I am with our women’s basketball team at the Final Four at Hope College in Holland, Mich. We have an outstanding team and our seniors have given our community some wonderful memories over the past four years. They have lost only one game on our home floor. They have won a National Championship, and made the Elite Eight and the Final Four twice each. Coach Meek, Coach Rueck and 15 young women have built one of the finest Division III programs in the nation.
Last night the NCAA hosted a banquet in honor of the four teams that made the Final Four. There are more than 430 teams that play Div. III women’s basketball. We are down to just four – less than 1% of those teams that started play this year. Every team wishes and hopes to be here but just these four remain: Amherst College, George Fox University, Illinois Wesleyan University and the University of St. Thomas. Each team was honored for its achievements and then select seniors on each team shared their own understanding of the experience. For George Fox, Carrie Myers and Keisha Gordon spoke on behalf of the team. They carefully selected their words to describe the George Fox team – family, together, united, sisters, fiercely competitive. They were received well and they honored the team and university.
The banquet speaker for the evening was Dr. Jack Ridl, Professor Emeritus of English at Hope College. He began with these words: “All of you came for one reason – to win the national championship. Three of you will walk away disappointed.” In the midst of a great evening he brought a sense of reality to all of us in the room. When he made that comment he paused and the room was quite silent. No team wants to be the one not holding the trophy.
He then asked the team members a question: “Why in the world do you do this? Only athletes take on the whole school, town and culture every time they head out for competition. The games you play tomorrow will demand decision after decision under severe tension. Hundreds of decisions that can make or break the game – decisions that can bring victory or defeat.”
The most frustrating experience for most athletes (and coaches) is when parents and fans identify and know what should have been done at the key moments. So the games are replayed hundreds of times emphasizing the phrase, “if only.”
As Professor Ridl spoke I remembered what it was like to grow up the son of a very fine basketball coach. Today my father’s name is in the Arizona High School Hall of Fame for his work as a basketball coach. What I remember as a child though were the constant critiques of his work and his team – particularly when they did not win it all. “Coach Baker, why did Lindsay miss that layup that cost us the game?” “If you had only played Rossen more we would have won.” “Can’t you get the team to shoot free throws better?”
It was as if people thought that that team members missed layups on purpose or that they did not understand what it took to make a free throw. The reality of a game is that no one, no team plays perfectly. Each tries to do their best to score more points/runs/goals than the other team by the time the clock runs out. The reality is that by the end of the season only one team reaches the pinnacle of the sport and holds the trophy high.
I have always found Theodore Roosevelt’s comment on the critic valuable when considering the importance of playing games and being involved in the contest:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man or woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself or herself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
So we gather in two hours – George Fox University vs. Amherst College. Two great, undefeated teams play for the honor of entering the championship game. One will not advance. I, of course, hope that we do advance. But whether we win or not, I do know that the George Fox women have dared greatly and “spent themselves in a worthy cause.” They are champions even if they do not hold the trophy. Carrie and Keisha got it right – it’s about character, team, family and just being together.