(Taken from the book, BEAUTIFUL BEHAVIORS)
For a year I worked for the YMCA while I was on a sabbatical from ministry. One of my tasks was to referee youth basketball games. One day I was refereeing a game between two teams of second grade boys. The skill level in second graders is quite low, but the level of competitiveness is fast increasing. And along with the rise of competition in the hearts of the kids is aggressiveness in the coaches to encourage the kids to do their best and WIN!
The coach for one of these teams was very competitive at heart and knew basketball fairly well. I had seen his team in action before and had observed how his coaching reflected much knowledge of the game. And one of the fundamentals he taught his team was how to steal the ball from their opponent.
On this game-day one of the players on the opposing team was named Russell. Russell didn’t play as much as some of the others on his team because his parents didn’t bring him to every practice or game. Nor was he as skilled as some of the other players on his team. I guess he wasn’t the jock type, and he may have had a slight mental challenge.
You could tell Russell’s coach knew enough to make sure he didn’t get the ball very often because every time he did he would start dribbling the ball fast and furious with his head down looking intently at the ball to ensure that he dribbled it the best he could. That is dangerous because it is easy for an opposing player to approach him unnoticed and steal the ball. Russell would become so enthralled with dribbling and doing it flawlessly, he would seem to forget that he was playing with other players or that he was even in a game.
On this day for some unknown reason, when Russell got into the game, one kid passed the ball to him in the back court. That would mean that Russell could possibly dribble the ball all the way from one end of the court to the other. I could tell it wasn’t in the coach’s game plan for that to happen, because I was near the coach when he said quietly to the player who gave Russell the ball, “Sammy, I told you not to let Russell bring the ball down.”
As soon as the opposing coach saw that Russell was in the game and was dribbling with his head down; he started instructing his team to steal the ball. Russell was in a dribbling zone oblivious to anything else that was going on. It was a perfect opportunity for basketball theft.
The stands were packed as they usually were for this age group. Parents were yelling for their kids to steal the ball from Russell. The coach was yelling for his team to steal the ball from Russell. The extra players on the bench for the opposing team were screaming and responding in favor of their coach’s instructions for their teammates to steal the ball from Russell. But the five kids on the floor from the opposing team were frozen—frozen by mercy.
Each of them was looking at their coach as if to say, “We can’t steal the ball from Russell. It wouldn’t be right.”
All this time Russell just kept dribbling with his head down. He dribbled around the players, in circles, but nowhere in the direction of his team’s basket. How could he have any idea of where the basket was? He never came up—even for air. He just kept looking down at the ball that he was dribbling. He was so engrossed in the task; he was unaware to what anyone was saying or doing because he never looked up or stopped dribbling.
Finally, every kid on the floor—the four on Russell’s team and the five on the opposing team, started cheering for Russell. They were saying, “Good job Russell. Keep dribbling. You’re doing great.”
It wasn’t long before the nine compassionate kids on the floor had led the entire gym filled with people, coaches included, to start cheering Russell as he dribbled. It was a sight to behold. It reminded me of the words in Isaiah 11:6, “A little child shall lead them.”
Eventually Russell came to himself, stood up, looked around, passed the ball to a teammate and the game went on. But that thirty second lesson from nine kids resisting the competitive juices within them—and the mercilessness of winning, stamped an indelible impression on my mind.
What would happen if we adults were more alert to being merciful than competitive, or in control, or having the upper hand, or being right, or being better than? What if we were able to heed the words of Jesus, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” which Jesus interpreted in Matthew 9:13 to mean, we are to have mercy on those who are distant from God even before we engage in acts of worship?
If we were all able to heed this, our world would change.