When the Loyola Marymount basketball team, riding the crest of an emotional high after the death of star player Hank Gathers, was making its spirited run in the NCAA basketball tournament last spring, CBS did a short feature on Gathers before one of the team’s games. At one point. Brent Musberger said something to the effect that for the players the memory of their “fallen hero” Gathers was “a beacon that breathes passion into their dreams.” I remember thinking to myself that a line like that could get a man fired.
But I have now found myself contemplating the Gathers phenomenon and my own ambivalent reaction to it—and, more generally, the place of sports in my religious life. I use that term advisedly, and to reflect a certain worry. I have turned my fifteen-year-old daughter into as fanatic a basketball fan as I am. And I noted that she strenuously objected when I laughed at the notion that the memory of Gathers might be a beacon breathing passion into the dreams of Loyola Marymount players. She found it genuinely touching. Up to a point, so did I. (I rewound the tape to watch Bo Kimble shoot that first free throw left-handed.)
Hank Gathers died, as far as we can tell, because he cared deeply about something and wanted to do it with real excellence. He wanted to play basketball in a way that exercised his powers to the fullest. There are many worse ways to die—and, in saying that, I do not have in mind those who die in hospitals or nursing homes with feeding tubes in place. We can die without having cared deeply enough about anything to commit our powers to excellence—whether excellence as an athlete, as a scholar, as an owner of a small business, as a mother or father. That, at least, did not happen to Gathers. An acquaintance of mine, whose wife teaches Classics, tells me that she observes that the students best able to appreciate the Iliad—with its ethic of heroism, its appeal to glory and shame—are athletes. There are few places in life where such lessons can still be learned, and we need to protect them against the advocates of non-competitive games, who lack a certain fundamental seriousness.
Having granted that, I must still say that at some point the pathos in the Gathers story became bathos. It was not, after all, the death of Hector. And even the most serious of our loves must still be rightly ordered in relation to what is truly ultimate. If the emotions expressed by many in relation to Gathers’ death seemed finally excessive, might the reason be that we have lost an ultimate frame of reference by which to give our love for sports its rightful penultimate place of honor?
I would not want to be misunderstood: I have for some years now drawn up my picks in the NCAA tourney and sent them to various friends around the country for no better reason than to stay in touch about something that is truly worthwhile. For quite a few years I managed boys baseball teams in the summer, and—though I have uttered some falsehoods over the years—I never once told a team that it didn’t matter whether they won or lost. I simply don’t believe in speaking blatant falsehoods to our impressionable youth. I bought the Bill James Baseball Abstract every year when it hit the bookstores, and now I even buy the inferior Baseball Book to which he’s devoting his energies. Not long ago I sent off my treasured Wilson A2000 glove (“the glove that Nelson Fox and Luis Aparicio use,” as it was advertised back when I spent my hard-earned money to buy it) to be repaired, even though my age might suggest that such repair is by now unnecessary. And, for all his flaws, I can’t quite stop liking Bobby Knight. So I am clearly hooked.
But, having also read my Augustine, I try to be alert to those goods which, though genuine, will not bear the whole weight of the heart’s longing. Among them are baseball and basketball. (I leave football to a different breed of fan; I leave soccer to those who think it interesting to see what human beings can do without using their hands; I leave Bart Giamatti’s posthumously published essays about baseball to those who think them eloquent.) I have begun to worry, for example, about the degree to which the ever-expanding NCAA tournament dominates my six weeks of Lent. I used to be quite content to watch two games on a Saturday and check other scores the next day. Now I may have found myself watching four on a Saturday and more on Sunday afternoon. Shades of a love in danger of becoming inordinate. I could wake up one day to find the memory of Hank Gathers a beacon breathing passion into my dreams.
When I was a boy, many stores closed from noon till three on Good Friday, while people attended Good Friday services. Those days are gone. I understand. But is it good that I should have found myself tempted to switch on the radio at 1:30 P.M. last Good Friday to see how the Indians were doing in an early-season game? (You may well reply: “You should be able to predict how the Indians are doing!”) Like any intelligent person raised in the great state of Indiana, I know what “Hoosier hysteria” is all about, and I know there’s no better high school basketball. I therefore am intensely interested in seeing how Damon Bailey will do in the coming year when, after having led his high school team to the state championship (in a state that has not descended to the insipidity of “classes” for different size schools), he heads off to Indiana University and the tutelage (!) of Bob Knight. But is it good that I should have been tempted to watch the McDonald’s high school all-star game on television the afternoon of Easter Sunday just to have a look at the boy wonder?
Christians are given to all sorts of talk about cultural Christianity and its dangers. I am, to be honest, not as worried as some of my Anabaptist friends. Nor would they be if they kept more firmly in mind important aspects of our culture, as I am trying to do here. But Christians are going to have to begin doing for themselves what the culture no longer does automatically. Everybody (well, everybody who’s in the know) remembers that Sandy Koufax once declined to pitch on Yom Kippur. And Christians, too, lest they lose their zest for “first things” may need to contemplate such possibilities. We would not, after all, want to find ourselves with no shrine at which to worship other than the estimable one of Hank Gathers.
Gilbert Meilander is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.