Basketball and Salvation

A competitive spirit conquered by Christ.

by Marc D. Greenwood

“Who’s that guy?” asked Eddie, rolling his eyes with disdain. “And why is he shooting all by himself?”

“That’s Greenwood,” said William. Eddie, a talented basketball player, understood the pick-up game method of selecting teams. Players congregated, and the first two players to sink free throws picked teams. Marginal talents scorned the humiliation-inducing rite. They begged, wished, and hoped to be selected, only to be left with a mouthful of gravel as they gazed at the action from the sidelines.

Engorged with my exalted status, I inhabited a state of non-drug-induced euphoria, enthralled by my basketball ability. Years later, when Eddie and I worked together, he told me he’d grown weary of hearing about Greenwood. “Everybody who came to the gym had to kiss your signet ring,” he said.

Practice and perfection

I honed my skills by relentless drilling, sequestering myself in a steamy, empty gymnasium, flying from end line to end line, perfecting my behind-the-back dribble. My labored breathing and squeaking, soggy sneakers, the echo of ricocheting ball on hardwood, and swish of a feathery jumper caressing the net created a rousing symphony for me, a basketball android.

My frenzied efforts produced hardware: three leading scorer awards and two league championships, capped by a Most Valuable Player trophy. Ball and hand became indistinguishable. A Houdini of the hardwood, I developed an array of weapons: a blur of a first step, a killer crossover dribble, an unerring pull-up jumper, a deft passing touch, firing no-look passes that teammates gobbled up like M&M’s. I’d evolved into a remorseless scoring machine, intent only on carving out another victory.

Hot contest

Preparations for the first game were complete and we were matched up when I noticed a nondescript newcomer. His ruthless teammates, who had suffered at my hands innumerable times, shanghaied him into guarding me. Well, shame on him, I thought. He’s in for a long night.

But the newcomer’s quickness thwarted my forays to the basket, and his outrageous elevation forced me to rainbow my shots to avoid a blocked shot. Bewildered, I thought, What’s going on here? This is my court; I’m supposed to be handing out the lessons. The teams were embroiled in a titanic struggle. Each shot was contested, bodies banged in the mid-air scrum for rebounds, and tempers boiled as each team sought control of the court.

Humiliation

I couldn’t dominate the newcomer, but I remained confident. I knew I’d always performed best when clutched by the icy stranglehold of pressure, poised to plunge the dagger. With the game on the line, I demanded the ball and waved my teammates away. My pride dictated that I crush this interloper one-on-one. I attempted to shake him with a tantalizing series of head fakes and jab steps. I elevated and launched a certain game winner. Thwack! The sound reverberated throughout the gym. He’d achieved the unbelievable and unthinkable: He’d pancaked my shot, and I found myself in virgin territory, experiencing the biting lash of humiliation.

“Foul!” I screamed.

“No way,” said the new guy. “That was a clean block.”

Frustrated, I used the Lord’s name in vain.

The game ground to an anti-climatic finish, its results forever submerged in the vault of my mind. The players went their separate ways, and I drove home, dogged by uneasiness: I had used the Lord’s name in vain only one time before.

Providential play call

My queasiness persisted. I didn’t know it then, but God was working on the underside of the mosaic of my life to bring me to Christ.

By God’s providence, I had landed a job at B&W. I worked as a courier, delivering mail to the various offices in the building. While delivering inter-office mail, I met Joey Johnson, an EEO officer.

Johnson and I clicked, and soon we grew inseparable. We were the same age, passionate basketball players, and voracious readers. We both cherished the nimbleness of the English language, striving to come up with a new word for the day. But Johnson, a pastor at the young age of 21, also possessed a buoyant Christianity that embraced the whole of his life. Often at lunchtime I’d find him absorbed in searching the Bible.

Myth-breaker

His life dispelled many of the myths I held about Christians. I’d always believed they were weaklings, grasping religion as a crutch — monumental joy-killers adhering to a telephone book-sized list of do’s and don’ts. I didn’t want anything to do with that. But Johnson possessed a steely intellect, moral vigor, and competitive fire that couldn’t be extinguished. He called a halt to our one-on-one basketball battles to preserve our friendship, because we competed with such fury.

Besides this, Johnson’s moral resolve survived the brazen flirtations of Delores, a secretary assigned to his office. She possessed an incandescent, head-shaking, eye-popping, and mouth-dropping beauty. Furthermore, she knew it and was accustomed to getting her way. She found it inconceivable that any man could resist her wiles.

Childhood church

While I worked at B&W, I lived with an acid-tongued, hypochondriac grandmother who delighted in haranguing my mother. She was quick to highlight her inadequacies, real or imagined, but she disregarded my father’s grappling with his personal demons of alcoholism, adultery, and domestic violence. Every Sunday Grandma would put on her religious face and listen to radio ministers all day. In our formative years, my mother took all four children to church; she even sang in the choir.

My most memorable moments at church did not consist of Spirit-inflamed preaching. No, they involved mothers — sweet, grandmother types who’d sneak little boys pieces of candy. Dressed in their Sunday finery, bedecked with flowery, wide-brimmed hats, they’d flail out of control, seized by what they called “the Spirit.” They jarred and rocked the pews until a somber-faced deacon restrained them. They left me bug-eyed and suspicious of this church thing. After I turned 12, I ditched church.

Godly influence

But Johnson was different. When he and I carpooled, he refused to bulldoze me with the Bible but testified to me by his life. He told me that Christ wanted to save me and give me new life. One day Johnson asked me, “Marc, would you like to read some of my poetry?”

Excited, I said yes. Little did I know his writings exalted Christ and His sacrifice for sins. When I read the name of Jesus, I grew frightened because of an intuitive sense of my sinfulness; my thoughts accused me (Romans 2:16). So I sought to bury the convicting power of God’s voice just as I buried Johnson’s poetry.

Slam dunk

But I couldn’t bury anything about that humiliating game. When I arrived home, I found myself clothed with dread. A Bible verse we quoted at dinner years ago flooded my consciousness: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain . . .” (Exodus 20:7, NKJV). All my excuses were obliterated. I saw myself as an unclean man, tottering on the brink of perdition. My only hope lay in Him whose mercy has no limits. I fled to church.

Two weeks later I accepted Christ’s sacrifice for my sins and basked in the newness of life. I attended the church where Joey Johnson served as pastor. I devoured the Bible, seeking what Christ would have me do with my life and how to live fully for Him.

I continued to play basketball at a high level and worked on my game. I remained a ferocious competitor, but not in my own strength. My self-worth was no longer yoked to basketball but co-joined with Christ. I married a good Christian woman and fathered four healthy sons. I experienced an exhilarating year coaching one son’s high school basketball team. I worked the players hard, taught them the game, and encouraged them to compete. But I also insisted they respect the officials, their teammates, and the opposition.

A new game

I’ve been a Christian for 27 years now. I’m learning that life is the most serious game I’ll ever play and that I won’t survive if I play by my rules. If every day I can work at being more of a team player with Christ, I’m sure to win.