It’s not so much that a plucky group of huge overachievers threw everything they had at one of the bluest of blue athletic bloods, and came within one free throw, one rebound, one INCH of winning, as it is that that same thing happened to me twice in one night.
I coach a church boys team, mostly a collection of flotsam and jetsam: one player not quite 5′ tall that has never – not once – held the ball in his hands without either traveling or double-dribbling, because he’s never played basketball; one player 6’2″ and 280 that cannot really run, but instead shuffles through what will be the tenth game of his life; two players under 4’6″; and then, in the last minutes before the game, one of our best players, our best rebounder and only low-post player (despite being only 5’10″) is disqualified by the regional director and unable to play because he’s FOUR DAYS too old, and one of our other best players shows up with a broken right hand (he being right-handed). That youth team, that has never before in living memory won more than one game in a season, yesterday played against the best team we’ve played all year, a team with two players taller and far more skilled than anyone we have, and went right down to the wire in the regional tournament.
We played our full-court 1-3-1 defense, a defense we call “chaos”, because the only way we can win is if we create so much chaos on the floor that the other team can’t play anything like its regular game. We have to create enough havoc that Kyle, by far our best player, can steal the ball in the swirling wreck of the game and take it down and lay it in. We have no outside shooting. We made one three-pointer all season. We score off our defense, or we don’t score. So that’s what we did yesterday. It’s all we can do.
Kyle had a triple-double. He scored 24 points, had 13 rebounds, and FOURTEEN STEALS. My son Nicholas, with the injuries and suspensions now our second-best player, played like a champion. He penetrated, he rebounded, he drew fouls, he quarterbacked the defense. Also, he airballed freethrows and three pointers, but he gave everything. And in trying to do everything, he fouled, and eventually, he fouled out. He’s never given a better effort. No one could have played more all-out. My son Crispin, who has never been on a basketball team before, was a defensive force, ran until he wore through his shoes, and scored, for the first time this season, after hours of hard work in the gym learning to shoot layups. Our tallest player – the one playing his tenth-ever game – got rebounds. Our short kids penetrated and scored. They all played, collectively, the best they ever have. Every player threw his heart on the floor and did whatever he could to win.
And there was a chance, despite the talent gap. The other team had only six players. At halftime, three of them had three fouls. With 6 minutes left, one fouled out. With 3 minutes left, they were up by only six, when the ref blew his whistle and called traveling on our player instead of the reach-in on theirs, and that avoided them having to face our defense with their best player on the bench and only four players on the floor. Bang-bang play, could have been one or the other. That call just didn’t go our way.
With two minutes left, still down just six, with Nicholas on the bench fouled out, Kyle stole the ball and had a clear layup…and missed. We stole it again, and missed again. Two possessions later, we had FIVE offensive rebounds, missing point-blank shot after point-blank shot, so exhausted that we couldn’t even get the ball over the rim, but scrapping and clawing and doing whatever we could to win. It wasn’t enough. They were, in the end, too much for what we had. If everyone had been able to play, if they’d all been healthy, if one more call had gone our way, if Nicholas had been able to stay on the floor…if.
We were classy. We cheered the other guys. We shook their hands, and told them how well they played, and that we wanted them to win it all. We simply did our best, and it wasn’t good enough.
And then I went home and watched it happen again in the NCAAs, to Jimmer and my Cougars.
I’m so proud of my teams. They did their best under incredibly difficult circumstances, in situations where they shouldn’t have had any chance at all, and they showed that they were men of honor and grace, and grit and determination, if not necessarily skill. I could not be prouder of my sons, or my university. I would so love for them to have had another chance to show what they could do, if all the work they put in had resulted in just that little bit more that it would have taken to WIN.
But life isn’t a Disney film, and the battle really is to the strong, and the race to the swift, at least most of the time. The reason they make movies about the 1980 US hockey team and the little basketball team from Hickory High and Luke Skywalker banking in his torpedoes from miles away is that those things don’t happen very often; in fact, they’re so vanishingly rare that they take your breath away.
And my heart aches, because I want those things for the men and boys I love. I want them to have the rewards it seems to me that they deserve so richly. More, I want them to believe that it’s possible for hard work and team to beat height and money. I don’t want them to know what I know, that most of the time, the money wins. That God, for reasons of His own, sometimes seeth openly, and rewardeth in secret.
It’s a hard day, here. But we’re still working. What else, really, can we do? We’re not going to be tall. We’re not going to be rich. We’re never going to have U Florida’s money and we’re not going to have 6’2″ 13-year-old ballhandlers and people I love and care about are still going to get abused by their superiors’ thoughtlessness. As bad as we want to, we can’t fix any of that. All we can do is what we can do.
And in the end, we must do all we can do, because if we don’t, Jimmy Chitwood never will hit that final shot, and there never will be a Miracle on Ice, and the Death Star will blow up Yavin and kill Princess Leia. Because if we do not behave as if this time, THIS time, we can get all the way there, then we will live in a world in which the money and the power always win, where cheating is always rewarded, where there really isn’t any hope for those that don’t have advantages. And as unfair and capricious and mean as this world is, at least we can say that it isn’t always that way. Sometimes, Rudy really does go unblocked and get that sack. But he never does if he doesn’t blitz.
We are BYU. We are the mighty Lehi 9th. We are the PR department of City 1st, and the Lehi Rotary Club, and Heart-2-Home. We are the Clan Jones.
And because we are, we rise, and we shout. Still.
We are BYU.