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IN HIGH SCHOOL I yearned to be an athlete. The "cool" kids in school were all jocks, and most teenage boys aspired to be as cool as them. Unfortunately, my swim in the DNA pool left me with abs resembling a doughnut rather than a six-pack. I was tubby-that's the kindest way to put it.
So in school my lot was cast as a member of the marching band. Now, I'm sure marching band is cool in many schools, but in ours it was definitely on the opposite end of the popularity chain. Besides an interest in throwing the shot put and the discus for the track team, I found an outlet for my athletic aspirations ... the church league.
It's true. I was a regular participant in church softball, church flag football, and of course, church basketball.
Two stars on the church basketball team, Teddy and Gary, were starters on our high school varsity basketball team. Not only were Teddy and Gary big men on campus, but they were also two of my closest friends. I idolized both of them. When Teddy asked me to join the church league, I felt I was one step closer to the cool life.
But there was still one problem. I possessed the athletic ability of a doorknob.
So the good news was that I was on the church basketball team. (Many years later I learned that the church team had a "no cut" policy, as a way to be an example of Christian love.) The bad news is that I sat on the bench every game-no exaggeration.
There just never seemed to be the right opportunity to put me in as a substitute for a good player. (In reality, even though we had a team made up of some exceptional players, there was never a game where the coach felt we had a large enough lead to put the entire game in jeopardy by sending me onto the court.)
But like any good tale of youthful innocence run amok, there was this one game.... The Lesson from the Church Basketball League
It was a snowy Tuesday evening in March, the Philadelphia weather at its worst. Our little band of church boys bravely boarded the church bus for the treacherous three-mile ride to our opponents' church gymnasium. It was a lone rectangular building at the back end of the parking lot. The building was literally the same size as a basketball court, with just enough room on the sidelines for eight to ten loyal fans to squeeze in and watch. The baskets that hung on opposite ends were just a few feet from the small, thin pads placed on the walls to soften the blow if a player ran too far down the court.
We hustled out of the bus and quickly scrambled into the heated gym. My teammates and I were wearing only sweatshirts and sweatpants over our uniforms, so it felt as if the frigid temperature had penetrated down to our bones' marrow. We needed no motivation to begin warm-ups. We were freezing; layup drills were the equivalent of steaming cups of hot cocoa.
I reveled in the pregame warm-ups because they were usually the only playing time I ever saw. Then the game began and I obediently took my usual place on the bench-all the way at the end, the player farthest from the coach.
The game progressed pretty much as usual. Having two starting high school varsity players on our church team made us relatively unbeatable. But soon it became apparent that this night was going to be different. Our opponents had a player who was actually quite good. As carefully as our team attempted to defend him, he always seemed to elude their grasp, break free, and score two points.
That's precisely when Teddy hatched his plan.
During a time-out, Teddy walked to my end of the bench. "Butterworth, are you ready to get a little playing time?" he asked in an almost seductive tone.
"You'd better believe I'm ready," I replied, not fully believing what my ears were hearing.
"Okay, good," Teddy continued in a hushed tone, almost a whisper. "At the next time-out, I'm going to ask the coach to put you in."
"You are?" I was in shock.
"Yes, but there is a specific reason why I want you in there. We need a big guy like you to defend their star player."
"You do?" I was mystified by Teddy's strategy, and he knew it. So he clarified. "Yeah, the next time he gets the ball and you are defending him, I want you to give him an intentional foul. Do you know what that means?"
"I think so. It means I foul him on purpose, right?"
"Exactly. We do it to send a message. And the message is 'Don't mess around with us!'"
"Okay," I stammered.
"So that means when you foul him, you've got to really foul him. You got it?"
"Yeah," I said. My assignment became crystal clear. I was being put in to use my extra tonnage as a weapon-a lethal weapon.
The referee blew the whistle, and the teams were back out on the floor. On the bench, I was sweating peanut butter, facing a moral dilemma of gargantuan proportions. I was finally being allowed to play in a game, but my assignment was a sinister one at best. I had never been a fan of the intentional foul, and now I was being asked to deliver one.
I began praying that the other team's star would suddenly grow stone-cold at the basket. The kid was on fire.
As the scores grew ominously closer on the scoreboard, I heard our coach shout, "Time!" I was completely drenched in sweat, even though I had barely moved a muscle sitting on the bench. I saw Teddy conferring with the coach. They looked down the bench, staring at me.
