Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Kareem Abdul Jabar: Much More than a Weird, Cool Dude

"What a weird, cool, dude." That's exactly how I described basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after watching the HBO documentary "Minority of One." I had faded memories of this basketball legend as the eye goggles wearing center for the having been in the movie "Airplane"....and wasn't he on "The Muppets," too?  I considered him to be quiet and introverted off the court and crazy good with the sky hook on it. I was hungry to talk about the man once known as Lew Alcindor to gain a stronger sense of his legacy, his social and cultural impact and confirm his place on the Mount Rushmore of Hoops. And, after hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—author, activist, philosopher, actor and athlete, speak at the Commonwealth Club—now all I can think is: what an erudite, thoughtful, articulate, compassionate and great American. He's funny too. 

Here are but a few brief thoughts and recollections from the evening that prompted the necessary change to my descriptor.

As many fans know, Abdul-Jabar is the all time leading scorer in the NBA. Let's make this a little more clear in case it's not already: No one has more points in his entire career than this great center does with 28,287 points and an average 24.6 points per game. The six time NBA Champion also won three NCAA championships at UCLA. 

Though the list of his accomplishments is both lengthy and highly impressive, what touched me most is that so many people are pushing for him to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The session led me to believe that he was going to earn what is
"America's highest civil award. It is conferred upon men and women of high achievement in the arts and entertainment, public service, science, education, athletics, business and other fields. For most recipients, this award is a special distinction added to many prior honors." 
Unfortunately, I cannot find any evidence that it is confirmed. I hope he is included in the next class.
The emcee, Von Jones made me laugh when he said "Kareem, you are my tallest hero." I thought of the literal and figurative truth behind his words. Jones had the wisdom to ask who was Abdul-Jabbar's hero. When he said "Emmett Till" I raised my hands to clap and clap loudly. 

Abdul-Jabbar was just eight years old when Till, a 14 year old boy was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. "I couldn't and didn't understand," Abdul-Jabbar said.  "But that story had a profound affect on me, even at a young age." 

Till's legacy lives on when an American hero, like Abdul-Jabbar honors him and his mother. Mamie Till decided to keep her teenage son's casket open so the world could see. Till's life and his mother's decision paved the way for Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement. They are fitting and worthy heroes. Thank you Kareem.

Jones also pointed out that today, Abdul-Jabbar is the most visible and beloved Muslim in the west. Though I believe Mulala Yousafzai, (who now lives in the United Kingdom), might give Abdul-Jabbar a run for the money, I was struck by the poignancy of those words.
Abdul-Jabbar, who advocates for women's rights called out the injustices to women that he has encountered in his own faith. He referenced the inconsistencies between what the Quran says and how many Muslim countries proceed in their treatment of women. For example, "the  Quran says that women are free to choose who they marry, the are equal partners in a marriage, that they have the right to inherit money and property." I am not sure in what way Abdul-Jabbar is responding to this inequity; perhaps his new book, "Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White" does.

At this point in the conversation Jones pointed out that it has been written that 
Abdul-Jabbar is a teacher and philosopher trapped in a basketball player's body. Abdul-Jabbar didn't disagree.  I appreciated his talk as much for his insights on Colin Kapernick's decision to sit during the national anthem as I did his tales from the hardwood.

He gave total respect to his coaches, including the great John Wooden. When he spoke about the Wizard of Westwood, his tone, his body language and his message was one of reverence. He said that the greatest lesson Coach Wooden taught him was the importance of being prepared. Though this doesn't sound either surprising or all that interesting, he elaborated quite eloquently on the point. Abdul-Jabbar admitted that he was always mentally and physically ready for the task at hand because of how Coach Wooden taught him to prepare. And what he appreciated about this teaching was that it was in no way limited to basketball. "He used basketball to teach us how to be prepared as a family a a a member of society."

Abdul-Jabbar got me to laugh when he admitted that he didn't understand Wooden's Pyramid of Success during his four years at UCLA. "I thought he was a Mason for a long time. Now I understand how it was related to Wooden's utter conviction of how important it is to do things the right way. He was totally committed to it. I attribute his way to his deep Christian faith."

