It felt like the whole season was on the line. A few nights ago I joined a gathering of DePaul faithful at Kelly’s Pub to watch our Blue Demons take on perennial power Duke on their home court in the 2nd round of the Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. As these things go, our group was rather modest in size – we were perhaps 20 or so faculty and staff, alums and former athletes congregated at tables and bellied up to the bar of this hallowed watering hole under the “L” that has served the DePaul community for more than three generations.
Surrounded by framed pictures of Blue Demons from the past and mindful that our revered coach Doug Bruno was himself a player for legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer, an aura of history – of continuity – was subtly in our midst. And with it came a quiet confidence. Those of us with eyes fixed on flat screen TVs knew that the young women charging time and again up and down the floor represented old school values like “team over self,” “hard work pays off” and “fair play above all else.” And we knew it was for those reasons that our team had advanced this far in the tournament. As our women rose to the challenge before them, it was clear that much of value comes from the past and tradition.
As the second half of the game began to wane and DePaul clung to a lead I was struck anew at the talent and athleticism of the women. Lightening passes, muscular rebounds, smart court sense and cool-headed free throws kept the Blue Devils at bay. In the unison cheers and groans of those assembled at Kelly’s as well as in the passionate dissection of each play by barroom coaches during time-outs, there was little difference between this game and one played by two men’s teams. Certainly in pride and desire, the women were claiming that which had been denied to female athletes for so long before Title IX. I was reminded that there is much good that comes with progress and the embrace of change.
DePaul won that hard-fought game against the favored Duke team and now advances to the 3rd round of the NCAA Tournament. And on this, the eve of their date to the Sweet 16, I find myself musing over the long season now drawing to its close…and contemplating the idea of success. With two victories (and counting!) in the Tournament and a sweep of both the Big East regular season and tournament championships it’s next to impossible not to feel pride and satisfaction – even exultation – in our team’s performance this year. And, naturally, our hopes are high that we can claim one more victory against yet another vaunted foe – this time Texas A and M.
But, do these accomplishments make up the essence of a successful season?
I’m afraid that if we focus only on our women’s won/loss record or set our sights solely upon a championship trophy, we’ll miss out on something important: the wisdom to be gained through sport and then applied throughout life. If we fail to see that game last Monday night – or any high profile athletic endeavor – for all the truth they hold out to us then we will cheat ourselves of rewards richer than any victory alone offers.
Success is a team endeavor. Before every basket there has to be a sharp-eyed pass or key defensive play or unselfish assist from others. There must be hours of scrimmaging that require commitment from every player on the team – lots of whom go unheralded – in order for starters to run 20 or 25 or 30 minutes up and down the floor before cheering fans. There must be years of support from families, teachers, coaches, advisors, administrators – and unknown others – before each and every athlete made it to that court in Durham, N.C.
Failure and disappointment are a part of athletics – they are a part of life. But they will not be wasted if we learn from them. If a loss makes us stronger, smarter, resolved to not make the same mistakes, more committed to our goals, more willing to seek help, more humble and compassionate – than it serves an important purpose.
As I prepare to leave for Lincoln, NE to watch in person the Blue Demons take on the Aggies, one more truth about our women’s team makes its presence known to me in a powerful way: I care about them. I care because I admire what they do. I care because we’ve shared moments of laughter or conversation or story-telling in the classroom or around campus or outside the gym. I care because in very simple ways we’ve developed relationships.
And, because of these relationships, I’ll want them to be at their best when they take the floor on Saturday night and I’ll feel a sting that will be somewhat out of proportion to the circumstances if they lose. In the final analysis perhaps that, too, is a life lesson we’re meant to learn: sport can break our hearts. But, then again, so can life.
Yet, we believe that isn’t all. For it is in taking a risk and allowing ourselves to be defeated and broken that we stand the greatest chance of encountering truth and grace and new life.
Tom Judge is a chaplain at DePaul University. Please feel free to leave a comment at the very bottom of this page.