Since I started this blog there have been some sagas that people have been interested in. I have been regularly asked by readers how things are going with our neighbour and with our basketball team. Today we add to the basketball saga.
Full disclosure, I haven’t had a great track record with basketball leagues. I’ve gotten in major trouble with 3 of them already going back more than ten years. You may have guessed by now that I am a storyteller. It’s what I enjoy and what I’m good at. People ask me to tell certain stories from my life over and over again. I suspect one day I will tell them all here. The balcony story, the bat story, but never the dragon story.
For context, I will retell some of my basketball stories here very briefly. The thread you will notice in most of these – and this doesn’t just apply to my basketball life – is that I can’t stand for someone to harm one of my friends. Additionally, though I never look for trouble, I have an instinct that will never let me back down. Maybe it’s a Scottish thing (I think it is) or maybe it’s a more general thing with the many generations of people named Tom More in my family: none of us could ever go backwards.
My first experience was as a new Christian, more than ten years ago. I entered a basketball tournament with a church team. They were my new Jesus friends and I was leaving a rather rough life and trying to make a fresh start by the grace of God. By my own account, I was doing pretty good too.
At some point during the game a big burly Korean guy, probably ten years older than me, was mistreating the friend who first brought me to church and introduced me to God. That was unacceptable. We exchanged words at first, but eventually, without provocation, he took my friend and threw him into the end wall. In response, I threw the husky man into the same wall. Back on the bench he didn’t want to let it go, so I pushed him over the seating, taking a couple of his friends with him; picture bowling.
It was bad, but much tamer than the violent life I was leaving since Jesus got his hands on me. What was embarrassing was that my whole church was there. Worse, the organizer of the tournament worked at my college and we had discussed our faith a number of times. It was hard to keep that conversation up after that. Christianity isn’t firstly a belief system of behaviour, but it is easy to sniff out hypocrites whose lives are different than what their words seem to indicate they should be. I wasn’t a hypocrite, I just had a few leftover vices God and I were teaming up to put to death in my life (I still do).
The second one was almost excusable. I was in a league playing with a bunch of guys I didn’t know. What made this day of heightened frustration almost excusable was that a friend of mine had been murdered that morning. I received the call before 6 A.M. to go down to the house where the body still lay. They figured as a Christian I would know what to do in cases of teen friends who had been murdered. It was an awful day.
My mistake was going to basketball late that night full of emotion and empty of energy. This is my danger zone. After no calls from the ref for about 20 full minutes, the huge guy (see a trend?) I was playing against got mouthy. First he only complained of a foul (it was not a foul), but when I very politely said “c’mon, he hasn’t called anything all game and I didn’t even touch you,” a flurry of curse words and ill wishes came back in my direction. Totally unprovoked. I told him to shut up, he got in my face, there was a push, and then the choking started. As soon as I had one hand around his throat, the reinforcements came. A second adversary, smaller, now had my other hand wrapped near the neck of his jersey. I yanked and pulled and choked and just got my head around to see that no one on my team (none of which I knew) were coming to help or even break it up.
After a bunch of yelling the ref said that no one could start playing again until I left the building and if I didn’t go quickly he would call the cops. As I walked by the bench, the big guy wasn’t done talking even after being choked, so I told him I’d be waiting outside. I’m ashamed to say that I did wait. The saving grace is that if I give myself two or three minutes to let my blood stop boiling, I can usually make a rational decision. The thing that sprung to mind in that moment, other than Jesus and wife, was something a youth worker partner used to say to me, “Think of the newspaper headline.” The picture was immediately clear: “Local Pastor Murders Basketball Rival in Parking Lot.” I wasn’t willing to put that on Jesus’ name once I had a second to think it through. The consequences of the jail time only occurred to me later.
The funny thing about this one is that after they kicked me out of the league, the convener called me to ask what happened. I was shocked that he had noticed, but he couldn’t believe it when he heard what I had done because I had such a good reputation of being a nice guy. I went way out of my way to be kind and encouraging to both the other team and the referees in a way that stood out. This is what saved me from being permanently kicked out of the league. The truth is, I am a very nice person who will go out of his way to be kind – I just have little tolerance for abuse. A judge once sized up my Dad by observing that he, “didn’t suffer fools easily.” That’s about right.
The third one was quite similar to the second. Someone put their hands on me, I grabbed two of them and wouldn’t let them go. Mean talking this time, but no pushing, throwing, or choking. What made this embarrassing was that a number of people from my congregation, of which I am a pastor, no longer just a church guy, were in attendance to see the debacle. What was odd was that some of my Christian friends expressed their disappointment, while others didn’t seem to mind at all. I was fairly disappointed with the latter. I’m glad no one was expecting me to be perfect, but the way we are propelled to grow as Christians is when we hold one another to a standard, hopefully gently.
