Hey, Coach

During a recent conversation with my wife, we stumbled onto an odd truth:                        the perceptions, both good and bad,  we had of our teachers and coaches 30+ years ago as kids and teens proved to be accurate and remain mostly unchanged today.

The ones I respected then, I respect now. The ones that I thought were just bullies then, not much has happened to change my mind.

“Did it not occur to some of them that we would eventually grow up and be their peers?” Maybe it didn’t. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they’re just not nice people.

Thankfully, the number of names that I would toss into the “not nice” category would make for a very short list. But the names on that list (a secret one, of course) do serve as a healthy reminder……to be kind. To never fail to earn the respect of the kids that I’m privileged to coach or mentor at church. They’ll be adults someday.

I still see a couple of my high school teachers pretty much every week at church and usually have an opportunity to pause and say “hello” to them. In high school, these ladies were kind, they cared about me, and they cared if I learned. And those positive memories come to the surface every single time I smile and speak. I’m assured that those teachers had a positive impact in my life, and I’m thankful for them.

I attended a high school basketball game recently, and took a seat by myself in upper level seating in my old high school gym. After a few minutes of play during the JV game I spotted my old high school coach down on the floor level and decided to go speak to him at halftime. But before the half ended I found myself surrounded by a group of young ladies. A group of 6 or 7 of my middle school basketball players invaded my quiet space.

On the surface, it could have seemed like they were being pests. But the truth is, it made me feel pretty special. Not because a bunch of middle school kids chose to gather around a slow moving, dad joke spewing, boring old guy. But because I was reminded that, because of the time I’m privileged to spend with these kids, I’m a pretty important guy.

I glanced across the gym floor to see my coach getting settled in at the media table, getting set up to do the radio call for the upcoming varsity game. He’s a pretty important guy in my book. And I couldn’t help thinking, “If he looks up here and sees me surrounded by this slew of kids, does he see his own impact in it all”.  His legacy. The number of kids that he coached that have become coaches. And all the kids that those guys have coached that have gone on to coach?

I’ve always had great respect for my coach. And I still address him simply as “Coach” and I always will. I’m well aware now that my time with him and my team have made me just a little bit better at being a dad, a husband, a boss, a servant of my Lord, and a coach.

I turned on my radio tonight to catch the end of my school’s first round district tournament game, and heard Coach Baker doing the analyst work for the broadcast. It was a close game. As the final minutes played out, I kept hearing him use unique phrases that I often use when coaching. And in the final minute, with East Carter playing defense in a tie game, I heard the phrase that was burned into my brain in high school, “Just play good position defense”.

East Carter hung on in the end for a dramatic win, and I started texting with my son, who’s away at college, after the game (my coach’s son coached my son in high school). He had listened to the game on the radio as well. So I just had to ask him if he noticed the comment about “playing good position defense”. And I knew that he had. He’d heard it plenty from me in his middle school days and as we’d watched games together on TV. And I’m sure he heard it all through high school as well. But what he may not have understood is the impact that Coach Baker has had on pretty much every single coach that’s ever coached him. That’s a legacy.

Coaches. Teachers. What’s it gonna be?

It’s okay if people don’t like you. That’s to be expected if you’re a leader. It’s even okay if people think you’re a jerk. But it’s not okay if people think you’re a jerk and they’re right.

I’m thankful for coaches and teachers in my past that earned my respect and never lost it. I want to be one of those people.

In the coming years, I’m hopeful to be greeted regularly on the streets, gyms, and in churches by both men and women……….who just smile and say, “Hey, Coach”, while good thoughts and memories stir inside them.

Hey Coach…….If you get to read this…….sorry I didn’t speak the other night. I was doing some important stuff…….just like you.

 

Gratitude-For The Person That Hangs A Hoop…..And The People That Haul You To Practice

IMG_7396

I sat a mesh ball bag down on the gym floor and watched the chaos ensue as 7th and 8th grade boys scrambled to get their favorite ball. “I want the Wave.”  “I want the Evolution.” Everybody has a favorite basketball.

I flashed back to my favorite ball from childhood. No it wasn’t any kind of premium indoor/outdoor ball like these kids were fighting over. It was an old rubber Spalding,  ball with all the tread worn off. I thought it was the greatest ball in the world because it was the one ball that would “put the net up” if you shot a perfect swish from the baseline.

