Religion and Basketball

We used to make fun of Jeremy for his beliefs. A lot. There was not a bus trip that went by where another teammate and I would not take him to task. If god was so benevolent, why all the wars? How come you can never see him? Do you really not believe in evolution?

The funny thing is that I think I was missing the whole point. The ancillary details surrounding the religion are not that important. Being religious gives people a moral framework that they build their life around. This structure can be a very positive force.

The power of the mind is undeniable. If you believe that a higher power has planned big things for you than you are more likely to make something out of your life. I really think that’s the case, and even if it is just a placebo effect, it is still an effect. They have given pills to pregnant women that were supposed to induce vomiting, told them it was an anti-nausea pill, and watched as those women suffered less from morning sickness. The human brain is NUTS. So, if you ignore the fact that a ton of religious people think a dude died and came back to life, and that the earth is only 10,000 years old, you can see where having seemingly irrational beliefs can come in handy.

You need to be irrational to succeed in basketball. You have to believe in the hot hand, even if stats prove it does not exist. You have to believe you are the best player on the court, even if you have just played 5 sub par games in a row. You have to believe that spending hours a day shooting a ball through a hoop is a better use of time than learning a different skill, spending time with friends, or even studying.

I was thinking recently about how the whole trajectory of my life and career was based on irrational belief. If I had to advise a scrawny, 5’3 high school freshman on how to best utilize his free time, I doubt I would say “practice basketball as much as is humanly possible.” That would seem downright irresponsible.

Yet, being that little 14 year old and being my own advisor, I decided that I wanted to have a career as a basketball player. It was actually more than just wanting. It was a feeling of inevitability. I had no choice but to become a pro. This belief eventually became a reality. I didn’t make the NBA, but I get paid to play, so the seemingly impossible dream came to fruition. I think the outcome would have been the same whether I felt that God had a plan for me or if it was a solo undertaking. The important thing was to have unwavering faith in my ability to achieve a goal.

Another contradictory stance with regards to my anti-religous sentiment is that I really did belong to a religion. It was the Church of John Wooden. I had his pyramid of success pinned to the wall in my bedroom. I would read his book of quotes nightly, and before every game.

Despite this behavior, I would routinely criticize people who read the bible. What’s the difference? Each of us was using a book of guidelines as a means to focus on what was important to us. Plus, the books are not all that different with regards to their core message.

The lay person might not know which of these quotes comes from the BIble and which was said by John Wooden:
1. “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man given. Be grateful. Conceit is self given. Be careful.”
2. “For eveyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

They are both basically saying that it is critical to appreciate what you have, and you can get into trouble if you are a bragadocious ass. The first is John Wooden, and the second is Jesus, but the sentiment is the same. If someone had told a 20 year old me to read quotes from a religious figure I would have rolled my eyes. But mention Coach Wooden and I could spout off 10 aphorisms with no hesitation or embarrassment. At that point I had no ability to separate being part of an organized religion and being guided by overarching spiritual and moral principles.

Back to Jeremy. After his breakout game Junior year against BC he said that he felt like he wasn’t playing alone on the court, that God was playing through him. I took that as religious mumbo jumbo at the time. I got a good chuckle out of it.

Looking back, I can see how a religious person would feel like that. When you are in the zone on the basketball court it really is like having an out-of-body experience. Every shot is going in, every movement is precise, and your mind is perfectly clear. You feel as if you are resonating in some sort of perfect, harmonious frequency. In this state, you are not so much making decisions, but simply riding a wave of energy that lets you perform like a beautiful, flawless machine. There are no wrong choices when you are in the zone.

Why does it matter if someone feels that this state of athletic bliss is influenced by the presence of a god? Who am I to say that it’s not? Does stating “ya, Jesus was helping me dominate out there” sound any less ridiculous than the new-agey description of the zone that I just put forth in the previous paragraph?

The amount of devoutly religious high level basketball players seems to be a testament to the fact that belief is correlated with success. Of course, there are tons of guys who are religious that never do anything with their lives. But I would venture to say that among the high achievers in basketball, the religious trounce the non-believers in terms of numbers.

I think this is partly because organized religion encourages a level of discipline that some guys might not have had otherwise. There are also many benefits to having unwavering faith that someone is looking out for you. Similarly, it is healthy to believe that every setback is temporary.

I think that setting concrete goals, having a generally happy disposition and reading John Wooden quotes will get the non-religious person to the same place. This doesn’t mean I still view religious people as being silly and simple-minded. I now have a ton of respect for those that use faith as a way to overcome obstacles.

It will always be strange for me to know that many of my hardworking, inspirational friends think that someone built a boat that fit two of every animal on earth, or that a bald guy was so incensed by a group of kids making fun of him he summoned bears to maul all 42 of them. The key is to realize that most religious people are getting a lot out of following the core tenants of their faith, and that believing the wacky mythology is secondary. Or optional. I hope.

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7 thoughts on “Religion and Basketball

  1. Great post. To your point “The amount of devoutly religious high level basketball players seems to be a testament to the fact that belief is correlated with success. Of course, there are tons of guys who are religious that never do anything with their lives. But I would venture to say that among the high achievers in basketball, the religious trounce the non-believers in terms of numbers.” Do you believe that those players are truly religious or just giving religion lip service like Craig Robinson in Eastbound and Down. Frequently I read about these allegedly religious athletes going out and then shooting up a club. Jeremy Lin hopefully won’t do something like that but you get my point?

    1. Thanks, and great point. I have actually seen tons of hypocritical behavior. Guys with tattoos of the cross doing things Jesus would never approve of. I might have to discuss this in the future. I have been known to irritate a teammate or 2 when this stuff comes up, so I’ll need to tread lightly.

    1. “Thug-life” might be an extreme way of putting it, but yeah, you see some of that stuff. Even the Israelis will fight someone in a club or throw a cheapshot on the court every now and then. It’s almost a part of basketball culture to act as tough as possible at all times. I actually ended up toe-to-toe with some guy who wanted to fight during a freaking mens league game the other day. I’ve never fought someone in my life, but I felt like I had to pretend I was up for it haha.

  2. Excellent piece Drew. Your deconstruction of what it feels like to be “in the zone” is spot on and would only sound new-agey to someone who’s never been there before. Every good athlete/competitor knows how that feels on some level. Lastly, the critical yet respectful analysis of the effects of organized religion on the sports psyche makes a very thought provoking read and as a fan of Jeremy Lin, the anecdotes about him are icing on the cake. If basketball doesn’t work out for you(hopefully it does) you’ll have a great career as a writer or teacher.

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