Back in my early 20s, when dinosaurs roamed the land, I coached basketball in an inner-city league in Nashville, Tenn. Inspired by “The White Shadow” television show at the time, the teenagers on my team named themselves the Shadows because I was the only white coach in the league.
We lost every game that season. Despite the fact that we had a standout team captain who worked the post with great skill, a guy we all called J.C., we just couldn’t pull off a single win.
Of course, we didn’t lose because I was white. Maybe “white guys can’t jump,” as the old movie suggests, but clearly other white guys can coach. Unfortunately, that wasn’t me. My basketball career was an intramural affair in college, with a glory day (singular is correct) consisting of one hot streak in a single game one afternoon, when I scored eight straight points.
My knowledge of and experience with the game fell considerably short of the urban style of ball I found myself in the middle of. I was seriously under-qualified for the job.
But that didn’t stop me, and I came to respect the players on our team. Despite our season-long position in the cellar, just about every player stuck it out to the end. And while I wasn’t much of a coach, I somehow held the team together.
In other words, we finished.
Maybe I learned about the value of finishing from my foster brother, David Driver, who just a few years earlier took more than five hours to finish a marathon. He was so determined to finish that, even after making a wrong turn on the mountaintop course he was running, he turned around, got back on course and kept going, adding miles to his run.
He came in dead last, but he finished. It was an incredible feat of sheer determination that got him across that finish line.
My own athletic career — consisting mostly of a little football and a lot of long-distance running — was by no means stellar. Occasionally I won something, or was part of a team that came out on top, but those weren’t my real accomplishments.
Mostly, I finished.
In football, I stuck it out through two-a-days, when the heat and humidity of an Arkansas August made the sweat pour from our bodies and the coaches gave us salt pills to keep us from cramping up. At that time in my life, it was the hardest physical challenge I had ever endured, but I worked hard and made it through the season.
I even made it through one gridiron season in which my nose was bent slightly but permanently to the left. Darn helmet didn’t fit right. But I survived, and still have the nose to show for it.
And when I was 19, I too ran a marathon. The 26-mile course pounded on my ankles so badly that I had to borrow some crutches to get around for a couple of days afterward. But it didn’t matter, because I finished.
Now, I must admit, there were times when I didn’t finish. Sometimes I quit, and even though I was sometimes justified in doing so, I’m not proud of those times. I’m proud of the times I finished.
My brother David Driver died several years ago of a bad liver — on the operating table, still hoping to live another day. He was no quitter. He showed our family what a great and noble effort looks like.
And a couple years after the Shadows finished their season I found out that J.C. had been killed in the South Nashville projects where he lived. Seems that he was taking up for a kid who was being picked on when someone pulled a gun and shot J.C. down.
The world lost a lot of potential that day. If he’d been allowed to finish out his life, I think he would have made a big difference in this world. He was a natural born leader. You could see it in his game.
But sometimes losing is unavoidable, and we can only give it our best shot — and finish, one way or the other.
The Japanese have a saying: Fall seven times, get up eight. Now that sounds like winning to me.
Tom McDonald is founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange, which distributes this column statewide. He is also editor and publisher of the Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa. He may be reached at email@example.com.