There were many local cheers when Abdul-Jabbar admitted that no one played defense on him like the late, great Nate Thurmond. But I think there was even more enthusiasm when an audience member asked the leading question that delights all sports fans: "Who is the greatest Laker?" Ever serious, Abdul-Jabbar went through the list of who could be number one. He said, "it's a tough question. You can make an argument for Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson...some say me...others Kobe...."  With his pause, there were both cheers and jeers until he said "but this is why they have sports bars! You get a beer and some wings and can debate this question for hours." Amen.

My favorite story from the evening was about his teammate of 10 years, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The very first year this 1-2 punch played together, they won 60 games and clinched their first of five NBA titles. Johnson, the number one draft pick was so excited to play with Abdul-Jabbar that after their first game, he ran up to Abdul-Jabbar, leaned his arms against the 7-footer and celebrated like they won the title. Abdul-Jabbar said, "He looked like a pogo stick!" Again, he paused and then added "I told him the problem with that is Magic, we have another 81 can't be like this every night. But I'm often fairly serious, and Magic taught me how to enjoy the moment."
I felt as though the audience got a bonus story when Abdul-Jabbar added "Whenever we played in Michigan, we would have some of Magic's mom's home cooking. Fried Chicken...collard greens...I would pack my bags with extra pies that she gave us." I don't think I've ever heard an athlete tell a story about a teammate's parent and something as relatable as their delicious home cooking. Too often, Magic and Kareem seem so larger than life that we forget about those people near and dear to them that stand in the background. Abdul-Jabbar has a way of recognizing those types of people with sincerity and appreciation.

The author of a new book Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's message for changing racial climate in this country was simple and practical: "get to know your neighbor." Though no longer a Christian, I could not help but the beginning of the parable, The Good Samaritan. In it, the lawyer asks of Jesus. "And who is my neighbor?" Fortunately Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has thought about this question long and hard many times before. 

I'm grateful, I got but an hour of his time to hear some of his answers to the most pressing questions of our time. Weird and cool? Sure. Compassionate, thoughtful and grounded and rooted? Absolutely.

Photo Credit
Black Muslim

With Coach Wooden
Magic and KAJ

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Sports Fan's Take on the Olympic Games

When asked if I enjoyed the 2016 Summer Olympic games, my immediate response was a loud, sincere “of course.” However, if you knew my viewing patterns and how little I actually watched, you would think otherwise. So, what gives?

I enjoy the Olympics for something other than the fact that it showcases the world’s greatest athletes on the highest stage. Or, that certain sports —swimming and diving, track and field and gymnastics— get the attention they so deserve. My love for the games isn’t even out of appreciation for the outstanding traditions that come with it—the Opening ceremonies, the lighting of the Olympic torch or the valiant theme song.  And who doesn’t want to cheer for Team USA?
No, the reason I so enjoy both the Winter and Summer Olympics is because the spirit, the enthusiasm, the questions and quandaries, challenges and complaints that fill the airwaves resonate with those I hold about sports on a regular basis. Every single day, I want to talk about sports with others and share what I have seen and heard. The way that people feel during those 21 days of the Olympic fortnight is how I feel 365 days a year.

Like the NBA Finals or the NFL under Commissioner Roger Goodell, the Olympics is far from drama free. Whether it’s the sheer corruption of the IOC, the quandary of how much money a community must spend to host the Games or the sexist language and coverage throughout the 21 days, the so-called joy of sports isn’t blind sighted, there is always more than enough to improve and do right in the future.

And as sports is wont to do, a ridiculous story too often fills the airwaves. From the moment Ryan Lochte cried wolf in tweeting that he was held up at gunpoint. I was reminded that Olympians are like anyone and everyone we know. Some are exceptional human beings…and others, well “jackass” seems to be an appropriate descriptor.
these two swimmers contributed very different stories to the 2016 Games
It’s true, every Olympic games brings athletes to the limelight. Whether or not it’s individual competition or a team sport, the narrative of the games is colored by their rise to glory or fall from grace. We watch in anticipation of what will be…

Dan Patrick of Sports Illustrated wrote,
as great as dark horses can be, the Olympics are like March Madness.. We like Cinderellas and upsets, but in the Final Four we want the big names.. We want to see the greats be great. And the interest in the biggest names is what ultimately drives coverage. Unlike some sports where we want to see the dynasties crumble, it was gratifying to see the Phelpses and the Bileses of the world dominate.
The achievements of the greats stays with us beyond the medal stand, because their talents, efforts and the stories of their lives, give us much to consider.

