Monday, May 27, 2024

The Slow Work of Luka Dončić

Sports fan never tire of talking about speed. MPH. Wheels. Who or what hasn't gotten faster? While Aroldis Chapman officially holds the Guinness World Record for throwing the fastest baseball pitch at  105.8 mph, it's interesting to note that the number of pitchers who can throw 100 mph has increased 31% since 2015. In tennis, the serve has been clocked at shocking speeds. Sam Groth is credited with the fastest serve in tennis history at both a Challenger and ATP tennis event (164 mph and 147 mph, respectively). Yes, both serves were aces. Football fans obsess over how fast (or slow) their favorite players run the forty. Surely a number of records in track, swimming and other sports of speed will be broken in Paris at the Olympic Games. And yet, while the world is speeding up, there's one athlete who is successfully slowing it down: Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić.

Standing 6'7" and weighing 230 lbs you won't have a hard time noticing the Slovenian All-Star. Though he does not get anywhere too quickly, it's hard to argue that he doesn't do so effectively. He goes in and out of the paint, taking shots from downtown or midrange.  Textbook Eurostep gets him to the rim time and again. 

I have come to believe there must be a healthy disconnect between his mind and body. He might make the decision to complete the no-look quickly but the ball finds its way to the open man at a speed that is part of some other multiverse.

He has incredible vision, which allows him to find an open teammate. That decision is made ever-so-quickly, but the pass often looks like a lob. It is never flashy, but its forceful. Dončić's passes have a near downward trajectory. And its merely an extension of his shot. 

No one back peddles better than Luka. You will never say that he is light on his feet to which I would say "Do you need him to be?" He drains the three. He makes game winning shots. He finds open teammates. It's not a sprint. It's not even a marathon. It's a basketball game.

In short, it's worth studying Luka and his game. His purported lack of speed creates space and sets a new pace. For years, coaches and players toy with this equation, but Dončić is on to something. It's not even that "slow and steady wins the race." Again, this is not a race. There is however something to be said for thinking differently about speed. 

Few people espouse the virtues of slow. People criticize the Catholic Church for being slow to change. We want change and we want it now. The Holy See finds wisdom prayer, discernment and the passing of time for potential progress. Some things in life—teachings, guidance, direction—cannot be rushed. None of it is easy. No doubt, there is tension in the waiting and deliberation. But as Ignatius of Loyola advised "stay with the tension." Indeed, it can lead to growth.

We know that patience is a virtue. But patience isn't needed when things come quickly. Rome wasn't built in a day, or even three. Masterpieces take time. Aphorisms continue to address the relationship of humanity to speed, because we are forever up against it. 

In response to the fast food movement, we have slow food. When teaching my cousins to drive, my Uncle Jay passed on what my Grandfather—who taught driver's ed for years—always said "speed kills." Very true.

Golfers might learn lessons from Luka, too. Every golfer knows the counterintuitive nature of the game, especially as it is concerned to speed. Why is it when things start to break down in my swing, I am summoned to slow it down?  Furthermore, one must know the speed of the greens to sink a putt. Are they fast or slow? An awareness of speed is essential.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps with a reminder and an invitation to step back (or should I say back peddle) and go slow. Society will tell us to speed it up but spirituality reminds us to slow it down. You might not need to watch a basketball player like Luka Dončić to learn this lesson, but I have found it to be a fun way to put it into practice. 

Right now it's looking like the Dallas Mavericks will face the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. If I were a Mavericks fan, I would be telling others "trust in the slow work of Luka." For the rest of us, this prayer by is a beautiful one—worth remembering and offering regularly.

Patient Trust by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit 
gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
 that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Photo Credits
Slow Work

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Context and the Caitlin Clark Effect

A meaningful Greek proverb states: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit”

Young or old, male or female, a lot of trees have been planted on and in basketball gyms across the nation. When I think of the growth and development of basketball—a sport born in America—many a tall tree paved the way and laid the foundation for the incredible success and popularity of the game today. 

The irony of "shade" is not lost on me here. In fact, I'm not trying to throw any against the magnificent Caitlin Clark. I'm a fan...and it's not because she shares but the jersey number and surname of my favorite male athlete: Will Clark. I'm grateful for the exposure and attention she has brought to the game. I'm willing to defend her too. Not on the court but in the other court—the one of sports debate. 

Clark is one of the greatest shooters of all time and has the record to prove it. When you successfully make that many buckets, one need not be super selfless. However, Clark led The Big 10 in assists in 2023-2024. Solid. She is an outstanding passer and has remarkable vision on the court. She has already been named a "generational player." We shall see, but one thing is certain: Caitlin Clark is a household name. She has been the subject of Q&A, discussion and debate. And Yahoo Sports' Cassandra Negley wants to know: Is the league ready for the "Caitlin Clark Effect"?

