Beyond Basketball

Some say that basketball is life, so what is beyond basketball?

Posted Sep 30, 2013

This is not one of my standard posts in which I analyze a topic from a third-person perspective. This is more a personal, psychological account of how a dream I have nourished for decades finally came to fruition. From the standpoint of psychological growth and well-being, I think it is important for us to pursue dreams, whether or not they turn out the way we expected them to.

The dining hall at the Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY
Nearly 30 years ago I received a flyer in the mail about a workshop that was to be offered at the Omega Institute called Beyond Basketball. The workshop leader was Phil Jackson, the head coach of a nearby minor league basketball team, the Albany Patroons. I had no idea who Phil Jackson was, much less what he was to become. Nonetheless, I was very much taken by the concept of the workshop, which sounded like the Inner Game or Zen of Basketball.  I have been very passionate about playing basketball my entire life, and I also have a predilection for Zen/Taoist philosophy. So this workshop sounded like the most wonderful opportunity for personal development I had ever encountered. If I had known at the time who Phil Jackson was and was to become, probably nothing could have stopped me from registering for the workshop.

In 1984, however, a was a brand-new assistant professor, just beginning on the tenure track at Penn State after a couple of one-year contracts. We had been in our first house not quite two years, and my second son had just been born. I was not particularly flush with money, and the workshop seemed to be very expensive—hundreds of dollars, plus room and board. I could not imagine spending that much money and living in a tent with a newborn and three-year old for five days. Maybe someday, I thought, wistfully. The someday would not be soon; two more sons born in the 1980s made a workshop at Omega unreachable.

Still, I never gave up the dream. The years passed. One by one, my sons moved out and moved on with their lives. The workshop, dorm room, and meals were more expensive than ever, but I could afford this gift to myself at this point in my life. And at 59, I could still play basketball—although with arthritic knees I moved more slowly than when I was 30. I decided 2013 was the year for Beyond Basketball. When Omega started announcing their 2013 programs, I checked their site constantly for the announcement about Beyond Basketball. I knew that in the past, upwards of 30-50 people registered for the workshop and it often sold out within days. I did not want to miss this chance.

Finally, I saw that the workshop was going to be held September 20-22nd. I told my wife I wanted to do this and she thought it would be great to travel to Rhinebeck that month. So, I finally signed up for Beyond Basketball and she signed up for the Women and Power retreat, led by Brené Brown, Joan Halifax Roshi, and others. Everything was all set.

Winter turned to spring, and spring turned into summer. I played basketball 3-4 days a week, so I was in pretty good shape. School started up again in August, and now Beyond Basketball was just a month away. I could not think about it, lest I get too excited. I lived one day at a time, and finally it was the week of the workshop. I had played basketball both Sunday and Monday and never felt better. I was thinking how lucky I was that I had remained injury-free and that it had been a long time since I had experienced a debilitating headache or flare-up of diverticulitis that hit me every so often.

And then the Wednesday before the workshop I came down with something. I still don't know if I caught whatever it was that made some of my students call in sick or if I had a stress reaction or what. But my GI system went into painful spasms that lasted all day and I could not get rid of the dull ache in my head. Would this keep me from fulfilling my dream? What was I to do?

Fortunately I did not have to teach on Wednesday, so I slept as much as possible and drank a lot of water. I did the yoga routine that I have been doing daily for over a year and a half, convinced that this practice can aid in healing. I took it as easy as I could when I taught my three classes on Thursday, continuing to drink water and rest as much as I could. I had a meeting that evening, and I felt well enough to attend it. I went to bed early and when I awoke the next day I knew I was going to be okay. I felt about 90%, but knew that I would be improving as the day went on. Indeed, during the 5+ hour drive to Rhinebeck, I felt better and better and was ready to dig into one of Omega's great vegetarian meals by dinner time.

Charley Rosen
Scott Wedman
The first workshop session was that evening, and I was full of nervous excitement. When I approached the cabin where we were to meet, I saw two very tall men hanging out on the porch, chatting. One was the workshop leader, Charley Rosen, who had been as assistant coach under Phil Jackson at Albany and who took over Beyond Basketball when the rigors of coaching professional basketball made it too difficult for Jackson to continue teaching at Omega. The other was Charley's assistant, Scott Wedman, a former all-star professional player for Kansas City who served as a backup for Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in toward the end of his career with the Boston Celtics. The workshop was supposed to start in about three minutes, but when I peeked inside the cabin I saw only three guys sitting in chairs. What was going on? I asked Charley if we were starting soon and he said, in a little while, it wasn't quite time yet. Confused, I went inside and sat down.

Within ten minutes, other people shuffled in until there were eight workshop participants, and Charley said, "That's it." Then began the most intense learning about basketball I have ever experienced. Charley explained that everything we were going to be doing was going to involve individual and three-on-three drills, with some four-on-four games with special rules. He diagrammed some of the drills, including six variations on the UCLA offense, on a whiteboard. He told stories about some of his experiences with professional basketball players. And he read the first chapter of a novel he had just written. It was almost too much to absorb; I took notes and tried to grasp as much of what was going on as possible.

The next day was exactly as promised. Basketball drills at the YMCA in Kingston, NJ. All. Day. Long. I found much of it very difficult because so much of it was new to me. The other guys were all much more knowledgeable. And younger. And faster. And stronger. But that did not matter to me. I was here, finally experiencing Beyond Basketball after a 30-year wait. And all of the guys were really helpful, giving me tips and encouragement. Charley and Scott were also extremely helpful, constantly pointing out different things to different players, teaching them what they needed to know. They were an interesting contrast: Charley was very expressive and talkative. Scott might be the most calm, unflappable person I have ever met. They made a great team. Even though I was physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day, I could have kept going because I felt like I was learning so much.

Saturday night after dinner we had another session scheduled in the cabin where we met the first night. I figured we would be reviewing what we had done that day, getting lessons on things we needed to correct and do better. And Charley did review the day—for about one minute. He told us he thought we did very well, and he was happy with our performance. And then we spent the rest of the evening doing a typical guy thing: arguing about who the best players and teams were and are today and making predictions about how the upcoming NBA season would turn out. Well, everybody else did. I'm not a typical guy in that regard. I don't even really follow sports much. So I just enjoyed listening to the passionate pronouncements made by everyone.

Sunday morning was the real moment I had been waiting for. We had scheduled a final two-hour session in the gym off-campus, but before we left for it Charley gave what he calls his Sunday Sermon. It was about nothing less than the meaning of life. He talked about the spark of Divinity in all of us. He talked about how the right attitude and approach that brings us joy in playing the game of basketball is a transportable skill: That it is possible to experience just as much joy in any life situation as we do while playing basketball. He explained that, in contrast to what most people would say, basketball is not a metaphor for life. Rather, life is a metaphor for basketball. They are not identical; the rules of basketball are absolutely clear-cut, while life is fraught with ambiguities. Still, when we are mindful, we can apply the clarity of basketball to the rest of our lives. Good players are good people.

Sacred Hoops
I and the other seven players did not want that final session at the gym to end. Time was up and we begged for one more game, which we got. And then we went back out into the world to be good people.

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