Basketball, Buddha, and Sangha

So my gig as a basketball coach isn’t going very well.

Not only do I find myself angrily whining and whimpering about the officiating like every single coach I ever made fun of during the 10 years I spent as a player did, but there’s this little thing called teamwork…

That doesn’t come easily.

You know that whole “Say [this] on three…1, 2, 3 [THIS!!!]” thingybob that teams do in huddles before they play? Well, I’ve spent the last few weeks begging my players to adopt the word team as their motto, or mantra, to be used when they do their countdown in a huddle. Might as well have been asking them to eat nails.

That’s not to say that they didn’t do it. Eye rolling aside, they did. And it was about the same time we began to win games. Seven in a row, to be exact. But just getting them to say the word team, let alone act like one, was proving painfully difficult. Our winning streak did not prove to them that success was a product of working together, as I had hoped. It actually seemed to condemn our embryonic we into a lot of me, me, and me.

On Wednesday a fight broke out between some of our players. Then on Friday, as a team captain commanded everyone to “Say Lady Rams on three…” and later to “Say hard work on three…” I sighed inwardly, cursed, and watched as we lost for only the second time all season. I feel like I’ve been pushing a value onto them that they’re resisting.

I don’t know if you know this, but basketball players tend to value boring things like intimidation, aggression, thick skin, and blood lust. From the first moment they pick up a ball, their coaches nurture these values and thereby unintentionally, I think, promote a kind of spiritual deterioration. They also suck the inherent joy out of the game. Our whole society is built around rewarding superstars, at the expense of compassion and community. When players get locked into that, they are no longer playing the game. As Phil Jackson would say, the game is playing them.

The task, which I didn’t necessarily ask for, is to teach these players to embrace a nonbelligerent way of thinking about competition. It’s to teach them that fitting into the flow of action on court is far more important than trying to be a superstar. Individual performance is important but being a responsible member of a community, or team, is simply the most effective way to live. The word competition, after all, comes from the Latin competere, which means to strive together.

What’s so great is that this task reflects, in more ways than one, the spiritual path many of us are walking. In the Vipassana community mantras aren’t encouraged but, still, we each practice what we practice and how we practice because of some value—be it conscious or unconscious. If I had to assign it a word, I’d say clarity. I practice Vipassana because it enables me to see clearly, and seeing clearly is my favorite thing to do.

There are days when I forget how much I value clarity, or for whatever reason, resist it. These are the days that I don’t practice observing things as they are, become judgmental and drama-prone. These are the days when I conform mindlessly to the situations, institutions, and social structures that almost seem designed to undermine clarity and throw me off track. These are the days when I get angry and react from, say, the sidelines of a game by screaming like a madman at the refs.

Somehow, I always get seduced back into the Sangha, where my practice is supported by a community that strives together for genuine happiness—beyond fleeting victories and superficial pleasures. Sometimes that Sangha emerges as a tight-knit group of practitioners in my neighborhood, sometimes as a group of 50 good-hearted folks in Georgia, and sometimes it’s an international network of practitioners who happen to use the internet. Without getting too sappy, I love you all, past and present, and your participation in my existence means more to me than you could know.

In growth,

4 thoughts on “Basketball, Buddha, and Sangha

  1. Kitty Ormsby

    Moved by your blog! As a 30 year veteran of middle school teaching, I can feel your pain. I can remember being swept into the angst of their pettiness. Seems that you are doing all the right things that will dawn on some of them in the years to come. That is a teacher’s goal. Kitty Ormsby

  2. Hi Kitty, You reminded me of something that someone else said to me about how students usually aren’t ready for what teachers are trying to teach them… but the important thing is that we plant those seeds anyway. Thanks for the comment and for reading the post!!!

  3. Long back in 1989 while playing a tournament in the city, an opponent delibrately slapped on my hand while dribbling the ball and made it numb. Refree could not see it. 🙂

    Going to Dhammagiri since childhood gave the seed. (… but the important thing is that we plant those seeds anyway.) Though i never practiced it regularly until under graduation days. I realize I am not compassionate and strong to keep my equanimity in many of those situations, instead of indulging, I withdraw myself to avoid creating new deeper knots.

    This is something which I need to overcome with my daily practice.

    Today’s words were related to it: (rock, steady, unmoved)

    Daily Words of the Buddha for January 01, 2014

    Yassa selūpamaṃ cittaṃ, ṭhitaṃ nānupakampati,
    virattaṃ rajanīyesu,
    kopaneyye na kuppati:
    Yassevaṃ bhāvitaṃ cittaṃ,
    kuto taṃ dukkhamessatī?

    Whose mind is like rock, steady, unmoved,
    dispassionate for things that spark passion,
    unangered by things that spark anger:
    When one’s mind is developed like this,
    from where can there come suffering & stress?

    Udāna 4.34
    Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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