"Butterworth, come here," the coach barked. I hustled down as fast as a wide body could move. "Are you ready to play a little basketball?"
"Put me in, Coach!" I hoped he was going to ask me to play a little man-to-man defense on their worst player.
"See number twelve out there?" the coach continued. "I want you to guard him. And the next time he gets the ball, I want you to foul him. Got it? Foul him!"
I nodded, but my heart wasn't in it. The knots in my stomach made my heart inaccessible. Teddy saw my uncertainty, and he came over to psych me up. "Bill, you can do this. You are going in to replace me so we can really foul this guy. If you get nervous, I want you to look over at me on the bench. I will help you get through it, okay?"
"Just remember, Bill," Teddy continued, "we're number one!" He held up the index finger of his right hand, the familiar "number one" gesture that we all knew, embedding in my brain the sign of victory.
I smiled weakly and slowly walked onto the court, feeling more like a convicted murderer being led to his execution than a church-league player. I looked over at Teddy; he was smiling, confident, making the number one sign. At that moment I didn't feel like number one. I didn't like where this plan was going. All I could think to do was to gesture back at Teddy. Since it was the late 1960s, I responded with my index finger and third finger spread, not in a V for victory, but in the universal sign of the sixties ... peace!
Teddy wasn't pleased with my peace sign, so he changed gestures. He held his right thumb straight up at me. "Thumbs-up," his hand was saying. It was the ultimate sign of hope.
I am sure this nonverbal conversation only took a matter of seconds, but I've never forgotten it.
The ref blew his whistle to resume the game. It was our ball. Gary threw it to my friend Bobby from under our basket. It was at that moment that number twelve from the opposing team seemed to leap out from nowhere and magically steal the ball from us. With our team in shock, he sped down the court all by himself. This was my moment. This was my destiny.
With all the speed I could muster (okay, me and speed might be an oxymoron), I took off after number twelve to accomplish my goal. Because he didn't see me, or else he didn't take me seriously, he slowed down to make an easy layup.
It was just enough of a delay to get me to the point of contact. I used all my body weight and drove it into his midsection, just as he was ascending to the basket.
I hit him. I hit him hard. His body hurtled under the basket and crashed into the thinly padded wall. He seemed to stay glued to the wall for just a second, and then he slid down like wet mud oozing down the side of a cliff.
He was out cold.
I turned away. I looked at my bench. Our coach was looking at me with shocked horror. Teddy was beaming from ear to ear.
The next thing I heard was a gut-wrenching moan from our opponents' coach. "What have you done? What have you done?" I knew he would be upset losing his star player, but what he said next completely threw me.
"What have you done to my son!"
Hurting a player was bad enough. But I had creamed the coach's son. This is not a good move under the best of circumstances, but being the visiting team, I knew the situation would only get worse.
"I want this kid ejected from the game!" the coach/ father instructed the referee, as he pointed directly at me.
The ref nodded in agreement.
"Not only do I want him ejected, I want him out of my gym!"
The ref agreed again.
Before my coach could return to his senses, I was escorted out of the gym, which meant that I was escorted outside.
Outside ... in the snow ... wearing only a tank top, shorts, and sneakers.
And perhaps a thousand pounds of blubber.
It was a difficult way to become part of the church basketball team, but I have never forgotten that incident. And I can assure you I have never committed another intentional foul.
Oh, yes. Good old number twelve regained consciousness and actually came back to play in that game. But we beat them. Number twelve just wasn't the same after I ran into him. Of course, all of this was revealed to me on the bus ride home, since I missed the rest of the game while I was outside quickly accumulating a layer of ice. And to the best of my recollection, that was the end of my church basketball career.
You may have figured out by now that each story I tell will illustrate an important point in the "Mile Marker" chapter that follows it. But be careful, the part of the story I choose as the illustrative point may surprise you! For example, the obvious application of this basketball experience is the concept of me choosing to do something I knew was wrong. But instead, I want you to focus on something else: those three symbols Teddy and I shared across the gym floor. Jesus used three symbols to illustrate the same three abstract concepts-victory, peace, and hope. Read on and we will discover exactly how He did it.
Excerpted from MOUNTAIN IN MY REARVIEW MIRROR by BILL BUTTERWORTH Copyright © 2008 by Bill Butterworth. Excerpted by permission.
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