The NCAA basketball March Madness tournament has always been one of my favorite times of year. It’s a time for underdogs, upsets, and pure competition. As an athlete, my heart always goes out to the players who are hunched over, exhausted, and defeated at the end of a close game. My mind flashes back to the countless times when I’ve been in the same position, stunned by losing a big game or seeing a season cut short. This year, in my senior season of college basketball, I felt the pain of the end of something much more final than one season.
A few weeks ago, I watched my basketball career come to an end as I stood up off the bench and clapped for my teammates (emphasis on watched). As the clock wound down, I couldn’t do anything but strain my hoarse voice to cheer on my teammates and pound the floor until my hands cracked and bled. When the final buzzer sounded, I left my seat on the bench for the first time that game and started shaking hands with opponents who had no idea who I was. This ending was no different than the majority of the games in my college career, except that it signaled the end of a chapter of my life that had lasted for fourteen years.
That sounds miserable, you might be thinking. What’s the point of doing that for four years?
Looking at the stat sheet of my college basketball career won’t give you any answers. There are no numbers to reflect the months upon months I spent in the gym. My name has never been on any MVP list or all-conference selection. In over 4,000 minutes of game time, I spent probably 3,900 on the bench.
And yet, it was those 3,900 minutes that gave me a new understanding of what basketball, and maybe life, is all about.
1. TEAM – I chose to play four years as a benchwarmer because I loved my team. In my teammates I found loyalty, encouragement, and acceptance. They saw me at my worst and loved me anyways. They pushed my limits – mentally, physically, and emotionally. This year, our team memorized 2 Corinthians 12:9, which says, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” I saw the power of Christ as the strengths of my teammates filled in the holes of my weaknesses both on and off the court.
2. VALUE – At the end of my junior year, I had to decide if I wanted to play for one more year, knowing that I wouldn’t really be considered to receive any more playing time. I couldn’t forget my freshman year self, who admired her captains so much and was influenced by the way they worked hard without complaint or expecting anything in return. In the same way that they affirmed me and showed me that players could be valuable aside from playing time, I wanted to build up and encourage my underclassmen. I felt as though I was paying back the investment made in me three years ago. The year was an ongoing process of convincing myself that I was still valuable to the team by fulfilling my role as a practice player. Sometimes it was more difficult for me to believe than others, but my experience in Wheaton basketball taught me that wherever there is a team, there are members who need to be reminded that they have something unique and valuable to contribute.
3. SACRIFICE – In high school, I was known as the type of basketball player who would fling my body to the floor in pursuit of a loose ball. I was used to only being subbed out for a few minutes a game and the feeling of perpetually sore legs. I made my mark as someone who was willing to sacrifice myself physically to get the job done on the court. My plan was to continue that as a college basketball player, but my athletic career over the next four years entailed a whole different kind of sacrifice.
I now know that sacrifice comes in the form of laying aside your own desires to do what is best for others. It can look like diving after a loose ball, but it can also look like carrying water bottles, folding towels, and making a fool of yourself on the bench in order to energize your teammates. It involves the painful process of exposing pride and selfishness and choosing to fight against them every day. It’s a battle that Christ calls believers to in everyday life, whether that’s on the basketball court, in the office, or in relationship.
The last few weeks have a been a mixture of mourning the end of my basketball career and reflecting on the sweet memories I have of the past four years. I see how God’s faithfulness brought me through tear-filled losses and joyous victories. And I think that maybe that is life, finding God to be steadfast and trustworthy and always good in the face of disappointment and pain. Whether the finding happens in 3,900 minutes at the end of the bench or in something much bigger, I’m learning that I serve a holy God who doesn’t shy away from my humble and broken places.