The other day, I got an email from my parish which began: “Dear Ministry Leaders…”
In the past, I’d chaired the adult education committee and the parish council. But, in recent years, the only thing I’ve been in charge of has been men’s basketball on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights.
Actually, there are two of us, Dave and I, both in our mid-60s, both slower than slow and not exactly in the fittest of shape. But we like basketball so, each week, we’re there to open the gym, sweep the floor, oversee the games and lock up.
That’s why I laughed when I got the email.
We have some really great ministries in our parish, St. Gertrude on Chicago’s Far North Side — a long-running, highly successful support program for the elderly of our neighborhood, a troupe of liturgical dancers, a teen faith-sharing group and a gay and lesbian outreach effort, to name a few.
The Pope discussing hoops?
It was funny to imagine some Congregation at the Vatican, or even the Pope, discussing hoops as a Catholic way of providing pastoral care, like running a hospital or teaching catechism.
Still, Marge, the parish business manager, had included me and Dave in that email so I figured that, in some way, the parish thought that what we do each week has some — dare I say it? — spiritual benefit.
Certainly, the Sunday and Monday games provide a chance for a bunch of guys to get a bit of exercise in a competitive context. I’ve never been one for jogging. Too boring. But I’ll run up and down the court for two hours in the heat of the games, working up a sweat and enjoying myself. (Well, at least when my shot is falling.)
Monday Night Basketball has been going since 1995, and it was initially designed for middle-aged men. But members of the original group began to drop off because they’d gotten injured or were busy raising their families or didn’t want to take the aches and pains any more. Now, at 8 p.m. on Mondays, when we line up to shoot free throws for teams, most of the players are in their 20s. For them, Dave and I are just plain prehistoric.
You know, like geriatrics
The Sunday games, which begin around 4 p.m., were initiated in 2007 by Peter, the parish pastoral associate at the time, in another effort to provide court time for more mature players. It’s called Geri-Ball — you know, like geriatrics or Geritol.
Over the last five years, we’ve had drop outs from Geri-Ball, but not as bad as what happened with Monday Night Basketball.
That’s because, from the beginning, guys started bringing their sons and, on occasion, their daughters. The presence of these teenagers and young adults means that we almost always have enough players for two or three teams. That means the older guys are able to take a rest when they need one instead of dragging themselves up and down the court just to fill out a team.
Once a year, we encourage all the fathers to bring their children, even the younger ones, and we spend the Sunday with teams ranging in age from 7 to 72. Literally. (Neil, who is in his mid-70s, plays every week — he’s a hero to Dave and me —and there are a couple other 70-year-olds who join us every once in a while.)
Gawky to fleet
Over the years, we’ve seen kids who were gawky and unsure of themselves handling the ball blossom into fleet forwards and dead-eye guards, flying up the court and leaving their elders in the dust.
There’s nowhere else quite like a basketball court for a father and son, or father and daughter, to get a sense of each other. My daughter Sarah likes to guard me and gets particular enjoyment when she can box me out from a rebound.
Many of the Geri-ball players are from the parish. Others are from the neighborhood or are friends of players.
I can’t think of another setting in which a group of guys and their kids can come together, on such equal footing, and get to know each other in quite this way. Here, my son David can drive into the lane and launch an in-your-face jumper over me. Here, too, the other fathers become like uncles to him, interested in how work is going and the plans he and his fiancé are making for their wedding.
Geri-Ball essentially is a community. We show up and, on the court, express in some way who we are, pretty much without words. (We’re guys, after all.)
Our very-evident foibles
We accept each other with all our very-evident foibles — this guy’s tendency to hog the ball, that guy’s inability to play defense, a third guy’s lack of competitive fire. We get along. We like each other. No one’s there to trounce anyone.
So, when Dave and I open the gym and sweep the floor, it’s not just for a couple hours of exercise. Even more, it’s about a couple hours of community-building.
And, I guess, when it’s put that way, basketball sounds a lot more like a ministry.
The same is true for Monday Night Basketball. From its beginning more than 15 years ago, the game has had a tone of acceptance, fair play and mutual respect. That’s not always the case for men’s sports which can be characterized by a muscular machismo, especially when the players are mostly in their 20s.
For example, in many places where pick-up basketball is played, the team that wins a game stays on the court and keeps playing until it loses. On our court, a team plays two games and then sits, no matter whether it wins or loses those games.
Also, it often happens on other courts that five really good players will come to the gym together and play together, dominating the games. That can’t happen at St. Gertrude. We choose teams by taking free throws. The first five to make their shot are on the first team, and so on.
Dave and I aren’t responsible for instituting these traditions and creating this fair-play atmosphere. They date back to the start of Monday Night Basketball under a couple other parish guys. But, for more than a decade, we’ve continued them and fostered them.
From miles away
Many of the Monday night players aren’t from the parish, and aren’t even from the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure most aren’t Catholic. Some come from miles away and even from the suburbs to play.
They tell me they come so far because they get to play good, aggressive basketball and don’t have to deal with a lot of macho posturing.
Don’t get me wrong. There are arguments at times on the court, and tempers can flare. But Dave and I are large-bodied enough to step in and break things up. Besides, we’re old enough to be the fathers or even grandfathers of these guys so they tend to give us a modicum of respect.
St. Gertrude is a very diverse parish for Chicago, but it’s still, I’d guess, at least 70 percent white. By contrast, African-Americans make up probably two-thirds of the players at Monday Night Basketball.
I like it that, through Monday Night Basketball, our parish provides a place where people of different races and ethnicities — as well as different economic situations, faiths and life experiences — can come together and form a community.
That’s what Monday Night Basketball is — a community.
It’s different from the Geri-Ball community. But both of them use hoops as a way of bringing guys (and occasionally girls) together on a regular basis.
Joys and worries
At Monday Night Basketball and at Geri-ball, those of us who play get to know and understand each other better. We worry when someone is sick or injured. We’re happy when someone gets a new job.
When one of the Monday night guys got married, we came to the gym on the Saturday of the wedding to play some ball with him and some of his groomsmen. It was a way to help him deal with the tensions of the day. And to celebrate with him.
And, when one of the Geri-ball guys got divorced, we came together that night, a Wednesday, to help him deal with the sadness of the day. And to let him know we were with him.
I guess, when I think of those two nights, the idea of basketball as a ministry isn’t so outlandish.
Patrick T. Reardon, who has a mean hook shot, is the author of “Love Never Fails: Spiritual Reflections for Dads of All Ages.”
This essay was originally published in slightly different form in the December, 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine.