As college basketball fans (like me), prepare to watch the Final Four this weekend, it’s a good time to think about the bigger picture of big time basketball. College basketball is both good and bad, divine and demonic, beautiful and ugly. As a former high school basketball coach years ago in Minneapolis I have a different take on all the March Madness.
I can still remember in 1996 when I was sitting in a classroom with eight urban, African-American, and middle school boys. I asked them what they wanted to be when they became adults. They all wanted to play professional basketball. They had worked this all out in their minds. Two of them even had plans to both play college basketball for North Carolina and then go on to play for the Chicago Bulls. Basketball had become a religion for these boys and Michael Jordan was the almighty savior. I believe around this same time a documentary (I am probably mistaken on the year), which still get airtime on ESPN Classic called, Hoop Dreams was out. Hoop Dreams follows the lives of two Chicago African-American young men with dreams of going to the NBA. Neither one of these young men fulfilled those dreams. Basketball can be bad, ugly, and demonic because it can use up African-American young men, whose dreams become nightmares. Some get so caught up in their hopes for the NBA, that they don’t even take advantage of a free college education. Many of these Hoop Dreamers want to be what’s called, “A One and Done.” To play one year of college basketball simply to audition for the NBA. The NCAA and the head coaches of major universities like Kentucky and North Carolina make millions of dollars no matter how the future unfolds for many African-American young men growing up in poor urban and rural communities.
What is good, beautiful, and divine about basketball is when you meet coaches who use basketball as a tool to transform lives. Two of my favorite coaches that represent just that are Tubby Smith, Men’s Basketball Coach at the University of Minnesota (as well as the winner of a National Championship while at Kentucky) and Holy Angels Academy (Richfield, Minnesota) Boy’s Coach, Larry McKenzie. When I was the h]Head Boys Coach at Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School, he was my assistant. In our first year together, we made it to the State Championship game, saw players on the team come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and helped some go on to get college degrees. Coach McKenzie eventually became the Head Boys Coach at that school and I took the Head Girls Basketball position there. He went on to win four state titles. He’s more than just a good basketball coach though.
Coach McKenzie is a Christian, coach, mentor, and father figure to many. He is used by God to transform lives and I encourage you to read about his story. Please get his book, Basketball: More Than Just A Game.” This book puts basketball in its proper context. Coach McKenzie is also an excellent speaker and I encourage you to bring him to your school, church, business, or community center. He will inspire you and with the issues surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin impacting our nation right now, Coach McKenzie can serve as a voice of reconciliation, reason, and clarity. Let’s get beyond simply March Madness. There is real madness in our urban communities and beyond that must be addressed.
So much is being said about the death of Trayvon Martin, but let me add a few reflections-
1.) No matter the race or ethnicity of the one behind the murder weapon, we must be concerned about the continued loss of young African-American male lives. Too many young African-American men are leaving this earth too soon. We need more than a rally, we need reasonable solutions about this crisis that leads to fruitful results. Too many institutions are failing African-American boys and young men in this country. More importantly than that, too many families are failing them as well. We need strong African-American marriages, strong churches committed to community development and racial reconciliation, and a series of national initiatives that raises the value of young African-American male life.
2.) We cannot avoid the issue of race in the United States of America and beyond. The racial stereotyping, profiling, and devaluing of African-Americans is still a major issue. I am a professional, Christian, and highly educated African-American male. I still have to endure experiences where I am profiled simply for being Black. We can’t put all the blame on African-Americans in terms of how they are perceived. Corporate heads that are European-American make more money than African-Americans off of the devaluing and stereotyping of African-Americans. No question that there are some African-American rappers, athletes, and reality show stars that have sold their souls over money, but they should not carry the blame alone.
3.) It’s painful that some of the media are trying to use the fact that Trayvon was having some trouble in school to place blame on him for his own murder. Painting an African-American male as troubled on some level is used to steer our attention away from justice.
4.) It’s also painful that so-called Civil Rights leaders show up for racially charged issues, but don’t give the same passionate attention to Black on Black crime. A few months ago in Oakland, California there multiple homicides in one weekend where African-Americans were both victim and responsible for the crime. Neither Reverend Sharpton, nor Reverend Jackson made an appearance.
5.) Finally, as an evangelical pastor, I’m so concerned about how the evangelical church and its leaders seem to rarely, if ever take the lead in standing for compassion, mercy, and justice on issues like this. Where are the prophetic voices of justice, reconciliation, and liberation within evangelicalism?
These are my reflections. I now turn to prayer before the God of love, justice, and transformation. In Jesus name.