Life and basketball

Kyle Singler free throw. Cameron Indoor Stadium.

(Originally published in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Republished by permission.)

It’s March, as in Madness – as in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. For years now, my favorite birthday present has been to spend several slothful days watching 64 teams play hoops, circling the winners in green and lining through the losers in red on my printed bracket.

I see young men with extraordinary physical gifts who have been given (in most cases) a free college education, in return for which they are to represent their schools on their basketball teams. Their lives are supposed to revolve around classes (more or less, depending on the school) and polishing their basketball skills.

And yet, an amazing number of them can’t hit free throws.

As a former gym rat who lived and breathed basketball as a young teenager, I can tell you that practicing free throws is simple. Go to a gym, with a basketball. Stand at the free-throw line. Shoot. Repeat.

You don’t need teammates, a coach, or anything but time and commitment. I can’t imagine that there’s no time in a college basketball player’s schedule to practice free throws. But it’s quite common to see players in the NCAA tournament who average 50-60% from the line (networks are kind enough to flash the stats on the screen).

“If I were a Division I basketball player on a scholarship,” I tell myself, “I’d be darn sure I could make free throws. There’s no reason not to be at least 80%. What else are you supposed to do with your time? It’s basically your job!”


Then the thundering crash of humility…what are my free throws?

As in, what are those things in my life that I should have as cold as a basketball player’s skills, the aspects that should be automatic? The little parts that, given their proper focus and time, pay off – but if neglected, hurt my performance, my ‘team,’ my ‘game’?

Just to tick off the categories of my life is to think of (at conservative count) a bajillion possibilities: I’m a husband, home-owner and -renovator, dog owner, community member and family member. I have responsibilities to people I work with, friends, former students. I’m accountable to myself – to eat and drink well, to exercise and sleep as I should. And then there are the larger categories I belong to: am I being a good member of the human race, inhabitant of Earth, mindful of the injustices and wrongdoing done on a daily basis?

It doesn’t take long for me to get really quiet about college players and their free throws.

Seeing what others should do is so, so easy. What’s difficult is clearing away the clutter in our minds and lives and seeing what’s really important to do with our time.

But even that’s not enough. After that, it’s time to hit the gym, stand at the free-throw line, and practice. (Sometimes, we need a coach to teach us proper form, but that’s a topic for another day.)

What are your free throws?