This morning, I watched the news and sports commentary about a high school basketball game in the Houston, Texas area. Two teams in the same division played, and one beat the other by a score of 170-35. The halftime score was 100-12. The coach of the winning team says that he played all of his players and that his goal was to score 200 points.
The lack of sportsmanship demonstrated by the coach and much of his team is obvious and glaring. This man, who is supposed to be preparing his "students" for life, is not teaching a true life lesson.
This game, however, was not an isolated incident. It brings me back to an experience of my own youth. I was also in a couple of basketball games with similar scores, except that I was on the losing end.
In the mid-70's, I was growing up as a teenager in El Paso, Texas. I was/am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). At the time, we had eight different congregations in the city, and each congregation fielded a boys basketball team (boys from 12 to 18 years old). We had a regular season and played against each team twice. The championship game at the end of the season was played by the teams with the two best records.
The different congregations went by the title of "wards," similar to the name for a part of a city. I attended and played for the Sixth Ward. Our teenage congregation, however, was mostly girls and we had few teenage boys to build the team.
How bad were we? I was the oldest player on the team at 16. I was also the best player on the team, and was short and uncoordinated (lack of athleticism has always been my lot in life, regardless of the opinion of my mother). A fifteen year old who was overweight and couldn't run was our next oldest player. We also had two fourteen year olds and about five or six twelve/thirteen year olds. Needless to say, we didn't win a game all season. Most of them were not even close.
Early in our season, we played a team from the Fifth Ward. Two of their players were on their high school varsity team. Seven players on their team were taller than me. Six players on their team were my age or older. They had almost twenty guys on the team. They hadn't lost a game all season.
They beat us by a score of 102-12. I had ten of our points. Every shot our team took was contested and many were blocked. They full court pressed us from beginning to end. They left a player, their best shooter, on their offensive basket just for cherry picking (throwing him the rebounds and steals so that he could get quick baskets).
The parents of these kids were going crazy about them getting to 100 points. The players were trying as hard as they could to get to 100 points. The leader of their congregation (called a Bishop in our church) was there cheering them on to get 100 points. I have never seen such a travesty of sportsmanship in my life...and it was in a church!
Did they get comfortably ahead and then let their younger and smaller kids play the rest of the game? No; most of their subs never even got into the game.
They played us again later in the season and beat us even worse. I refused to participate in that game and fouled out in the first five minutes (five hard and all intentional fouls). Our coach even considered not bringing the team back out at halftime. He was told by the officials, however, that if he forfieted in the middle of the game like that, he and the team would be banned for the rest of the season. (Can you guess which congretation the head official attended?)
The second game, they had even more of a cheering section: more parents, more girlfriends, ...and once again their Bishop.
Humbled in defeat? No, we were humiliated. There are life lessons that can be learned in victory and in defeat. There are few life lessons, however, that could be learned by a bunch of kids on our team in that game.
At the end of the sporting season, at our annual sports and awards dinner, their team was awarded the first place trophy for the season; I clapped politely. Then, they were also awarded the basketball sportsmanship trophy. I walked out.
Ten years later, their Bishop held the position of Stake President, presiding over all of the congregations in the area (comparable to a Bishop over a Catholic Diocese). I was President of the Men's organization in my ward.
We held an interview one time, and he asked me at the end if I had anything else in mind. I brought up those two games, sharing what happened from my perspective and speaking of the shame and humiliation that I felt.
Apology? Thoughtful discussion? No, he just chuckled for a few seconds. His response was just to say that "well, it was just a game and all games have winners and losers."
I felt no respect for the man at that point. I still have no respect for him. He's retired now, and my parents really like and respect him and can't understand my feelings.
I think that all people, at some moment in their lives, let down their guard and show their true colors. I saw his on two evenings in the winter when I was a teenager. I saw again several years later that he had never learned from the error of his ways.
Humbling experience or humiliation? We were humiliated and scarred in front of our parents and our peers.
My future, however, may have become brighter for this. Even today, I cheer for underdogs. I have never run up the score in games where I am much more competitive....like Scrabble. I have fun when I play. When coaching my kid's teams, I made sure that all kids got equal playing time, regardless of their abilities.
Sure, I've hated losing, but half of all players are losers in any sporting event.
I've also enjoyed winning, but I've never rubbed it into the other person or team.
I've taught my own children and my players to always wish their opponents good luck, and that the exercise and sportsmanship and gamesmanship and just being part of a team are more important than the final score. I've taught them that the best person you can compete against is yourself, and you can always be proud of the game, win or lose, if you give your best effort.
I feel for the losing team in Houston. I sympathize with them and their pain. In truth, however, they were not the losers. The real losers in that game were the coaches and parents who did not teach their children to be gracious in victory. They've never learned life's lessons, and may never do so. My Stake President never did, and over 30 years later I only feel pity for him.