For example, while reflecting on the success of Michael Phelps, I found myself believing that he needed these games…and then I paused. I turned to a friend and said “maybe we needed him to have these games.” Sports and the Olympics in particular make us consider new questions, And what I love so much about sports are the ever new, ever unique questions they invite me to so this on a regular basis.
So proud of the US Women and in particular the 3-seat: Amanda Polk from ND
I know my own father had never considered crew an exciting sport. However, having read and adored “Boys in the Boat” he couldn’t wait to watch rowing. He saved both the US men’s and women’s race for me to watch. As we watched it together, he asked me about my experience as a rower at Notre Dame. Though I once coached this sport and traveled throughout the country with my fellow Irish oarsman, prior to the 2016 Olympic games, I don’t that my dad had ever once asked me a technical question about crew. He wanted to know where I sat in the boat. Did I row port or starboard? And why did I switch from port to starboard during my juionr year? In our conversation, I was reminded that the gift of the Olympics is like the gift of sports—there is always more to learn, consider, connect to and figure out.

I was 10 years old when the Olympics took place in Los Angeles.. I was able to stay up late night to watch Mary Lou Retton, Edwin Moses and Carl Lewis, because the competition took place in the summer, my favorite time of year. I was just old enough to comprehend—beyond the feats of great athletes—the spiritual nature of the games.

Perhaps the seed of my love for sports, planted by my dad, was beginning to grow and take root with those Olympic Games. Though I don’t watch as much of them as I did in 1984, my appreciation for what they offer the world is something I can’t help but enjoy. And the best part about it all is that, the joy of sports does not have to end with the closing ceremonies….we have a pennant race going on here in San Francisco. Football fans know we are less than a week away….St. Ignatius girls golf has try outs this week. Play Ball!!

Photo Credits
Phelps and Lochte

Friday, August 19, 2016

Beauty and Sadness in Sports and in Spiritual Places Part II: Doc and Darryl...The Sadness

As written in the first part in this series, If Pixar's animated hit "Inside Out" is a story of the how joy and sadness can coexist, the "30 for 30: Doc and Darryl" affirms that beauty and sadness can and do. Ask anyone who has seen the latest in installment in ESPN's documentaries that aim to highlight important people and events in sports history, and I think they will leave you with the impression that "Doc and Darryl" is colored more by sadness than by beauty. However, both truths are worth reflecting upon and learning from. 
The directors, Judd Apatow and Mike Bonfiglio wrote, 
The stories of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden seem inextricably linked, whether the lives of these two very different men are actually intertwined or not. Both phenoms drafted by the Mets straight out of high school, their parallel meteoric rises in early-1980s New York and the demons that plagued them turned these two superstars and franchise saviors into tabloid fodder and punchlines. We were interested in understanding the men behind the headlines, and what drove them to their spectacular highs and lows. We hope that this film humanizes Doc and Darryl, and in doing so sheds light on issues that we can all relate to in our own lives or the lives of those around us.
The directors succeed. The film does more than humanize these two great athletes. It sheds light onto the beauty and sadness of their success, their life stories and our society. 

In many ways, it is not easy to relate to either athlete. Gooden and Strawberry met great success at a young age in a media saturated and star studded city (Doctor K was 21 and Strawberry was 24 when the Mets won the '86 World Series). Overnight, they were wealthy, and famous as world champions. And yet, the source of sadness in this tale is a universal one. "Doc and Darryl" is a honest and real look at the face of addiction, a disease that does not know age, race, color or creed.

I don't know if it's medically certifiable that some folks have an addictive personality or not, but those who struggle with addiction carry a heavy cross. Addicts don't call it the "monkey on your back" for nothing. Addiction tares lives apart. It ruins marriages, families, and most relationships. For Dwight Gooden and for Darryl Strawberry addiction did that and much more. 