Thoughts of childhood immediately brought me to thoughts of gratitude. I hoped these kids in the gym with me were thankful for their opportunity for “gym time” and for the fact that they had a bag full of mostly new indoor basketballs that still had their grip. A friend that I used to coach middle school basketball with reminded the players often, “Be thankful for your gym time. Thank the people that make it possible. Thank the people that get you here every day.”

Gym time had a different meaning when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. Organized basketball didn’t exist for the most part. 7th and 8th graders could play a whopping 10-12 game schedule for their school team. 6th graders gathered at an elementary school gym on Saturday mornings for some basic instruction and some 5 on 5.

The neighborhood pickup games were a huge deal back then. Call your friends or walk through the neighborhood knocking on doors to gather up a gang. Pick your own teams and call your own fouls. Settle your own conflicts. Deal with playing on teams that were stacked terribly against you. Call out the kids that shot too much and passed too little. And yes, sometimes kids really did get mad and “take their ball and go home”.

There were no parents telling us we needed to work on our jump shot or ball handling, or parents out on the court rebounding our shots for us and correcting our form. We just had a strong desire to play because we loved the game. Loved the game enough to shovel the snow off our court on winter days just to get some shots up or get a game going.

Yes, we always had a hoop up at our house when I was a kid. And I can remember each and every one, even remember the day that my dad put them up. A homemade backboard with a hoop bolted to it on a small patio behind our carport. A larger court built against a creek that became a neighborhood gathering spot. And at a second house later on, a goal mounted to a utility pole in a gravel driveway, a goal mounted to a tree in the backyard, and eventually another concrete court that my brother and I used in our high school years. I can clearly remember watching my dad with excitement and anticipation, ready to start firing up shots……but also watching fearfully as my dad used seemingly unsafe methods to get each of those backboards hung. I honestly feared that my dad was going to get seriously hurt just so we could play ball.

I couldn’t begin to list the number of reasons that I’m forever thankful for my parents. But today, I’m just extremely thankful that my dad made sure that, wherever we were, my brother and I always had a basketball goal up to shoot on.

I’m wrapping up the second year of a small basketball league that loosely resembles the backyard pickup games of old. Two days a week of 90 minutes of scrimmaging and “official” games on Saturdays, 4v4 with no coaches. Some of the kids just truly love the game of basketball. Some of the kids just really need the physical activity and to experience the benefits of competition. And it’s my crazy opinion that reaching a certain level of competence in basketball does something for young people’s overall confidence….the way they carry themselves.

I feel privileged to take part in that confidence building. It’s a labor of love for sure. I recently told another league organizer, “I don’t care if a single person thanks me for running this league, but I will listen to exactly zero complaints.”

And that’s just partially true. I don’t need to be thanked. But kids do need to be thankful. They need to recognize all the times when parents and others do things for them that they don’t really have to do.

Our players got to play a scrimmage game against a local Christian school team last night. Their coach makes it a point to tell all the players from both teams to go around the stands and thank the people that brought them to play. And I think that’s a wonderful thing. Gratitude doesn’t come naturally (especially for teen boys).

In the absence of gratitude, entitlement takes over.

No, I don’t need to be thanked for the things that I do for my kids. But my kids darn sure better be thankful for what they have and what’s been done for them. And I have to recognize it and make swift correction when attitudes of entitlement start to appear.

Growing up, I’m sure I wasn’t as grateful as I should have been for all the basketball goals my dad hung. But now that I’m older and wiser, I’m extremely thankful. I still love the game of basketball. And I love kids…….even middle school kids. And I know that the act of my dad putting up those crude goals long ago is something that’s being paid forward still today.

I’m grateful. For my dad. For the game of basketball. And for kids. And if I’ve got your kids in the gym with me, I promise to rip their tail ten times worse for being ungrateful than I would for any basketball mistake they might make.

 

 

 

 

You Gotta Start Somewhere

img_6920.jpg

I’m not a hoarder. My wife says I am, but anyone that’s been married long enough knows that hoarding is a relative term. But unlike concert shirts and Levi’s from the 90’s, paper records of any kind is definitely something I don’t hang onto.

