Basketball, Shame, and Jesus

There was a basketball game over the weekend. The unlikely victors defeated a team coached by the winningest coach in NCAA history at his last home game. My hope is that we were all good sports and yet I admit before you and God that sometimes I am not.

My first memory of hate involves NCAA basketball.

The year was 1971 and it happened to be my 15th birthday. The University of North Carolina and the University of South Carolina were playing in the NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference finals.

USC was #6 in the nation, coached by Frank McGuire who had committed the unforgivable basketball sin of leaving one school in the ACC to coach at a rival school in the ACC. UNC was #11 in the nation, coached by Dean Smith who had been McGuire’s assistant but was now in his tenth year as Head Coach in Chapel Hill.

It was a dirty game.

Even USC fans admit that their talented point guard John Roche was mean and nasty. He had a resting scowl face and he was quick to kick, punch, and elbow his opponents while referees often missed it. He seemed to be a bully off-court too. I deeply hated him.

South Carolina prevailed 52-51 over North Carolina that day in 1971 and it was bitter. The bully won.

And then – in an act of humility and authentic good sportsmanship in spite of 40 minutes of questionable officiating, Coach Smith directed each of his players to line up and shake the hands of each of their South Carolina opponents. John Roche refused to shake the hands of the North Carolina players or coaches. He wouldn’t shake anyone’s hand but instead smirked and laughed at the Tarheels.

I can still feel my insides seething when I recall that day. I hated John Roche with a burning hatred. The smugness. The disdain. The terrible sportsmanship.

The bad guy who did the sign of the cross before hitting free throws. How dare he call on Jesus’ name.

It infuriated me worse than any feeling I’ve ever felt for Duke – and there are many of us who grew up with strong feelings about Duke including a high school classmate of mine who wrote the seminal book about it. (The Blythe family also sat behind us in church.)

During Lents past and especially when I read the accounts of Jesus’ betrayal and shameful death, I remembered John Roche at the 1971 ACC Finals. It was the closest thing I could get to experiencing utter betrayal and bitter contempt.

[Note: clearly my life was and has been unspeakably easy if my deepest experience of shame and betrayal involved a basketball player I’d never met. But again, John Roche taught me about what treachery and contempt felt like.]

March Madness always falls during Lent and that makes sense to me if you are a college basketball fan. Yes, it’s just a game and it’s also about heroism and honor and teamwork and self-sacrifice. It’s about stories of redemption and stories of grace.

I love March Madness. And I love that God can even use basketball to teach us what sin looks like.

Image of John Roche, point guard for the University of South Carolina in 1971. And congratulations to Coach K who finishes up an extraordinary career at Duke University where he is currently the winningest coach in NCAA history.

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