Negley speaks to this question with much more than color commentary. Whether or not the market is bullish, the WNBA's stock is trending upward. Her numbers speak to that and Clark is to blame. She states,

The WNBA's 28th season is poised to be its biggest yet: bigger crowds, bigger TV audiences, bigger commercial aspirations, bigger stakes. 

There are going to be growing pains that we're already seeing play out. "The growth is happening so fast. It's so accelerated," Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve said.

Merchandise offerings and availability are often a problem. And the overall experience of watching or attending games will be at the forefront for everyone.

The Mystics and Dream each play in venues with limited capacity. Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., seats about 4,200. The Mystics already moved their June game against the Fever to Capital One Arena (more than 20,300), where it could set a WNBA attendance record. Atlanta's Gateway Arena at College Park holds 3,500.

Clark has a personal security detail in Indiana as she did in Iowa, and general manager Lin Dunn said the franchise committed to keeping everyone in their traveling party safe.

Connecticut Sun head coach Stefanie White said the crowds waiting for players at hotel lobbies and near the team bus have grown to the point where hotels are sectioning off areas of the lobby for safety.

"It's not just one or two stopping to get an autograph or a picture," White said. "It's hordes of people."

Developing story... The league is adding chartered flights for all teams this season, but the rollout has been bumpy. The Fever and Lynx flew private for their openers tonight, while other teams had to take buses or fly commercial.

What to watch... The WNBA's most-watched game took place 27 years ago and drew 5.04 million viewers. Some believe Clark's debut tonight in Connecticut could break that record.

All in all, The league's metrics in attendance, viewership and engagement have been on the incline for the last few years, but the "Caitlin Clark Effect" will push it all into overdrive.

I don't want to undermine what is happening. The shade in which today's player sit is wonderful. I simply want to send the poignant reminder of what is true far beyond basketball or the development of any women's program: We must not forget those who planted those trees. They include, in no particular order: Pat Summit, Cheryl Miller, ‌Sheryl Swoopes, Maya Moore, Becky Hammond (first female coach in the NBA), Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, Cynthia Cooper, Tamika Catchings, Muffet McGraw, Ruth Riley, Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, Tara VanDerveer, Kim Mulkey and the list goes on. It will continue to do so. Let us put their names on those benches in the shade and share their stories. 

Are we ready for the Caitlin Clark Effect? Think of it as an iceberg. This is just the tip of a meaningful force—buoyed by others who stand proud and stand tall. Tomorrow's players will fill their shoes and it's exciting to think of what the game will look like for them. In the meantime, it's worth mentioning that two-time WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson is getting her own signature Nike shoe. She joins Sabrina Ionescu (Nike) and Breanna Stewart (Puma) as the only active WNBA players with signature deals.

The women in today's game stand on the shoulders of giants. Thanks for planting.

Photo Credits
Yahoo Sports
WNBA Greats

Thursday, May 16, 2024

A Different Type of Reveal Party: Welcome Vakeryies!

We live in confusing times, while many seek to blur the lines of gender, a popular gathering exists because of it: the gender reveal party. I have never attended one, but I have seen the extent that many people—especially celebrities and athletes—take to make their baby's event stand out among the rest. In spite of the fact that more than one of these gatherings have led to drama and trauma, they are not going away. One must consider why. Why are they popular? People love to gather, celebrate and share news. It's human to want answers and exciting to gain revelations. And such is the spirit that characterized a different type of reveal party—an identity party—as shared on Good Morning America. Please meet the Valkyries!
In this instance however, no gender to the reveal was needed. The Valkyries are the 13th team in the WNBA and with them women's basketball is coming to the Bay Area. Formed in partnership with the NBA's Golden State Warriors, fans wanted to know what would be the name of this team. Turns out, the SF Chronicle ran a poll and this title took 25% of the vote. It's fitting. Why? Valkyries are in fact female warriors. 

Those who love mythology, might already know that a Valkyrie is "the angelic figures who guides slain heroes to the afterlife in Valhalla – paradise in Norse legends – which were first written about in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda manuscripts in the Middle Ages. In those myths, valkyries work as a collective for the one-eyed god Odin, and are ready to fight as warriors in the apocalypse known as Ragnarok."
I appreciate the context offered by team president Jess Smith. She said, “It’s a beautiful nod to the Golden State Warriors, but also is uniquely our own. What’s so incredibly powerful about it is first and foremost is what a valkyrie is. A valkyrie doesn’t act alone, it’s a group moving things forward. As we think through what we’re building here at Golden State, it’s on the court and off the court. To make the impossible, possible like the Bay Area does.”