During a cleanout and organize effort this week, an envelope surfaced containing an interesting history of my first couple of years of teenage checking account history. There was a multitude of checks written to a pizza restaurant that I still frequent three to four times a week. There were plenty of $10 checks written to gas stations from a time when $10 could still get you a fair amount of gas. And there were even a check written to a friend that I paid to type up a senior research paper for me.

Maybe the most interesting thing was the deposit tickets. Specifically the amounts that I was bringing home for a 40 hour work week. A big fat $107.65 in July of 1986, just after I’d graduated from high school (minimum wage was $3.35/hour).

It’s not that I didn’t do good work or do hard work. I was doing cable TV and satellite dish installations, mostly doing the things that the older and more experienced guys preferred not to do. Running cable lines through brier and chigger-infested fields. Crawling under houses with wet foundations and clearance that only a skinny teenager could navigate. Digging post holes, mixing concrete, and digging by hand through packed down gravel driveways.

It’s just that I was doing work that didn’t require any special skill other than a willingness to work, along with some degree of physical fitness. My skill set couldn’t demand higher wages and there wasn’t more money available to pay me if it did. I eventually left for college and my workplace functioned fine without me.

Of course I wasn’t living out on my own at the time, so my expenses were minimal, other than pizza and gas. But it would have been pretty absurd at the time to insinuate that my employer would have been obligated to give me a better pay rate if my life situation was different. If I’d had a wife, kids, and a full basket of living expenses, it wouldn’t have changed the reality of my limited skill set. And it wouldn’t have changed the limited funds available for payroll expenses.

So how did we reach this point where it’s hard to avoid all the talk about a government mandated “living wage” or $15/hour minimum wage? I don’t know how we got here, but I’m certain that it’s a dangerous place to be if we don’t use our brains and reverse fields. To believe that these ideas can simply be breathed into being without disastrous consequences is wishful thinking to the extreme.

Beyond the correlating price hikes associated with unsustainable minimum wage hikes and beyond the damage that small business will suffer, there’s the rather large matter of making a whole lot of people unemployable. When the government basically makes it illegal to pay workers what they are worth, then those entry level workers simply won’t be hired. It’s that simple.

At any given time, there are millions of teenagers who are finishing up, and many times completely wasting,  a perfectly good public or private K-12 education. They’re not going to learn a trade or go to college and earn a degree that pays. Their best hope is to simply get a job, any job, regardless of pay, and learn what it means to work. When entry level wages are inflated to false levels, those kids won’t be hired…….ever. No employer is going to pay $15/hour for someone that can’t produce. It’s just not going to happen.

Those who lack skills will be deprived of any opportunity to develop skills, work ethic, and learn what it means to hold down a job. And they’ll be cursed to depend on their parents a little longer, and perhaps the government for their whole life. And maybe that’s just what some political movements desire. Dependence.

$3.35 an hour. No, I wasn’t learning a specific skill back in the 80’s while earning that wage. I was learning what it means to work. Show up every day and follow directions. Respect authority and pull your weight. Don’t ever just do enough to get by. Be willing to do unpleasant things and give your best effort. Don’t create messes and problems for your co-workers to finish or clean up.

Work ethic. It’s not exactly on the rise as each generation of workers changes to the next. So how do young people learn to work? Well, by working, of course (and by being made to believe that they MUST work). We need to be able to pay them what they’re worth while they learn. Because you gotta start somewhere.

 

1 in 1,000

IMG_6860 (1)

There was a buzz of excitement in the air that morning. Volunteers from N.E.S.T. (nework for endangered sea turtles) had discovered a nest of Loggerhead sea turtle eggs. And judging from the actions of the workers, this was a Superbowl moment for them.

N.E.S.T. volunteers patrol 50 miles of North Carolina’s Outer Banks beaches each morning from spring to early fall looking for the markings of where a female sea turtle would have come ashore a laid her eggs the previous night, before returning to the sea. Normally when nests are located, they are marked and monitored in order to prevent disruption from humans, predators, and weather until the baby turtles emerge and make a run for the water. A simple matter of people doing what they can to ensure that each egg has a fair chance of survival.

