Courting Community by Chad Thralls

I started playing basketball in elementary school. After my dad put a hoop up in our driveway, I spent hours out there dribbling and shooting, working on my skills. Over the years, I played on my middle and high school teams. I played intramurals in college and graduate school. And I played in a men’s league after I finished school. It seems like I have been playing ball my entire life. Hoops are in my blood. There are several aspects of my identity, but there is one thing I definitely am. I am a basketball player.

Now, I play ball at lunchtime at the university where I teach. Before Covid, a regular group of faculty and staff at Seton Hall in their 30s and 40s assembled every Tuesday and Thursday to play. Participants came from across the university, including priests, plumbers, professors, fundraisers, guys who maintain the grounds and facilities, IT specialists, and guys who work in the mail room. During Covid, some took jobs elsewhere and some retired from playing. (One fellow who hasn’t played in a decade sometimes comes to watch for a few minutes during his lunch hour.)

After Covid, to keep the games going we began recruiting undergrads who happened to be getting shots up at the gym to play with us. In these situations, I sometimes get called on to guard the other team’s best player. This is increasingly becoming a challenge. Some of these guys are more athletic than I was at 18, and I turned 50 a few months ago. For example, I don’t generally guard a guy beyond the 3-point line. You’re going to have to prove to me that you can make that shot before I come out that far on the court. But if my man makes one, I go out to cover him. This becomes dicey with the young guns. If they are skilled with the hesitation dribble (“hesi”) and are quicker than I am, it is tough for me to stay in front of them.

Early in the fall semester, we picked up a couple of guys who were planning on walking onto the men’s team. I was guarding one of them. Late in the game, the walk-on on my team asked if I wanted to switch, if I wanted him to guard my man. This had not happened to me before in over a decade of playing noonball. I carried this feeling of failure and embarrassment with me the rest of the day. When I walked to the train station that afternoon, this was the first thought that popped into my mind. I couldn’t stay in front of my man. I need to find some YouTube videos that show how to defend the hesi. I’m slipping. Man, I’m old.

Despite the number of birthdays I’ve celebrated at this point, I tell myself that I’m young as long as I can still play basketball. And I can still play, but it’s not quite the same. When I play now, I feel the difference. These days, I have to ease into the game. I don’t look to shoot until I’ve run up and down the court a few times. Noonball is making it impossible to avoid acknowledging the mileage I have on my joints. It is teaching me lessons about life.

The first lesson it is teaching me is the reality of impermanence. Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 reads: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.” A time to play basketball competitively, and a time to find other forms of exercise. I know this intellectually, but I feel it lately. Likewise, Philippians 2:5-7 states: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.

At this point in my basketball career, learning the lesson of impermanence means that I should not cling to the image of myself as young, or even as a basketball player. Change is real. It is inevitable. It is one of the inescapable realities of the universe. If I cling to the image of myself as young, I am in denial of my diminished athletic ability. I am resisting the present reality of my life. I am fooling myself that I am in control.

I shared an office for eight years with one of our best noonball players. (To celebrate his 40th birthday, Edgar’s wife rented a gym for us to play basketball.)  After my friend took a job at another university a couple of years ago, the point of playing has slowly changed for me. I still like to win, and the guys who don’t compete on defense still chafe me, but the reason I take the court has shifted. Rather than competitiveness, my motivation now for taking to the court is community. This is the second lesson noonball has taught me. I want to exhibit skill when I am out there, but I am not a perfectionist about my performance anymore. The missed shots and turnovers do not bother me as much. What is important to me now is simply the joy of being out there with the other guys. Maybe it’s that I can sense that I won’t be able to play forever. Optimistically, it’s an acceptance of the reality of my situation.

I am a bit surprised at this shift in my attitude toward the game because, even though it is a team sport, the reality is that basketball today is not about community. In actual practice, it is about individuals. The isolation style of ball played in the NBA has trickled down to pickup basketball. If you watch the undergrads play each other, they take turns jacking up threes or dribbling the ball back and forth between their legs, trying to perform the hesitation dribble like NBA star Steph Curry. They do not pass the ball. They are not playing together; they are taking turns playing one-on-one.

The veteran noonball contingent does not subscribe to this style of play. (Last year, many of our games pitted undergrads versus the old timers. We won most of the time.)  To be honest, I don’t enjoy playing with guys who won’t pass the ball. For me, community is created by passing. I fancy myself a scorer, I enjoy seeing the ball go through the basket, but I’ve changed my game over the past few years to try to get the ball moving around the court. The game is more fun for everyone if the ball doesn’t get stuck in the hands of one player. If everyone touches the ball, even if it is just to pass it to a teammate, everyone feels a part of the action. Everyone has a role. When I play with the undergrads, sometimes I don’t even run down the court because I know the guy with the ball is going to shoot it. And this is not only true of the young guns. Sometimes, veterans are even seduced into playing this way. Among our group, there is a professor who doesn’t pass, who shoots almost every time he touches the ball. When teams are arranged at the beginning of each session, I try to shape the rosters so I don’t have to play on his team.

Why? Participating in noonball is not just about the basketball; it’s also about the community. Despite the ubiquity of sports in our society, the concept of “team” runs against the grain of our hyper-individualistic culture. When I play, it’s not just about me and how many points I score. My enjoyment could not occur without all the other guys participating, even the guys who don’t play defense and don’t pass. Some of my favorite memories of attending church include the time spent catching up with friends in the pews after the service. At this point in my noonball journey, I can’t imagine leaving the gym right after the game has ended to get back to work. The ritual is not complete until we sit in pools of sweat on the edge of the court and rehash the highlights of the game together. A game that no one cares about but us (except maybe my elementary school–age son, who loves hearing the gritty details). An experience that would not be fulfilling if all of us didn’t participate. A run that we will come back for again and again, as long as our knees last. ♦

Chad Thralls is a teaching fellow in the University Core at Seton Hall University. His interests include contemplative spirituality, spirituality and place, comparative theology, and Zen Buddhism. He is the author of Deep Calls to Deep: Mysticism, Scripture, and Contemplation.

Image: John Arano / Unsplash
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