Others wondered if they would share the franchise blue and gold of the Dubs. Instead the Vakeryies opted for "Valkyrie violet" and black. I couldn't help but wonder if any of the inspiration came from another woman dominating media locally and beyond. Taylor Swift's megahit "Lavendar Haze" is a reference to a term a 1950s-dated common phrase for the state of being in love, inspired by the series Mad Men. Fitting. Why? How? Right now, seems that the media is in love with women's hoops. 
Both "warriors" will play at Chase Center in San Francisco. The Valkyries will practice in Oakland, where the Warriors practiced until 2019. The spirit of the Bay is alive.

I love that the reveal was done on the first day of the 2024 WNBA season! Yes, it's smart marketing AND it's one more example that women's sport is finding its way into the spotlight it deserves. 

A key component of Sports and Spirituality is requiring my seniors to build from what they learned their junior year Religious Studies' course: Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice. Through a presentation entitled Sports in the News, they raise ethical questions, complete research and take a stand on an issue that intersects sports and society. We came to the realization that the future will most likely examine ever further the role, impact and growth of women in sport. Topics might include:
  • Rise of Women’s Sports
  • The Caitlin Clark Effect?
  • N.I.L and Women’s Sports/Athletics
  • Transgender Athletes and Women’s Sports
  • Female Coaches: Will the NBA be the first to appoint a woman as their head coach? 
  • Prediction: Dawn Staley, Sixers.
  • Will we see women on the playing field in
the NFL, MLB, NBA in the future (we have
already seen this in the PGA)?
While we did not have an identity reveal party in class for the Valkyries, I do think we celebrated the success of women's sports throughout the year. Rather than working from a defensive stance or place of apology, we found ourselves standing tall. I think their public announcement has it right. 

Valkyries are a defiant symbol of the power of women. Fighting for community and connection, Valkyries represent the Bay Area spirit of unmatched progress and innovation. A combination of strength and grace, the Golden State Valkyries are writing the next chapter in the epic tale of the WNBA, a league that has transcended limitations and norms over the last 27 years. Larger than life and here to play ball, the Valkyries will reshape our world, and this league, as we know it.

Cue up Taylor....

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Lessons Learned from the Feet of French Phenom Victor Wembanyama

How a person comes to learn about a professional athlete isn't always through sport. Perhaps they are the son or daughter of a sports legend. Maybe they star in a music video or movie. Occasionally their name is included in the lyrics of a song. Sometimes it's in a brush with fame or winning a prestigious award and title. Such is the case for Victor Wembanyama. No matter the path toward which you have seen, heard or read about the 7'4" Center/Power Forward from France, it's not just his fame that can teach us a lesson in Sports and Spirituality, I think his feet can, too.

Wemby has an 8 foot wingspan

Taken as the first pick in the 2023 NBA draft, Wembanyama—known as Wemby—participated in the Las Vegas summer league prior to the regular NBA season. Pop music fans may have learned about him through an unfortunate encounter outside a restaurant on the Strip.

Wembanyama made headlines when Britney Spears, “decided to approach him and congratulate him on his success” outside a restaurant. Allegedly, Spears tapped him on the shoulder. Wemby and his security team claim otherwise. According to the 41 year old pop icon, a member of his security team “back handed me in the face,” knocking her glasses off. 

No doubt Spears and Wemby get swarmed by fans on a regular basis. Rather than standing in a place of solidarity, she operated from a space of unbridled enthusiasm. To be honest, I can relate. As adults, yes, you would think we can keep ourselves in check but sports fans (and I don't know that Spears is) push personal limits on the regular. It can't be easy.

Where we stand and how we stand are important. Wemby kept walking. His security team did not. They reacted. The outcome could have been different. No harm, no foul? yes and no right?

In the past week, Victor Wembanyama was named Rookie of the Year for the 2023-2024 season, receiving all 99 first-place votes to become the sixth unanimous ROY, joining Ralph Sampson (1983-84), David Robinson (1989-90), Blake Griffin (2010-11), Damian Lillard (2012-13) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16).

A  unanimous choice, Yahoo Sports writes that he "lived up to the outrageous hype, averaging 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals and a league-best 3.6 blocks in just 29.7 minutes per game for the Spurs."

Barker adds, "Watching Wemby is mesmerizing... No other player can do what he does on the court. His numbers, while elite, don't do justice to how utterly spectacular he was at times, flashing unlimited potential while routinely making plays that made you say to yourself, "How?" He is a generational talent worth paying attention to and learning from.

In a one-on-one interview for Good Morning America, Robin Roberts met with Wemby in Paris. Her conversation from June 2023, served as another introduction of the French phenom. Roberts says, "Your pre-game warm-ups are crucial to avoid injury. Your athletic trainers—there is something I read about the way they get you prepped. You take off your shoes and socks and you crawl?"

He replies "Having your feet actually connected to the ground is really important as a basketball player because it gets the the feet stronger. If your feet are strong you can then get better on every other aspect of your body." 