My daughters had told me of a repeat of this same scenario from just two days  before. N.E.S.T. volunteers were in a frenzy as they told everyone they encountered on the beach that a sea turtle nest had been reported near one of South Nags Head’s piers (about 1 mile south of our vacation rental). Instead of marking and monitoring this particular nest, it was being relocated due to a massive beach nourishment project that was slated for the coming weeks. Eggs were being carefully removed, one by one, and being transported to similar but safer environment.

IMG_6859

As the events were relayed to me, I thought it all sounded like pretty cool stuff. I didn’t know how many nests were cared for in a year’s time, but I have been seeing the ATV patrols early in the mornings for as long as I’ve been vacationing in the Outer Banks. I knew it had to be a huge deal for this team of volunteers. And it turns out that they care for only 10-20 nests per year.

So it was pretty surprising when another nest was discovered just two days later. Again, my daughters had run into excited volunteers early in the morning, excitedly relaying the news of their discovery to anyone and everyone they encountered on the beach and encouraging beachgoers to come watch the nest relocation process. Since this nest was only a couple hundred yards from our rental, I decided to walk down the beach to take a look.

I watched from a short distance. About eight volunteers, working with purpose. Some carefully digging and removing the eggs. Some brushing off the sand and delicately placing them in cartons and into a large cooler.  some talking to bystanders, encouraging us all to come closer, “Does anybody else want to come up closer to get pictures?”. And some just offering a little education, “Most nests will have around 100 eggs in them.”

This was pretty cool. I was glad I had walked down the beach to witness it. It was just neat to watch people working together with such a passion to preserve nature and a form of life, even if it wasn’t human life.

Human life. Yes, my thoughts went pretty quickly to the preservation of human life. And I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to me if I just pulled a Gerber multi-tool out of my pocket and approached the cooler and bashed in a couple of eggs? Well, that would be just be barbaric of course. But I did later learn the extent to which these eggs are protected by law:

  • All of these species are protected under the Endangered Species Act which makes it illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, capture, or collect sea turtle eggs, hatchlings, adults, or any body parts. Violators can be prosecuted under Civil and Criminal laws and be assess heavy penalties (up to $25,000 fine and up to one year in jail.)

Yeah, if you bust up a sea turtle egg or destroy a nest, you’re in hot water. An that’s a good thing. But I couldn’t help thinking, “Why don’t we offer these same protections for unborn humans?” The same actions that would be barbaric and illegal for unborn sea turtles are legal and fiercely defended when it comes to unborn humans.

This simply can’t be justified, but still abortion remains legal.

Here’s the craziest part. Out of 1,000 Loggerhead sea turtle eggs, the number that will hatch and reach the age of reproductive maturity is………ONE. One out of a thousand. Do the math, 10 nests times 100 eggs equals a whole year of serious human effort and intervention in order to save one sea turtle.

And I’m not saying this is bad. I think it’s an admirable effort. But I am saying that American society is sick as long as we fail to go these same lengths to protect our unborn children who have no voice. 1 in a thousand. I can’t get past that.

We can pat ourselves on the back all we want for concerns about poverty, racism, gun control, refugees/immigrants and a variety of other issues. But until America becomes a nation that is willing to defend and protect human life to the same degree that it offers endangered species, we’re basically just full of crap in our efforts to make anything better. We’re just the sick getting sicker.

1 in 1,000. Geez.

 

Somebody Has To Catch The Little Fish

IMG_6803 (1)

It finally happened. That moment when I was sure that I had become all that I desired to be as a man.

Through nearly 30 years of marriage I’ve made quite a few beach trips to the coasts of Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. One constant in all those trips was the certain presence of an old crusty veteran surf fisherman positioned on the beach. White or gray facial hair. Sun-baked skin. A belly that may be indicative of consistent Pabst Blue Ribbon consumption.

And, of course, a fishing pole or two, seemingly perfectly positioned. Even though you may have never actually witnessed this mysterious figure reeling in a fish, you just knew. After you’d tried your hand and failed at surf fishing, you just knew that this was a guy that you could go to for some reliable fishing advice. Something just looked different about this guy.

This is the man that I’ve wanted to be. Instead of passers by casually asking “are you doing any good today?”, I wanted them to ask me how I was doing what I was doing. Tips. Secrets. Pointers. The guy that looks like he knows what he’s doing.

