It was a difficult game and we knew that we had our backs against the wall when our All-American center, Hannah Munger, left the game just five minutes into the first half with a knee injury. In spite of her absence, the team fought back from a seven-point deficit to go ahead in the final minutes.
For those of us who have participated in sports, close defeats seem to stay with you longer. When you are dominated by another team, you leave the gym or stadium knowing that you were not the better team. In a close contest, you rethink every move you made during the game and think, “If only I had …”
As the final buzzer sounded, it was clear that our team fought to the end. They never gave up at any moment. They spent every ounce of energy on the court. Staff members at the host campus, Hope College, consistently came up to me after the game and told me how proud they were of our team. They noted what fine young women we had and how well they carried themselves. I hope every one knows that they represented us well. It was the end of a spectacular season.
I would like to share a few moments in the game that became very important to me. When Hannah went down in the first half Saiko, one of our very fine athletic trainers, went to help her. She was lying at the end of the basketball court behind the bleachers. Something inside me said, “You need to go see her.” So I walked down the bleachers and joined Saiko and a local doctor who was treating Hannah. She was in pain and, of course, I am not a doctor. What I could do is provide some comfort, and I tried my best to do that. I held her hand as she suffered with the pain and the anguish of the injury and what appeared to be the end of her season.
The doctor told Hannah that she had sprained ligaments and, depending on the pain, she might be able to play. (What you need to keep in mind is that Hannah has been pushed and shoved by teams all year long. She is tough and not easily stymied by small injuries.) So Saiko and I got her up (she is rather tall), and we walked around with her on the volleyball court in the Devos arena. I put my arm around her waist and took her weight, and she put her arm on my shoulder. We walked, but painfully slow. The pain was significant, and it was obvious that her knee was beginning to swell. We went back to the locker room where Saiko tried to tape her knee up to give it some strength because it was becoming clear that she really wanted to try to go back into the game. Hannah wanted to get back into the national championship game to help her teammates. All the time we are talking, we could see the clock in the locker room ticking down toward the end of half-time. Her mother and father came into the locker room and prayed with her. There was a real sense of the game just slowly fading away. Saiko decided to put ice on her knee and assess her condition after halftime.
At the end of halftime, I went back to the locker room and Hannah was sitting with ice on her knee. Saiko asked her if she wanted to try her knee again. Hannah said yes. So I helped her up again, and we headed for the volleyball court to see how she felt. She was trying, but she continued to limp and wince with every step. Finally, I stopped her and we stood together on the court. I asked if I could provide some advice from the perspective of an old athlete. She said yes.
In my heart (and mind), I remembered long ago when a man named Willis Reed who played for the New York Knicks came back after an injury in a game and led his team to victory over the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers. I thought perhaps this was a similar moment for Hannah. (Of course those were the days of cortisone shots and little care about the future as to whether one could walk later or not. The game was everything.)
But then, I reflected more as a father of a daughter. I looked her in the eyes and said, “Hannah, this is a game. It is a national championship game but it is only a game. I am much more concerned about your future than this one moment in time. As much as you want to go into this game, if your knee is hurting you, it is not worth the risk.” She thought for a minute, took a couple of more steps and said, “I can’t go back in.” Through her tears, she said she wanted to sit on the bench and cheer the team on. She walked across the court as the halftime buzzer went off and took her place on the bench.
Most of you know I love to win and I sure hated losing this game – still, it’s just a game. We really do believe at George Fox University that we prepare students to be known as God’s agents in our world. We finished second on the scoreboard one late winter night in 2012, but if you measure success by a group’s ability to reflect love, joy, peace, kindness and goodness, then I can testify that there is no better group of young women in the country than those on the basketball team of George Fox University.