Our feet help us to stand. Where and how we stand is essential. The development of firm footing is not to be taken for granted. Removing our shoes put us in direct contact with the ground. Our toes, our feet can tell us about the surface. It is smooth and steady? Or is it uneven or uncomfortable?  Crawling is the first step toward walking on two feet. It's not always that comfortable. Why? We have to shift our balance. We must let go of what we already know and remind ourselves of fundamental and foundational exercises.

I find Wemby's pre-game warm-up to be a spiritual practice. How? Why?  Spirituality is about understanding and awareness.We don't do that in the abstract alone. While prayer or reflection, meditation or silence and well known spiritual practices, our bodies can engage as well. I believe holistic participation can yield a deepened appreciation. 

To consider how we are connected to the ground is a metaphor for the spiritual life. By paying attention to my feet and their grounding, I am invited in a new way to consider what else in my life brings stability and meaning. For so many Religion is a rooting; my Catholic faith gives me a place to stand. But it also allows me to give space to others and to understanding their beliefs. I am better for knowing the roots of my own beliefs and how or why others see differently. This can lead to solidarity which can be one thing to know and another to live out.

In but a year's time Victor 
Wembanyama has afforded sports fans and spiritual ones, much to consider. Merci beaucoup and Congratulations on your award

Photo Credits
Spiritual Roots
Wing Span

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Awards Season: Getting it Right

It's awards season. It's that time of year when schools, sports and society recognize the great achievements, effort, abilities and advancements made by people in the past year plus. In light of this timely tradition, I would like to offer a thought on why it's important to get awards "right." And, why we might get them wrong. 

On Friday, May 3, 2024 President Biden gave the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 people. Check out the impressive list here. As noted by the  this prestigious award is "presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors."

All of my social media channels were flooded with posts, pictures, and praise Rev. Greg Boyle, SJ—"a Jesuit Catholic president who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program based in California,"

Beyond my colleagues and friends who work in Jesuit education, this award was celebrated by those who love his writing, Catholics, Angelinos, advocates for social justice and many more. Read about his ministry, his efforts and approach and it's impossible to question another American more deserving.

In honoring Greg Boyle, I was reminded that getting awards "right" buoys our spirits; it's strengthens our society. It is good to collectively celebrate and honor a person. It puts their life's  story into our conversation and calls us to consider what they have done, what sacrifices they make, what their talents have yielded, etc. How or why the United States better because of this person? And who they recognize and celebrate?!

I appreciate that this award is extended to Americans, even after death. I was equally moved in seeing names like Medgar Evers and Jim Thorpe as 2024 honorees. What a class.

The risk, however, of extending an award is that from time to time we get it wrong. There's no other way to say it: we honor the wrong person. In some instances, there might be two candidates who are equally qualified. To award one means to leave out the other. Quite often questions of merit and desert are not easy to answer.Who decides? How do we decide? It's not easy to get it right.

To this day, there is one experience that still haunts me. I had been coaching for a good 10 years and we coaches opted NOT to honor a certain athlete with the program's highest honor. She was our best athlete and she was a great teammate. She did not however fit the mold of how athletes in the past demonstrated leadership in the capacity in which we were familiar or comfortable.

I wish we had spent more time discerning different and creative ways that our athletes demonstrate what the program’s highest honor aims to recognize. While criteria for the award helps, I also think its take a generous mind and an open one when making a decision like this one. We struggled with our choice. Please know, we made a good faith effort. We thought we were doing the right thing, but I'm not sure any of us felt totally comfortable with our choice. When it came time to extend the award, there was a collective gasp from the audience. Most people were shocked. The sentiment in that room was very different than it should or could have been. I will say, both the honoree and the athlete who did not win embraced and supported one another. Lessons learned.

The swimmer won seven Olympic gold medals and 21 world championship gold medals,
more than any other woman in the sport

I love honoring my athletes. I think awards are not to be dismissed. I want to acknowledge however, coaches, teachers, administrators and leaders don’t always get it right. It’s worth discussing how we get to bullseye. And for what it's worth, I brought this up with another coach in the program just last week. I told her how I felt and she said "no, we made the right decision."  Ten years after the fact and here we are: we agree to disagree.

Whether we get it right or wrong, awards require us to hit pause—to look back, reflect and recognize. Who has made a difference? And how Why are we better because of them? And in the choosing, we might cheer or jeer. As Americans we will not all agree on who deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom—there are a few names on this year's list that I see as moves for pure political gain. Regardless, the class stands as a collective cannon whereby we can assess what American life and culture means from the lives of its very own.

Whether your choosing the 2024 valedictorian, the NBA Clutch player or Defensive Player of the year, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient or Presidential Medal of Free honoree, let us do what we can to get awards "right" and celebrate when we do.

Of all the awards to win, I have to admit being award "Clutch Player of the Year"....might be my preference.

Photo Credits