My first taste of perceived surf fishing status came this past week when a random woman approached me with what I was sure to be a fishing question, opening with, “Sir, you look like you must know something about the ocean……”. But I was disappointed when she finished with, “Do you know what that slimy substance is that’s floating near the top of the water?”. Of course I didn’t know the answer, so I told her that it was most likely sewage discharge from passing ships. Her blank response reminded me of the phrase I hear often from my wife, “Karrick, people don’t really get your sense of humor.”

I pressed on. Over the course of a week, between our four kids and myself, we practically had a line in the water from sunrise to sunset and beyond. And we caught fish. Not big fish, but we did reel in fish consistently all day every day.  Between catching fish and having a massive amount of gear spread out around us, people couldn’t help but take notice.

By the end of the week, people were asking questions, both of me and also my oldest son. “What kind of bait are you using?” “What kind of hooks are you using? What size?” “How far out are you casting?” “What kind of fish are those you’re catching?” Yes, I had arrived. The crusty veteran.

There were plenty of other surf fishermen scattered along the beach each day, mostly trying their luck for only 30 minutes to an hour before giving up. Over the course of a week, I paid attention to all the other anglers, both from our spot on the beach and also from the deck on our beach house. I never saw another person bring in a single fish.

One evening I asked my son, “Do you know why nobody else is catching fish?” He shrugged, so I went on. “Because their hooks are too big. Their bait is too big. Because they’re casting out too far. Because they all just want to catch big fish and they end up catching nothing nothing at all. And they give up too soon and walk away.”

We drew attention to ourselves. Why? Consistency. Small things. Constant activity. Always having at least three lines in the water. Always checking our lines to make sure they still had bait. Trying different baits. Casting different distances. Paddling larger baits out into deeper water. Work. And catching lots of fish (even if they were small ones).

Producing fruit that’s visible to others.

Isn’t that what a Christian life is supposed to look like? Bearing fruit. Consistency. Being a follower of Christ is an all day, every day thing. And maybe we need to master the art of catching small fish before we can catch the big ones. Because attempts to only catch the big ones may leave us with empty results, the frustrations of our shortcomings, and in the sad spot of giving up and just doing nothing instead.

Maybe it’s a misconception or just a poor path to set out on, to believe that we can simply tell people that they need Jesus, invite them to church, and things will just fall into place for salvation. Maybe instead we need to address our neglect of the finer points of becoming fishers of men.

A good place to start is consistent, prayerful study of God’s word. Beyond that, every part of our life should reflect authenticity and an honest pursuit of the character of Christ. Because we know that we are always being watched by someone, we have to work to becoming a person that’s worth watching and listening to. And I think this is where mastering the art of catching small fish comes in.

So what does that look like? It looks like telling the truth at all times, even if the truth makes us look bad. Loving the people that are difficult to love. Forgiving when forgiveness doesn’t come easy. Actively seeking ways to help and serve others…..being selfless and generous. Being patient with those who try our patience. Controlling our tongues…..ALWAYS. Admitting to our faults and mistakes and apologizing when necessary. Being a peacemaker. Being a great listener. Keeping our pride and anger under control. Treating others with dignity and respect. Not being a blamer or excuse maker. Being willing to do difficult things when the right things (as defined by God) aren’t the easiest things.

This isn’t Sunday morning stuff. This is all day every day type of stuff. This is authentic Christianity. This is what will make others take notice. Consistently hauling in the small fish. Showing the world that there’s something different about us. Standing out in the crowd.

“There’s something different about him (or her). What is it?”

Lead a life that causes people to ask this question about you. Because the answer needs to be Jesus. And when people start asking that question about us, we may finally be ready to catch the biggest of fish.

Wildcats, Fatherhood, Jesus, And Perspective

 

wisconsin 2015 “Well bub, are you glad we stuck around for this game?” I stood in line with my oldest son, a high school freshman, trying to find a t-shirt to take home to his little brother and older sisters. Duke and Wisconsin were getting ready to tip off in the 2015 national championship game. Most other UK fans were absent from Lucas Oil Stadium that night and had evacuated Indianapolis after UK’s semi-final loss to Wisconsin on Saturday night. 38-0 had become 38-1. We had calmly walked from the stadium after the game, disappointed in the loss, but not crushed. Just talking about what makes winners and losers in particular games. I had learned by this time in life that these moments with my son were more important than the score of any game.

