As a teenager, I spent many hours playing basketball at our local JCC in Mt. Vernon, New York. Although our team was called the Spartans, we lacked a killer instinct and achieved only a mediocre record. However, I was selected to play on the JCC All Star team and this was a big deal. The coach was a former college coach, who had much to teach us and we actually won many games. But there was one problem that I faced: he never put me in the game until the closing seconds, and by then I was so nervous that I invariably lost possession of the ball. I was very disappointed and I lost confidence in my ability to score. The team won, but I lost. So much for my illustrious basketball career as an All Star.
I reflected on my past experience at the JCC as I watched The Bad News Bears, the story of Morris Buttermaker, a foul-mouthed alcoholic and former minor-league baseball player, who is recruited by a city councilman to coach the Bears, a Little League team composed of the worst players in the league.
In order to win, Buttermaker recruits two outstanding players, and the team’s fortune changes. Slowly they begin winning and eventually make it to the playoffs. When Buttermaker instructs his star player to step up his outfield play by catching all the fly balls, he insures a win but loses the support of the rest of the team who want to earn the win based on their own efforts, not the efforts of one gifted ballplayer.
To the two adult managers, winning is the only thing that matters; to the kids, winning is euphoric only for the moment. More important is simply playing the game, no matter what the result. Happily, Morris Buttermaker ultimately does have an epiphany and finally understands that sports can be redemptive even if one doesn’t triumph.
The power of sports to be redemptive is a Jewish sensibility. The classic example is the wrestling match between the patriarch Jacob and the angel that takes place in the middle of the night. Jacob is severely tested and emerges victorious but limping. His destiny is changed and this is indicated by his name change. No longer is he Jacob, the one who is holding the heel of his older brother Esau. Jacob is now Israel, a prince of God who becomes the progenitor of the tribes of Israel. The contest with the angel has changed him and he is a new man with a new identity because of the encounter.
Change has occurred because Jacob was a participant in the battle, not a spectator. Sitting along the sidelines defines one as a fan and no metamorphosis happens. Change becomes meaningful when you act, when you actually test yourself physically and emotionally. The boys in the worst team in the league only change when they work hard to become better players, not when star athletes are introduced into the team. There is an old poster that coaches often use to motivate players to contribute and work for the sake of the other. The quotation on the bottom says: there is no “I” in TEAM. For progress to happen, everyone has to contribute, and the journey to success only begins when teammates think of the other, not just of themselves and their own individual stats.
Winning may be the goal in any athletic contest, but being a winner in life often requires improvement of self-image, refinement of character, and a willingness to accept the moral notion that winning is not everything and has little to do with defining oneself as a caring human being.