By B.G. Kelley
I went to a basketball game the other day, and witnessed an outbreak of innocence.
The International Christian High School girls' team was playing the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The International girls hadn't won a game this season - in fact, hadn't won a game in a couple of years. But I had a personal interest in attending. Several of the girls on the team are in my writing class.
International was losing the entire game - another defeat, I lamented, sitting in the stands. Then, with four minutes remaining, suddenly it was as though a light switch was flicked on. Two girls, Michelle Gill and Cashbine Jenkins, lit up the court with three-point lightning - bang, bang, bang, bang, bang - sinking five shots in a row.
International won by eight points.
At first, the girls seemed stunned, almost puzzled, by what they had just done. But then, when victory was fully recognized, they went around hugging each other endlessly. The innocent show of unspoiled spirit resonated, palpably, throughout the gym. And, oh, the joy on the girls' faces; it was as pure as prayer.
I couldn't contain myself. I leapt out of my seat and rushed to the girls' bench, congratulating and hugging the players with my own unbounded joy. It was an inspiring, exhilarating basketball game.
I felt I had experienced some otherworldly sports moment: Sport for the sheer joy of sport. There was no money to be gained - the game was free; there was no self aggrandizing or pompous strutting by the players; and there was no media feeding frenzy - how could there be? There were no media to be found. OK, the game was not must-see, must-buy-a-ticket basketball. But, so what?
Innocence is a rare commodity in sports these days. Much of what is played out on the courts and the fields is a slickly packaged and entertainingly calculated business, from the high school to the professional levels. The heavy pitching of the commercial and promotional aspects is given a fast thumbs-up by many school administrators, coaches, players, and fans. It keeps the coffers healthy.
Even at the high school level, there are millions to be made: by promoting games to sell tickets; by selling school shirts, jackets, sweaters, and caps; and by creating a brand.
But sports should be more than making a buck, and so the impact of the International girls' joy and innocence wasn't lost on me.
Each player knows she isn't going on to play big-time - or even little-time - college basketball. They are not being recruited with scholarship offers, and certainly there will be no professional play-for-pay in their futures. The girls were simply out there for the pure joy of play, the spirit of sport, and the camaraderie.
I used to coach the boys' basketball team at International. We won a lot of games and a few championships, but sometimes the winning and the trophies prompted a false perception of skills - and any objectivity of those skills was lost. One year, when we won 24 and lost only four, it was because the sum of the players' skills was better than any individual player's skills. They had that elusive chemistry that makes a good team a better team. But many, as individuals, came to believe they were destined, almost entitled, to play Division One college basketball. I grew weary of hearing this day-in, day-out,
And so, one day I gathered them together and said, "Hey, listen up. There's only one Division One player here, and that's me. (I had played for Temple.) So I want you to focus on your academics above everything else, including basketball. Your future lies in your education."
Some embraced those words; some didn't. None played Division One basketball.
That was in the back of my mind as I watched the International girls win. And that's why their game touched me. These girls - smart, aware, and pragmatic - have put a priority on their academics, not their basketball game.
They will go on to college to win a more important victory: Their real future.