The low point of Gooden's addiction must have been when he missed the World Series parade because of the extent of his usage guised in the name of celebration. For Strawberry, it was a very honest admittance that he let his mother down...and he knew it. But what might be even more heartbreaking is what we never saw—because of Doc and Darryl's addiction to crack, cocaine, and alcohol.

American political satirist, writer, TV host and life long Mets fan, Jon Stewart said, 
I think their legacies will always be….like anything else….any star that didn’t live up to its luster will always be about what could have been. I mean both of those guys should be in Cooperstown. It was like both those guys were made in a laboratory. You want to see the perfect pitcher? It’s Dwight Gooden. You want to see the perfect hitter? It’s Darryl Strawberry.
Other personalities such as their former manager Davey Johnson and baseball writer Tom Verducci weigh in, complimenting Stewart's claim. And then Jon Stewart adds, 
I feel strange being upset that I wasn’t able to witness as much of their greatness as I should have. That’s probably not my heart ache to have…it’s theirs.
If Stewart were to share those poignant words with me personally, I would nod in agreement. It's hard to disagree...and yet I do. 

My fundamental view on professional sports, especially the high profile ones...the sports where the athletes are near celebrities who stand on heroic pedestals (whether they want to or not) is that when our team, our favorite athlete, or our coach succeeds, we all do. When they lose, our hearts break too. In their greatness we applaud them...and in their downfall we cry, and we lose. How can you say it was not the ache of Mets fans...of African American baseball players and fans....or of those who love to see great athletes play a beautiful game? It's both their heart ache and ours.

I think Doc and Darryl is important to watch because it reminds us of an important, though sad truth: Addiction is ever present. Though the viewer will guess that Gooden is still struggling and Strawberry is not, any addict will tell you how dangerous it is to think that addiction is a thing of the past. The narrator says,
It’s right behind Darryl, It’s right behind Doc. Maybe one day one succeeding more than the other. What’s the truth of it? I just know that D&D are tied in OUR Minds…and not in theirs…….
We are all called to live every day, one moment at a time. For addicts in particular there is no other way to live. 

I don't necessarily think that is a sad truth. I think it might even be a beautiful way to live. And the next posting will address that beauty and more, as seen in "Doc and Darryl"

Photo Credits
SI Cover
Doc and Darryl


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Beauty and Sadness in Sports and in Spiritual Places Part I: the Oklahoma City National Memorial

The 2015 Pixar hit "Inside Out" is the story of a young girl, Riley Anderson and five personifications of basic human emotions: joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Each one comes to life and influences her actions via a "console" in her mind. As she grows up, her experiences become memories, stored as color orbs, some of which are sent into long-term memory each night. 
But discord erupts as Riley comes to realize all of her core memories are joyful memories, but her move to San Francisco, so far, offers sad ones. She recalls the good times at her childhood home in Minnesota and her love for her family and friends who are now thousands of miles away. She begins to question the purpose of Sadness and strives to keep it away from the console in her mind —the control center for emotions. But as she must learn, sadness is part of life. Riley must accept this hard truth, and an important character Bing Bong helps her understand not only why but how sadness and joy can co-exist, offering a fuller though more complex reality.

Recently, I've thought a lot about a modified plot of "Inside Out." Rather than making room for competing emotions, my mind has been trying to reconcile and recognize how beauty and sadness can walk hand in hand. My trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and watching the 30 for 30 "Doc and Darryl" has asked me to understand and appreciate how experiences of each reflect the depth of our humanity.

At the NCEA convention in San Diego last April, administrators from Bishop McGuinness High School asked me if I would be willing to travel to Oklahoma City to speak to their coaching staff. With humility and without reservation, I said "yes." An American Studies major through and through, I truly enjoy visiting the states and cities that comprise our nation, and in particular those of our heartland. My only personal request was to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial (ok...and play a round of golf with some folks on staff).
A great way to spend the last day of summer for the Bishop McGuinness Athletic Dept and Campus Ministry!
The campus minister and his three daughters accompanied me to the site. In a state that is less than 5% Catholic, I was a little surprised to discover that we pulled into the parking lot of what was once their Cathedral, St. Joseph Catholic Church. At the edge of their property, they added to the Memorial walk with a statue of a despondent Christ. He stands on a podium inscribed with the shortest passage of scripture, John 11:35 And Jesus Wept.

