Jun 08, 2010, 05:55AM

Life as a jump shot

What basketball can really teach us.

Dribbling from the three-point line towards the hoop, I see an opening. Quickly exploiting the opportunity, I drive towards the hoop, jump-stopping, ripping the ball over my head, stepping around my opponent, completing the perfect move, shooting the basketball. It misses. Without a moment’s hesitation I’m fighting for the rebound; again, no luck. My team is back on defense now, and I’m on the point guard, who is quick. Watching him takes my whole concentration. Feet moving side to side reacting to his movements; hands up and down and to the side, first blocking a possible shot, second attempting to interrupt a dribble, third preventing a pass to one of his teammates; mind totally focused on the present.

Missing a shot in a basketball game is discouraging because your mind contrasts the two points that could have been with the turnover which actually happened. A good player, however, cannot let missing a shot affect him mentally or physically. If so, he will only make additional mistakes. He might miss a rebound, still dwelling on his missed shot, or he might not get back on defense quickly enough, letting the other team score. Essentially, then, in basketball when you make a mistake, in the split second of the action you acknowledge the blunder, but then, unfazed, you continue playing with all of your ability and concentration. “Getting down” on yourself, as it is called, inevitably only defeats you, both physically and psychologically.

There is an important life principle here. It is difficult to put a precise name to it. The best I can offer is a phrase: steadfast and striving. Etymologically, steadfast primarily refers to a soldier unshakably maintaining his ground in battle. Unwaveringly he performs his duty. Striving, in this context, is an acknowledgement that I am not perfect. That is why I missed the shot. That is why sometimes I act contrary to virtue—why I sin. Recognizing that I must always strive towards the goal of perfection, but that I also must steadfastly hold on to the ground I have taken, regardless of my current successes or failures, forms an important foundation for my life.

Indeed, the person I am “becoming”  is the person I am striving to become. Sometimes—often, really—there are setbacks. But, just as in basketball, I must acknowledge my mistakes and continue striving in the present, not dwelling in the past. This is not to say I should ignore or minimize the importance of the past. This is, in fact, one of the greatest errors of modern times. It is love and respect for the past that produces in men a sense of duty to the future and stimulates a love for the present.  
Basketball has taught me one of the most important lessons there is to learn. I am not perfect. I make mistakes. When I do, I have a duty to resolve the situation. Back to the basketball analogy, perhaps I’m off balance when I’m shooting, or perhaps my shots are shallow. This may be a tautology, but all the best truths are: my shot will not improve unless I change how I shoot. And the same is true in life. Once I have corrected my error, with the lesson in mind, I move on and continue pushing towards the mark.

The goal in basketball is to win. The goal in life is to live as a genuine human being. We are the only species with organized games like basketball; we are the only species that can obsess over past faults, both our own and others’. But we are also the only species that can forgive, forget, and do better next time. In basketball, of course, it’s about whether you win or lose. But when it comes to life, it’s all in how you play the game.


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