He answered my question as we glanced over souvenirs,  “Yeah Dad, I love being here. I’d love for the Final Four to be our vacation every year even if Kentucky isn’t playing.” Selfishly, I really just wanted (and still do) to experience a UK national championship with at least one of my kids, especially my basketball-crazy oldest son. This was our third failed attempt. A semi-final loss to UConn in Houston in 2011. A finals loss to UConn in Dallas in 2014. We were there for them all.

The agony of defeat diminished with each loss. Part of that comes from the wisdom we gain as we age. The thrill of victory may not be so high anymore, but the agony of defeat doesn’t sting quite as bad either. Perspective changes with time. But what was it that really changed my perspective. Why do I no longer break things, swear at the tv, and go into a week-long period of depression each season when UK exits the tournament?

Let me back up in time just a little to answer that. Eighteen years to be exact, to the 1997 Final Four. Same city, different arena (RCA Dome). I sat in the backseat of a car for what seemed like two hours waiting to get away from the stadium where UK had just lost the national championship game to Arizona in overtime. Nazr Mohammed had shot 0-6 from the free throw line. Arizona had converted 34 free throws compare to our 9.

I was angry. “How long is it gonna take to get out of this freaking field!”  I stewed. “We never should have lost that game!” My wife shared the back seat with me, but I wasn’t too concerned with her at the moment. My head was hurting terribly because I’d drank too much beer before the game. I just wanted to get back to the hotel and go to bed. Our first born child Macy sat in a car seat between us. As long as she wasn’t crying, I probably wasn’t too concerned about her either. Everything was pretty much about me and my anger and my self-induced pain at that moment.

We did return home the following day. And things sort of returned to normal. Going to work and trying to raise a 7 month-old little girl. Sure, I avoided watching TV or reading newspapers for about a week because I didn’t want to be reminded of UK’s loss (isn’t that what all UK fans do?).

But things weren’t really normal. Since those first days of fatherhood, I’d been nagged with the realization that I, along with her mother, was responsible for the direction this child’s life would take. The way we raised this precious girl would determine where she spent her eternity. The kind of man that I was at the time wasn’t going to cut it. Something had to change.

I’d been raised in church, but never accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. Since that day that Macy was born, I had read the Bible cover to cover. A lot of things didn’t make sense to me, but still I knew what I had to do and the kind of man I had to become. I knew all along that I didn’t want to die without Jesus. But I was coming to realize that I was helpless to be the kind of father I needed to be without Him guiding my life.

Later that month, about a month short of my 29th birthday, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. The rest is history. Sort of. It’s been a journey, for sure. My wife and I were blessed with three more children. Life got pretty crazy pretty quick. And I came to realize pretty quickly that life wasn’t about me. Opening my heart to God’s love taught me how to love. Not just my own family, but slowly and surely the rest of the world.

Almost 22 years later in my Christian walk, I know it’s been a slow and sometimes not-so-steady journey toward becoming the man that God wants me to be. Keep seeking His word, grow to be a little more like Jesus every day, replace my ways with His ways, and find a way to love and forgive when it doesn’t come easy. Yeah, I still stumble a lot.

I’ve screwed up a lot of things in the past. And I’m sure that I’ll make a mess of some things in the future. But I have to keep moving. And keep changing who I am. And part of that comes constantly searching for perspective.

When my ways threaten to overcome His ways. When pride, anger, or selfishness rear their ugly heads. When love or forgiveness don’t come naturally. When life is ruled by fear, anxiety, or stress. Those are the times to search hard for perspective. The kind of perspective that’s usually found at the cross. “Seriously, did Jesus die on the cross just for you to screw this up or freak out over something so unimportant?” No, He died because His love is greater than our failures, but also to live inside of us as the Holy Spirit to steer us away from our next failure.

To search for perspective can mean to simply listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Why not look? Why not listen? Why not obey?

No, I’m not really talking about not freaking out when our favorite sports team loses. I’m talking about always looking for a bigger picture that has the cross in the center of it.

Today, as another UK basketball season came to an end, I’m just thankful for the natural bonds and the easy conversations that come from being fans together. And even more so, I’m thankful for the special bond with my son that becomes even stronger because of our love for UK basketball.

