Until the course was eliminated for various reasons five years ago, for 33 summers a weekend workshop called Beyond Basketball was a staple at the Omega Institute. The curriculum included on-court instructions and scrimmages, but the emphasis was always on the spiritual nature of the game (and of life). Through the years, the participants included cardiologists, attorneys, therapists, teachers, fathers and sons, taxi drivers, students, the president of a prestigious New England college, a world-class jazz musician, a minority owner of an NBA team, a high-ranking official of the ACLU, survivors of by-pass surgeries, high school coaches — plus a guy who snuck off to Omega after telling his wife that he was on a business trip.
The average workshop was composed of 18 to 25 devoted hoopers, contained one to three women, ranged in age from 14 to 73, and featured about 85 percent returnees.
From 1984 to 1991, I assisted Phil Jackson, and from then on I enlisted several basketball buddies as my co-leaders — including Eddie Mast (until his untimely death in 1994), Darryl Dawkins, and for the final six years, Scott Wedman. For one session, my co-leader was the female coach of the women’s varsity of a local high school.
After breakfast every Sunday morning, the group met at our assigned cabin for a traditional ceremony that dated back to the days when Phil ran the show. Over the years, it became known as “Charley’s Sunday Morning Sermon.”
My sermon was different every summer, but I always started by reviewing the reasons why basketball is superior to other sports: The almost continuous action. The exquisite balance between offense and defense. Players having to make so many decisions on the run. Whereas catchers don’t pitch, defensive tackles don’t throw forward passes, every hooper at just about every level of competition needs a certain mastery of all the basic skills — shooting, dribbling, passing and catching passes, cutting, and so on.
The unselfishness that’s such a fundamental element of every team sport is an extremely important lesson we can take with us when the buzzer sounds (or the final out is made or the winning run scores) and we reenter the rest of our lives. Teamwork. Trust. Self-knowledge. Physical, emotional, and mental resourcefulness. Being so much in our bodies. And, most importantly, the full awareness and enjoyment of the living moment. For those who love hooping it’s so much easier on the court than most other places to just “be.”
That’s because things are easier to see and assimilate within the boundary lines of the game than they are in the so-called real world. We can know the rules of basketball. We can understand exactly what the various lines of the court signify — the time-line at midcourt, the stripe at the foul line, the delineations of the three-second lane, and so on. And it’s easy to read and understand the scoreboard and the time clock.
Outside of the boundary lines, however, the rules are confused, the scoreboard is difficult to decipher, the game clock is most often subject to guesswork. And the “positions” we play are infinitely variable. At various times we might be sons and daughters, parents, grandparents, employers, employees, drivers, passengers, pedestrians, decision makers, decision implementers, laughers, criers, lovers, haters, players, or pretenders. Everything. Nothing.
So if properly perceived, like every undertaking that’s possible to all of us — from chopping wood to fetching water — playing, coaching and even watching basketball can also be a way to peace, love, and happiness. It’s also possible to transcend competition.
Bill Russell talked about this kind of thing periodically happening during his NBA career. Both teams playing with all-out effort, ten players playing one game with respect for one another, and total concentration…when suddenly the final buzzer sounded and they all had to look up at the scoreboard to see who won the game.
This is something we all should be aiming for on and off the court.
Indeed, by the time I’d finished my sermon, we’d all been together for parts of three days, with one last session set aside for more playing. And I reminded us all that the camaraderie that had developed has gone a long way in enabling us to transcend our egos. By playing the game correctly and with an enlightened attitude, we can raise our own consciousness and the consciousness of our teammates.
And it comes down to realizing that we can take all of these understandings and all of these blessings with us when we leave the court.
Even so, there’s one thing that’s of the utmost importance in every aspect of our lives. And Eddie Mast’s sudden death demonstrates what this is:
One day Eddie was playing in a pickup game at Lafayette University, which is just down the hill from his home in Easton, Pennsylvania. He had just hit a lefty hook when he went down. Several guys who there, including a doctor, said that he was dead before he hit the floor. Dead and gone.
Turned out that his eldest son, Derrick, was a football player at the school, and was attending a team meeting in the same building. Derrick was summoned, ran to his father’s side, and according to the same witnesses, Eddie literally came back to life for a brief second. Coming back from the dead, just long enough to smile at Derrick. Before he passed for good.