Joe asked me what I already knew about the events of the tragedy. I pieced together a few ideas: ....Timothy McVeigh, who has since been executed drove a Ryder truck....the event took place on April 19, which is Hitler's birthday and the same date (not year) as the events at Columbine.... the federal building also housed a day care center...and young children died in the attack.... I appreciated that he asked me what I knew and wanted me to experience the memorial at my own pace, but together with him and his daughters. I think it's important to encounter a difficult place with others while allowing each individual to walk where and how they need.

Like many memorials, the gates outside still have flowers, rosaries, posters, pictures and mementos honoring those who died that day. Regardless of city, state, or country, remembering the dead in earthy, tactile and personal ways is what we do. 

The memorial spans 3.3 acres of land that once housed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Nine stories tall, it housed offices like the DEA, Social Security Administration, Secret Service, Department of Veteran Affairs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among others. 

The explosion that took 168 lives in that building did not completely destroy it. I learned that the remains of the building were imploded and N.W. 5th Street, where McVeigh parked the truck with its explosives, is now closed. The Reflecting pool in its place "helps soothe wounds; with calming sounds providing a peaceful seating for quiet thoughts." (brochure) 

The space is framed by two bronze walls known as the Gates of Time. As written on the brochure from the museum, 
these monumental twin gates from the moment of destruction—9:02 a.m.—and mark the formal entrances to the Memorial.The East Gate represents 9:01 a.m. on April 19 and the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate represents 9:03 a.m., the moment we were changed forever, and the hope that came from the horror in the moments and days following the bombing. 
The magnanimity of space between the Gates of Time symbolizes the shared and open wound of this act of terrorism. And in its architectural design, it conveys a sense that it's not just a city or state that carries this loss, but our nation as well. 
In contrast to the communal message of the reflecting pool, just beside it stands the Field of Empty Chairs. This intensely personal space, again through architecture, captures the catastrophic loss of life.
Each of the 168 chair symbolize a life lost, with smaller chairs representing the 19 children killed. Arranged in nine rows, one for each of the nine floors of the building, they are placed according to the floor on which those killed were working or visiting. Each bronze and stone chair rests on a glass base etched with the name of a victim. By day, the chairs seem to float above their translucent bases. By night, the glass bases illuminate beacons of hope
I had to wonder if this tribute influenced the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon in Washington DC.

From the Field of Chairs we moved toward the Survivor's Wall and then the Survivor Tree. Like the Callery Pear tree at the  9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, the 
90+ year old American elm bears witness to the violence of April 19 and now stands as a profound symbol of human resilience. The message it sends to visitors reads: The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated, our deeply rooted faith sustains us. 
Joe who proved to be an outstanding tour guide shared with me that he had taken his family to visit the 9/11 Memorial during their summer travels to New York. Standing underneath OKC's survivor tree we discussed what was moving and significant about each space, as well as a few similarities, e.g. the symbol of the tree, the integration of water, the naming of those killed. I then asked if he had seen, in New York, what a friend pointed out to me. Several women were named along with the words "and her unborn child." 
At that moment I had to turn away. Tears filled my eyes as the gravity of this place had taken its toll. I shifted my gaze back to the survivor tree and looked up under its branches hoping my eyes would absorb the pool of tears.

Joe said "I didn't see that. These places are hard, but even in the midst of sadness, there's beauty in the world." Looking at the full scope of the Memorial, it was very hard to disagree. The beauty of the space, its spirit, and sanctity fill the heart. A heavy heart, but a full one.

Joy and sadness...even beauty and sadness weave the tapestry of our lives. How I wish that places like the Oklahoma City National Memorial did not exist. But they do and though the tragedy of the events must be remembered, I thank God that beauty helps us along the way.

The next posting will feature the beauty and sadness of the stories of two baseball greats: Dwight "Doc" Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

Photo Credits
Inside Out