole lot about it. They can't. I still can't. I was greeted by enthusiastic questions of "how was it?" and my thoughts returned to one of an unspeakable grace. Still, those who have made the trek drop hints. Subtle ones and telling ones. They all point in the same direction, and that's to a common truth. Everything about The Masters is counterintuitive. And truth be told, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Guests, not patrons arrive to the most counterintuitive gesture of all: free parking. As a woman who lives in a city that charged, and I'm not kidding $120 to park for the Giants home opener, this was shocking, and yet it wasn't. It's the first of many signs of hospitality that the hosts of the tourney extend to those lucky enough to carry a badge.
Though 50,000 people attend this annual event, the first major of the year, it is the"toughest get" in all of sports. If you are lucky enough to get a ticket to the official tournament, not the practice rounds, you seldom mention this truth—most likely because you are in disbelief that you got one and/or because you pay so much. As I've told anyone who asks, I'm teaching summer school to pay for mine. But the question remains, a half of a million people do get to go. What gives? This is what I learned.
Ticket broker Brian Talbot has written: "From my experience, it's safe to say these are probably the toughest tickets to get in the world," Talbot said, "with Super Bowl tickets running a close second, depending on which teams make it and where the Super Bowl is hosted." 
But there is a tiny window through which fans can obtain Masters tickets for tournament rounds directly from Augusta National. Each year, a small number of tickets are returned to The Masters following the deaths of longtime ticket holders, or for other reasons. Previously, those tickets were simply removed from circulation. But since 2012, fans can register online to take part in a random drawing for those tickets. 
To do so, golfers much register on the tickets page on; registrants receive notification when the ticket application process is opened each year, shortly following each Masters. Registrants are required to provide credit card information during the online application process. 
The Masters doesn't say how many tournament tickets are available, but rest assured the number is very small and your odds are very, very long. Those who are super-lucky are notified by email and must pay for the tickets at such time.
I have entered that lottery since 2012, and it should go without saying that I yet to receive an e-mail from Augusta that I that I have won. It's funny, for some reason, I am always disappointed that the outcome isn't different. I'll keep trying.

Even more interesting to me however is that patrons can get tickets from their favorite golfers. According to Golf, those who want to attend should
Write letters to the top golfers through the Professional Golf Association. Golfers in the tournament get to purchase a limited number of tickets, and they have been known to resell them to fans. It's best to have a relationship with a golfer to begin with, but it is possible.
A life long proponent of letter writing, who would have thought this lost art could pay off in a Masters ticket? Perhaps it is nothing more than a pipe dream or grand unicorn, but it's worth a shot...and a stamp.
You will need to pass through a metal detector before walking onto the hallowed grounds. I don't get the sense that gun safety is the primary concern at Augusta National. Rather, it's another modern day enemy: the cell phone. Not a single one was in site; if you needed to make a phone call, the Masters has phone stations where you can make a call anywhere in the US free of charge. How countercultural! Imagine that many people focused on being in the same place at the same time. It was liberating. And, it set the tone for other protocol that patrons encounter. Not a single volunteer or marshall needed to raise an arm, a hand or even a finger asking folks to be quiet. I never saw an electronic score board. No, instead a few leader boards on the property post the official scoring: red is good, and black is bad...the dead opposite of a business' financial goals.

It's strange and wonderful thing to attend a sporting event today where the only thing you are watching is...wait for it...the sporting event. No dots races, no web gems, no flying t-shirts for patrons. There were no free: pizzas, tacos or haircuts if athletes do something spectacular. My friend asked me if I saw a lot of cute men; even I couldn't believe what I said. "The crowd was about 75% male, but honestly I was so focused on the golf, I guess I wasn't really paying attention" I guarantee I've never said that before.

Equally delightful as the lack of distraction is the fact that the only sounds one hears at The Masters are the roars of the crowd. There is no walk-up songs for golfers, there's no announcers, bells, buzzers or timers. I did however hear birds, balls hitting irons, a few quiet conversations, claps and roars. I loved listening to exchange between caddie and golfer. If my ears could thank me, they would have. They were on vacation too!
And if you know anything about The Masters other than the golf, it's about the hospitality because it is second to none. Furthermore, it manifests itself in strange ways. Sandwiches were $1.50, beers were $2.50 or $3.50 for a craft beer, all snacks were $1.00. The idea is that once you are there, the hosts wants you to enjoy. A student of mine thought the prices were cheap because "everything is cheaper in the South." I kindly informed him, I'm afraid not. One, I'm not sure I've EVER paid $2.50 for a beer at a sporting event in the south or anywhere, and I've been able to do that for over 20 years now. Two, how do you explain that the Knight's Inn charges at least $350 a night during that week. If Augusta National wanted to charge $10 for a beer they could. For the sake of hospitality, they do not.

