My wife and I love college basketball and watched most of the action in the "Big Dance" (the NCAA National Championship). Unfortunately, my wife's alma mater didn't win the championship this year, but the team fought hard, as did all of the athletes and coaches participating. Americans like sports and were demoralized when the pandemic wiped out so many of them and still restricts full attendance at games.
We know the power of sports in our lives but, too often, we do not know the power of sports in the lives of individual players. With deepest apologies to all of the athletes and coaches in all of the sports about which I know very little, I was fascinated by a recent book written by Jason King entitled "A Year to Remember," about all of the participants involved in the year Kansas won the national championship in 1988. The events of the year are either well-known or a part of documented history by most people, but what caught my attention were the stories of some of these athletes. They are remembered for their success on the basketball court, but most people have never heard about their backgrounds.
Consider Sherron Collins, the outstanding point guard that led the Jayhawks throughout their quest for a national championship and who guided the team to victory during the final game against the great team from Memphis. "At Kansas," Collins said, "I've turned into a different person." Why did he say that?
Sherron Collins came to Kansas out of the drug-infested streets of Chicago. Instead of being in jail like his gangbanger father for selling drugs, Collins went to Kansas to play basketball and to learn teamwork under one of basketball's greatest coaches, Bill Self. But he remembered during this time his friend Cedrick who was hit in the head by a drive-by bullet and died just 50 feet from his front porch, or watching men slicing a tattoo off the chest of a rival gang member, or running to hide when a suburban pulled up and started shooting everyone in sight. And, then upon arriving at Kansas, he had to undergo the trauma of holding his stillborn son in the hospital. Yes, he was devastated, but he had one thing others did not have: He had basketball, and he was good at it.
Consider Sasha Kaun, one of the premier post players in basketball history. Sasha was born in Russia, and experience the death of his father at the age of 13. He was left to care for his mother and did extra chores to just earn enough money to attend school. When he finally got a chance to attend a school in the United States, his mother borrowed $2,000 from a friend and sent him to Florida, where he learned to study and make good grades. I admit that I cried when I read that his mother, Olga, found her way to San Antonio for the championship game to watch her son excel. Later, when Sasha spoke at the rally in Kansas following the game, he thanked his mother and then remarked that she would probably not understand a thing he said because she only spoke Russian. Basketball changed his life.
Consider Darnell Jackson, another of Kansas' talented big men who helped win the national championship. His uncle was beaten to death with a hammer. His cousin and close friend were killed by gang members outside an Oklahoma City nightclub, and his grandmother died after her car was hit by a drunken driver in Las Vegas. When he arrived in Kansas on a dreary day over Christmas break, he didn't need a coach; he needed a friend. And he found one. Later he admitted, "I just started crying (something no one would ever guess from this huge player). I cried and cried until he came over and hugged me. Coach just said, 'Darnell, God is doing this to you for a reason. He's making you a stronger person.'" And, God did. Without Darnell Jackson, the Jayhawks would never have won the championship.
These are just a few of the fantastic stores behind our athletes. One has to wonder just how many of these stories exist out there and how many great coaches have been instrumental in providing the guidance and friendship to make someone great on and off the court. Never minimize the power of sports in the lives of people.
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Robert Box is the former chaplain for the Bella Vista Police Department and is currently the Fire Department chaplain. Opinions expressed are those of the author.