That brings us to this week. It’s the last week of our regular season basketball. As you may remember, we lose most of our games by 30 to 50 points. I will say that this was our best performance yet, though we still lost by a wide margin after they pulled away in the second half. It was a very calm, non-contentious game, which was good because there was a huge guy on the other team I was getting a bad vibe from as soon as I walked in. Turned out, he was very nice and great at rebounding.
Then at the end of the game, down about 35, there were nine seconds left. They had the ball. The common basketball convention is that if you are up big with the final possession, you don’t try and score. It’s common sense, it’s common courtesy, and everyone on the floor knew that other than the guy with the ball apparently. A young friend of mine was the only one back and implored him to “chill, chill.” No dice. The guy blew past him and was gathering for a layup. My friend closed in and wrapped up his arms so he couldn’t score; a common foul.
Not aggressive at all, no trash talk, nothing. Then this guy turns and rifles the ball at my young congregation member’s head. Well, the blood started to boil. The ball hit him so hard I’m surprised he stayed on his feet, but he appeared calm. The ref didn’t budge. No one said anything. Ok, it’s go time.
I stomp up to the guy, now seeing I have six inches on him, and wait to see what he’ll do. Nothing. “Are you crazy?” I ask, trying to gauge him. Nothing. Ok, so I grab him by the jersey and drive him back into the wall. Here comes guy number two and three to hold my arms down. My friends are conspicuously absent. This is not to say I was worried about being outnumbered. Quite the opposite, I was hoping they would grab me and save me from myself; a deal we made before the season started.
Me and this guy are still nose to nose for what felt like minutes. I’m sure it was only five or six seconds. We were still talking and he was uttering threats and assuring me “I don’t want any with him.” The smug look on his face was an aggravating factor for sure.
Often when I get in these situations, though there have been very few in the last 15 years, I feel totally out of body. Last night was the same. I actually felt my head go back (because my arms were stuck) and I remember thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to headbutt this guy in the face.” In some miracle combination of self-control and the power of the Holy Spirit, I restrained myself long enough for a wise friend to grab me neck-first before I gave in. I was actually so pleased with myself for not headbutting him, I literally took myself out for ice cream afterwards…
What do you think these stories are about? When I tell them in great vivid detail to people who want to hear them for the fourth time, why do you think they want to be regaled again? They want to hear them because people, especially men, secretly revel in violence to some extent. But that is not why I’m writing this down. I take no pleasure in violence. In fact, I am truly embarrassed by my actions. It is the last remnant of a previous iteration of myself; almost an entirely different person even. Read again and see the narrative a different way. Most of my life, I would fight at the drop of a hat. Then I met Jesus and everything changed. The bat story happened, then the basketball saga: throwing and bowling, choking and shoving, grabbing and yelling, then holding, but critically, no headbutting.
It sure is taking me a long time, but God is working on me. Weeks after I was saved I knew God had a few things that we needed to work on right away. The list was primarily how I relate to women and violence. And Hallelujah, there’s some progress. I’m happily married and I haven’t punched anyone in the face in a decade.
A small aside about some things my father told me that particularly stuck (though he thought I never heard a word he said). When I was a young man I told a very small lie – I think I wouldn’t admit that my fly was down – and the young lady accusing me made me “swear on your mother’s life” that it wasn’t. I did swear it, despite the lie. I was fairly torn up about this so I confessed to my dad at bedtime. He told me that it was ok to make mistakes, but that if I determined to learn from all of them and never make the same mistake twice, eventually I would run out of mistakes to make. I think that’s right: get better, grow as a person, learn from your mistakes.
Secondly, he told me that any time you find yourself in a fight, you’ve already lost. This coming from the toughest human I have ever been in the presence of. He would tell me, “You are smart enough to use your brain to get out of trouble. If you have to fight, you already messed up somewhere along the way.” That’s right too. Unfortunately, the end of this parable that he would tell was “So once you’ve already done the wrong thing and got in a fight, make sure you win. Hit him, and don’t stop until he stops moving. Then run for your life.” A great strategic point, though not exactly peacemaking.
I must admit that when I am trying to sort out what to do, I hear the voice of Jesus and my father competing for attention. That and the testosterone. So what is the point then? There is hope to be different. There is a vision for the sort of person you are supposed to be. Maybe most crucially, there is power, external God-level power, to change us where we are helpless to change ourselves. I know I’m messy, but I’m working on it. More importantly, He’s working on it.
Funny enough, on the way out, one of the guys who worked for the league saw me in the hallway and said, “Hey, way to stick up for yo boy back there.” On one hand, I am glad that my team and my friends know that I am the one who will always have their back. I wear that as a badge of honour. What I’m trying to drill through my head is that coming to my friends’ defense doesn’t always involve punching and choking. One day I will race to my friend’s aid and I won’t put my hands on anyone. Maybe it won’t even cross my mind. That was once a fairytale, now it’s only an overly ambitious goal.