Counterintuitivity (not sure that's even a word) isn't unique to The Masters. I am a fan of an NBA team that reeks of this. Who else has a 6th man that was awarded MVP of the NBA finals? How common is it to have a star player who is 6'3" and 185 lbs? What  teams really play defense today? How many other teams can brag that their fans can easily name the not only the starting five but their replacements, or rather, their teammates? And my favorite, in an era where athletes are paid more to play less, this team rested no one to earn a single-season NBA record 73 wins.
But there is something noteworthy about the fact that counterintuitive is a common word I use to describe them both. A different modus operandi has served as a wonderful invitation to think about they way things are and why. How something can be different, why it should be, how we respond and what we might learn in the process reveals much more about us—sports fan, athletes, coaches, marketers, than I ever expected. I'm grateful it required me to go to Augusta to figure that out.

Photo Credits
Danny Willet wins!

Danny in green

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Consolation and Desolation of the Masters

Sports fans everywhere had strong reactions to the 2016 Masters. Insert given headline here: 
  • Colossal defeat by Jordan Spieth
  • Donald Trump calls out Jordan Spieth for choking at the Masters (you can't be serious, right?). 
  • Jordan Spieth's Reflection after Historic Masters Defeat
But that's not how I see it. As a Catholic, I aim to view life—especially sports—through a different lens. One that is referred to at the Catholic Imagination. It upholds the understanding that there is more to life than meets the eye. With that vision, here is my first of a few posts to come on what is my favorite sporting event.

Catholic spirituality is characterized as a both/and worldview of the sacred. It is not "either/or." God's presence can be encountered both in church and on the field. Christ is not either in the poor or the marginalized. The Lord hears the cries of the poor and those of the number one golfer in the world. With this outlook, my take away from the Masters is no different. I think it's fair to say that Danny Willet won the Masters and Jordan Spieth lost it. It's not an either/or proposition.

Willet, the number twelve player in the world going into the 80th Masters, didn't have a single bogey on Sunday. Spieth essentially had four of them on one hole. Willet finished five under par, and Spieth actually tied for second with Lee Westwood, shooting two under.
It wasn't hard to see Spieth struggling—emotionally—as he put the jacket all golfers covet onto this year's winner. It was different than the Spieth we saw on the 18th green of the PGA Championship; Jason Day out and out won that match. Spieth conceded this truth when Day nearly plotted a 20 foot putt into the hole for birdie. Spieth saw it and gave the thumbs up. That's a wonderful sports moment: to witness two athletes battling it out only to see the opponent on the losing end recognize and appreciate the greatness before him or her. We saw shades of that greatness on Sunday in Spieth, but we saw more of them in Willet. Both/And.

Catholic spirituality is also rooted in the principle of sacramentality; that is "Finding God in all things." For St. Ignatius, this included the good and the bad; God is with us, not separate from us in consolation and desolation. I saw both on Sunday. My students wanted to know the top three moments of the Masters. Appropriately so, each one serves as an example of Ignatian spirituality.

Consolation: My friends and I decided that we would sit in the stands alongside the 16th hole for most of the final round. This commitment allowed us to see the field come through. These stands served as perch above the green of the 15th hole, known as "Firethorn." The second hardest hole on the course, it was interesting to see how golfers approached this bad boy. Those same seats provided a fun line of vision of the 16th hole—par 3—known as "Redbud."

I have always heard that Sunday's pin placements are more favorable to golfers to make Sunday at the Masters that much more exciting. The placement of this 170 yard hole didn't disappoint. We never saw a bogey on it. However, we saw a whole lot of birdies and pars and two eagles. How's that? Shane Lowry hit a hole in one. 

I've written about it before, but when a golfer hits a hole in one, everyone wins. It is an incredible feeling. You feel as though the golf gods have given you this precious gift. The joy is more than audible, it's palpable. It's electric. Golfers, caddies, fans—all are high fiving one another.

