Life’s lessons learned on hardwood

St. Petersburg Times

By Nathan O. Hatch

Guest Column

Ever since I was in the fourth grade, when my father leveled part of our back yard in Columbia, S.C., to put up a hoop for his four sons, basketball has been my passion. Even now, the memories flow like flawlessly executed fast breaks in a scoring run: playing outdoors until darkness enveloped me; navigating, as a point guard on our high school team, the walls that abutted the out-of-bounds lines in our bandbox gymnasium; being a lightning rod for flak as keeper of the clock at varsity games while in junior high school; sneaking in through a window in the University of South Carolina’s arena to watch a big ACC game.

But mostly, as I reflect on what basketball has meant and still means to me, one word – opportunity – comes to mind most consistently. Opportunity for players; opportunity for teams; opportunity for schools and their fans – opportunity for learning, growth and character development.

Basketball is a wonderful opportunity to learn the interplay of individual and team effort. Individual effort is important, and anyone who has played the game knows the elation of winning a game with a free throw, or stealing the ball for a layup, or draining the long shot in the last possession. And can there be any doubt that the struggle a player must make to become better carries on into adulthood, when the struggle evolves into one of becoming a better professional, spouse or parent? But the deepest satisfaction in basketball is seeing a team become greater than the sum of its individual parts. Executing a give-and-go or pick-and-roll to perfection is an exquisite art and a joy to watch. Might that level of cooperation and the success that results from it serve as a lesson for us as families, companies, nations and world citizens?

A sport like basketball provides for many young people a great opportunity to travel, to meet and get along with people who are different, and to subordinate one’s desires for the good of a greater purpose. It certainly helps one to understand and manage one’s emotions and to observe how a variety of people react in good times and in adversity. It’s a terrific training ground for leadership. Playing a sport permits a young person to experience pressure, public appearance and performance under pressure, all of which can elevate one’s confidence.

There were cautionary lessons as well. Even in high school, it was evident that some athletes allowed the hardwoods to divert them from broader responsibilities. And one quickly learned to discern the line that some players and some teams crossed to win at all cost. Putting winning in perspective is a great lesson for any young person entering the competitive world of business and the professions. If I have any regret about college basketball today, it is that all of us, the press included, are so enamored with winning that we do not call to account those programs that pay scant attention to the education of student athletes.

The ACC is the greatest college basketball conference in America, not only because of its great teams, but because of the fans who follow its teams with great interest, knowledge and passion. The game presents an opportunity to them as well. If, as some say, life is a constant procession of choices, then we can choose to treat those on the court and in the stands with respect. We can choose to see beyond the color of sweatshirt the person next to us is wearing and connect with them on a personal level, knowing that we are far more alike than we are different. This is why the ACC tournament is such a transcendent event. Each year, fans from the different schools gather at the tournament; many come to know each other. They pull feverishly for their own teams but also watch the entire tournament with avid interest, regardless of who is playing. And when the NCAA tournament begins, they pull for all of the ACC schools playing, regardless of their own personal affiliations.

The list of character traits basketball helps develop reads like a litany: trust, cooperation, discipline, hard work, commitment, flexibility, emotional control, personal responsibility, tolerance, clear-headedness, teamwork, camaraderie … you add your own. Plus, it’s a great game; and the ACC is the greatest of tournaments.

Categories: Essays