I first met Demetry, a 12-year-old Russian émigré, when he enrolled as a student at Denver Academy of Torah, a Jewish elementary day school. He encountered formidable educational challenges because of his lack of English language skills, and teachers were worried that he would not survive in a dual-curriculum Jewish day school. And then something extraordinary happened. We instituted a “Shakespeare Festival” for the 7th and 8th grade students in which they would perform an abbreviated version of one of the great bard’s plays. Demetry was given a speaking part, and he surprised us all. He read his lines with the proper pronunciation and with a clear understanding of the power and meaning of Shakespeare’s words. Watching him underscored the maxim in The Ethics of the Fathers that “one should never disparage any man, for every man has his hour.”
Too often we quickly stereotype people when we first meet them and that first impression becomes our only impression of that individual. Demetry’s blossoming at the school play reminded me to withhold judgment when meeting people, for we do not know who they really are after only one or two superficial encounters. Demetry astonished us all; and from that moment on, teachers and fellow students viewed him differently.
I recalled Demtery as I was watching one of the iconic scenes in Hoosiers, the story of a small school’s basketball team in the Midwest that made it to the state finals and won. The movie recounts the narrative of Coach Norman Dale who turns around the school’s athletic fortunes by stressing fundamentals and good character. The critical scene depicts a lowly bench player, someone everyone expects will perform poorly, coming in late in the game and making the winning foul shot. It is one of those fictional moments to remember in one of the great sports movies of all time.
The movie also brought back memories of my own teenage basketball career in Mt. Vernon, New York, where I played basketball at the JCC every Sunday. My team was the Spartans, but we did not play like warriors. I do remember on several occasions that I had an opportunity to make an easy foul shot or lay-up and win the game; but unfortunately, I usually missed the crucial shot and left frustrated and disappointed. I also recall vividly that one year during high school I was chosen to be on the JCC All Star team. It was an honor, but one that did not auger well for my basketball career. The coach had his favorites and I never got into any game until the last game of the year. I sat on the bench for almost the entire season and when he finally called me in, I froze and lost the ball on my first possession. So much for All Star teams.
That is why I identified with the hero of Hoosiers who came off the bench to score the needed points at the critical moment. The image of the ball going through the net—sheer sports poetry– still resonates in me twenty-five years after I first saw the movie. It is clear that the underdog succeeded because the coach had confidence in him and treated him like a winner. The lesson: if we treat people like winners, they often will surprise us. The Talmud tells us of scholars who started with little knowledge or background who became spiritual giants because someone saw greatness in them. Rabbi Akiva was one of these, and it was because of his wife Rachel who believed in his potential that he broke with his humble and unlettered past to become one of the greatest minds in Jewish learning.
The messages in Hoosiers are obvious ones. The movie is not subtle. In truth, sports films are often a metaphor for life, and watching Hoosiers can give us lots of spiritual direction and inspiration.