One of my favorite parts about the Masters is the echo of the crowds. When a golfer nails a hole in one, it has its own cadence that rings at a volume that is noticeably louder and stronger. It has to! As Lowry approached the green, the fans stood to clap and cheer. When he went to the pin to remove his ball, another round of cheers followed. 

Lowry held the ball as though he were about to throw it into the crowd, only to place it in his pocket, head down and shaking "no way." If he were in fifth grade, he might have yelled "psyche!" He kept the ball. He should: a hole in one at the Masters, it's not as good as it gets, but it's pretty close.
But an hour later, my friends and I decided it was time to follow the last group: Jordan Spieth and Smylie Kaufmann. My friends were getting concessions and using the restroom; I decided I would stand by the tee box of the 16th hole. Personally, this is where I prefer to be. I like to watch the flight of the ball and on a par 3, you can see it's entire path. I wanted to see the 2012 US Open winner Webb Simpson tee off. A devout Christian, Simpson's story has come up in my course. For some reason, I decided I might as well stay to watch Davis Love III, Simpson's partner hit too. Wouldn't you know it: another hole in one. I am fairly convinced I will never see two holes in one in the same day. I hope I am wrong.

Ignatian states that 
Spiritual consolation is an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can. Spiritual consolation encourages and facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, mercy, and companionship in our life. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others
Is it a stretch to say that a hole one can facilitate consolation? I think not. If we are to believe in sacramentality—finding God in all things—then an amazing golf feat is a good place to start. In that moment, all were one. I felt so fortunate to be a part of that experience. In a tourney of intense competition, at this moment, everybody who shared in that experience won.

Desolation. I only saw Jordan Spieth play on the 7th hole. We watched his second shot, from the rough onto the green and then followed him up to that green to see him nail his birdie putt. We decided to leave because we wanted to watch the back nine on television. I remember thinking "He's got this one in the bag. I'm so happy he's the winner." But a hour later, I heard someone say "he hit it in the water again." I didn't understand. I thought to myself, "they are probably seeing a replay of the same shot." That wasn't true. I wanted the bleeding to stop; it didn't. Into the bunker. He holed out; a quadruple bogey.
It's nearly impossible to recover from a shot like that—mentally, emotionally and mathematically. I had some faith in him, we all did. But I also saw the struggle first hand that he had carried all day. 

When Spieth failed to birdie on 16, the momentum changed. He didn't on 17 either. In fact, he shot for bogey. As he carried himself to the final hole, the cameras were already showing an ecstatic Danny Willet hugging his caddie. He had been on his phone with his wife, who had given birth to their first born son but 8 days prior. In the face of Spieth's desolation was Willet's consolation. Doesn't seem fair does it.

Ignatian also states that 
Spiritual desolation, in contrast, is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’s words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love." 
It's not a stretch to say that Spieth carried doubt and self-preoccupation in his ability on Masters Sunday. The real test will be to recognize the desolation, seek help and grace and work towards consolation. 

The moment of true defeat, at the conclusion of the 18th hole, I saw the only moment that brought a tear to my eye on the Masters Sunday. Jordan shook Kaufmann's hand; the round was complete. He and Michael Greller had to make the long walk through the fans into the to submit his scorecard. Greller who was walking behind Spieth, extended his hand onto the back of his shoulder and pulled him close to him. 
I've always believed that physical intimacy—a hug, touch, kiss, etc. has great power because it says what words do not. I've replayed many times why this moment got to me....and I know it's because of the coach in me. I walked beside my athletes and shared in their defeat. I've wanted to take responsibility for it! I've felt as though I have failed; I have been rendered speechless. What can you say to an athlete you believe in at a moment like that?  What should you say? There is nothing to say. But that gesture, far from an awkward hug or false embrace said it all. To me, it said, I know what you are carrying right now. And I know it's different for you because the team is you. But I've got your back (and your bag!). The secret to life is walking with people who have your back...and carry your bag.

Reading more about consolation, I realized what Ignatian writes is true. It says,"spiritual consolation is experienced when our hearts are drawn toward God, even if this happens in circumstances that the world regards as negative." The 2016 Masters proved that and much more. It never disappoints. 

Photo Credts
Spieth loses

Willet wins
Davis Love III
Quadruple Bogey