I glanced up at the red bulbs on the scoreboard. 26-21. Not a big lead and a lot of time left, but we'd controlled the game so far. If we could get by St. Pat's we'd be on to the finals. I could hear the faint cheers of the raucous crowd, the squeak of the sneakers on the hardwood floor, the heavy grunts from my team as they hustled back on defense.
"Be aware!" I yelled.
The ball moved fast. Wing. Hi-post. Back to the wing. Suddenly she was free. Standing outside the arc she launched a three, and when it connected the home crowd went crazy.
Two point game.
We threw the ball in and suddenly I heard screaming from the other sideline. Only it wasn't cheering.
"It was a three! It was a three!"
I glanced up at the score board. 26-23. The ref hadn't signaled the three point effort, and so the scorer had given the other team credit for only two. A break for us. But the other coach wouldn't stop screaming. Her hair whipped across her face as she threw the clip board to the floor. It echoed across the gym like a gun shot.
The whistle halted the game as the refs came to the scorer's table for a consult. I told my team to huddle up and get a quick drink. Sweat covered their faces and jerseys. Lauren was limping. Steph couldn't stop her hands from shaking. We'd played a tough game the previous night and earlier that morning, and with two players missing, the girls were dead tired. The refs were still talking at the scorer's table.
Last year the Senior Girl's basketball team had won twenty games for the first time in over a decade. But in the two seasons before that we'd won only twice. This year's team was better. They worked harder. They were smarter. And most of all, they were good kids. I desperately wanted them to taste the success I felt they deserved. Last year we'd finished third at this tournament. This year we were good enough to win.
I looked over my team, their heads hung in tiredness, and slowly walked over to the scorer's table.
"If it makes a difference, it was a three." I said.
The refs nodded, and the other coach, her long hair wet across her forehead, seemed to look past me.
"Thank you for your honesty."
I nodded and walked back over to my team. I told them what I'd done, and Sarah, with her red hair and bright eyes, just looked at me.
"Win in fairness. There's more to the game then the game." I said.
I meant what I said, but I was reasonably certain that we'd win anyway. The girls masked their shock, and when they went back out continued to play disciplined, efficient basketball.
Until the middle of the fourth quarter.
Up by ten points, I watched in frustration as the tournament's physicality and our short bench finally took its toll. Our lead whittled. Ten. Eight. Six. Five. Three. Two. Suddenly they were ahead. I couldn't seem to hear anything, I was lost in the madness of the last two minutes, of analyzing and yelling and cheering and moaning and squinting and hoping and planning. With less than ten seconds left and our best player with the ball and a chance to tie, I watched as she drove in and was fouled. I glanced up at the clock, but the scorekeeper forgot to stop it and it rolled down to zero.
"They didn't stop the clock." I said to the refs as they came to the scorer's table to make the foul call. The older ref, a big man with a bulging stomach and little hair on his head, looked over at me.
"There was about four or five seconds on the clock when she was fouled." I said.
Time was precious here. If Steph made the two free throws, than St. Pat's would have time to bring the ball down the court. But if she missed, it'd give us time to get a rebound.
"Okay." The older ref said, his voice a bit too squeaky for his large frame.
"What!" The other coach was screaming again. "There wasn't that much time! I saw one second on the clock."
The other coach looked at me, and I could see the lie in her eyes. So much for fair play. The two refs conferred, and split the difference. 2.3 seconds left. I glanced up at the red bulbs on the clock, and covered the sinking feeling in my stomach as I walked back to the huddle.
"Okay, guys. Do your best."
When Steph missed the first free throw I knew the game was over. She missed the second one intentionally, but with only 2 seconds on the clock there simply wasn't enough time to get the rebound and the horn sounded to end the game. I couldn't stop thinking about the point I'd conceded earlier in the game. How my honesty might have cost us a shot at the tournament championship.
My heartbroken young team gathered around me at the end of the game.
"You all played your guts out, and you know what happened at the end. Some people need to win, but sports are about more than winning. They're about excellence. About integrity. About effort." My team looked at the ground, their sweat soaked socks and shoes lying haphazardly beside them. Lauren's feet were a mass of bandages. I sighed. "But I know that right now, none of that means too much. I'm proud of you, though."
I looked at them and then moved away, respecting the team's need for a little time alone, away from the coach. Two hours later we played for 3rd place, but I couldn't bring myself to care, and I rested my starters as we lost by fifteen. I finally arrived home just after dinner. I did not know what to do with myself. I sat in my living room, unable to stop thinking about the game, or about the other coach and the look on her face when she lied about the time left.
I wondered why it meant so much to her. Why it meant so much to me. And why was I still thinking about it, anyway? It was just a stupid game! I went to the kitchen and poured myself a fresh mug of coffee before drifting outside. The trees outside my apartment had begun their autumn transition into a fresh burst of red and yellow. And I glanced up at the cold blue sky, watched the steam rise from my coffee. I watched a cardinal flirt from tree to tree and sipped from my mug.
In many ways, I'd always believed that sports were a microcosm of society. Coaching was a way to impart truths about life, and playing was a good way to learn them. Within the accelerated boundaries of a game, you learned life lessons that could hold you in good stead when the real tragedies of life drew near. Maybe that's why I was so upset. Maybe it was because what I'd seen earlier in that day echoed across our society, and my frustration with those who would not play fairly.
People lied and cheated all the time. Cheated on their taxes. Cheated on their insurance. Cheated on their tests and lied to their bosses. Lied about how much they made and about who they were. And too often, I thought, it worked. Too often they were rewarded, just as the other coach had been rewarded for her lie. And sometimes it just made me tired.
How can I compete, Lord, if we don't have a level playing field?
Part of the appeal of sports was the idea that it was supposed to be a level playing field. I took another sip of my coffee, watched as a blue jay flickered to the same tree as the cardinal. Their wings flashed as the jay's caw caw agitated the cardinal who flushed from the tree and flew out of sight.
I wondered if the girls had learned anything today. And if they had, was it positive? Had they learned that the right way to play and live was to do it with honour? Or had they learned the undeniable advantage of cheating and lying? We always assume that young people pick up the positive messages like everything is a Disney movie. But the truth is that there is an advantage in life if you are willing to lie and cheat to get ahead. The bigger truth, of course, is that the cost is the corruption of your character. That however, is often hard to see.
I finished my coffee and moved back into my living room. I had no idea what effect this game would have on my team, but we would find out soon enough.
P.S. Six days have passed since that game. Two regular season games against difficult opponents. Two blown fourth quarter leads, the last one an eleven point lead with 3 minutes left. We always think that being honest and fair pays off right away, but all that seems to have happened so far is that we've learned how to lose. After the last game I did not know what to tell my devastated team. I wish that life was more like a Disney movie some times, but we must keep the bigger picture in our minds, understanding that character is forged in the fire. The same character that will hold us when life leads us down the road of tragedy and heartbreak, as it always does at some point. And its there we will see who we are, and make the decision about who we want to become.
No matter how old or young we are, whether we play sports or not, we face those decisions every day. At work. At home. May God help us to see past the moment to the eternal, and to that which matters most.