He’s a freshman at UK now. And as we watched the game come to a disappointing end together, he reminded me so much of a younger version of me. Pacing, yelling at the TV, and quickly exiting our home in anger to return to school.

And I could only smile. Because of perspective. Because I know that, as long as I live, that he and I will always share the bond that basketball brings, and we’ll always dissect games and teams together………….. just like I do with my dad. 

And someday, we might still get to witness a championship together. Maybe. But it’s okay if we don’t.

“See you buddy. Be careful. I love you.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

Yeah, it’s just a silly game. But to some of us, it’s so much more.

Kids These Days

auburn

In the final minutes of Auburn’s regional semi-final win against North Carolina Friday night, disaster struck. Star player Chuma Okeke went down with a non-contact injury that silenced the crowd. As he squirmed on the floor in pain, it seemed obvious to all in the arena that this was a season-ending and career threatening injury. Auburn teammates rushed to his side to check on him. Carolina players near Okeke had looks of genuine concern for their fallen opponent.

Finally, Okeke was helped to his feet and assisted off the playing floor toward the locker room. As he left the floor, every single North Carolina player on the floor made their way to him to express concern and encouragement. In the game’s aftermath, social media raved about the acts of sportsmanship by the Carolina players.

But the actions of these players go beyond sportsmanship. All those little things that we consider acts of good sportsmanship are things coaches can require or demand. North Carolina’s kids displayed something much more important: a high level of character. They weren’t just following a coach’s demands or trying to uphold the values or their basketball program. They had genuine concern for their fallen opponent.

And you may not have noticed, but this is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. College basketball is being flooded with high character kids. If you’ve watched long enough and give it just a little bit of reflection and thought, you’ll realize it hasn’t always been this way. Think of Big East basketball in the early to mid 80’s. Dirty play, brawls, and plenty of guys that looked like they were destined for prison instead of the NBA when their college days came to an end. Academic standards were lower for college admission for athletes.

Coaches regularly took chances on talented guys with questionable academics, work ethic, character, and coachability. The best example of this would be N.C. State’s stereo stealing and 500 SAT scoring Chris Washburn (who left college after one year and was one of the biggest draft busts in NBA history). But guys like that don’t even get recruited now. Why? Because the unknowns have become know. How?

My guess is two things: Prop 48 and social media.

Enacted in 1986, Prop 48 raised academic requirements for incoming student athletes (combination of GPA and SAT/ACT scores).  The outcry didn’t take long to surface: “Prop 48 disqualifies a much larger proportion of black and low income students. ACT and SAT tests are racially biased.”  The short term statistics may have loosely backed up these claims.

But the short-sighted vision of looking only at short-term outcomes could have easily washed away any potential of lasting benefits.

What died after Prop 48’s inception was the attitude of, “If I play well enough in high school, some college coach will find a way to get me into school.” Once kids started missing out on a shot at Division 1 basketball, the attitudes of athletes toward high school academics didn’t take long to start shifting. “If I won’t do school work, I won’t play.”

It’s pretty amazing what happens when you raise standards for young people instead of making excuses for them.

What about social media? Just as higher academic standards removed some level of uncertainty for coaches concerning future academic troubles, social media of high school athletes gives college coaches a closer peak at the character of players.

If a kid’s Twitter account is full of profanity, unhealthy attitude towards women, racism, etc., it’s no longer a matter of some college coach being willing to take a chance on a kid of questionable character. It’s becomes a case of no longer being recruited by anybody. Coaches make it clear what is expected. Players have come to learn what is acceptable.

Simply put, I’m a firm believer that lower standards produce lower quality of effort. You can say what you want about requirement-lowering ideas like affirmative action, but you’ll never convince me that they produce anything other than the poison of meeting lowered expectations. If you demand less, you’ll get less.

Expecting and requiring more of NCAA athletes has produced some pretty favorable results. And as I’ve watched game after game during March Madness, I’m often impressed with great players and good teams and the excitement of the tournament. But I have learned to thoroughly appreciate all those moments where plays unfold, and the actions on the floor leave me thinking, “He just seems like a great kid.”

Good guys don’t finish last anymore. And bad guys don’t even make the team. I’m okay with that.