Thursday, March 26, 2009

Play Like Champions

Yesterday I watched at Williams Arena the second half of the New Prague/Mankato West state tournament boys basketball game. It was an exciting game—New Prague was ahead at half time, but couldn’t get its offense going in the second half. They ended up losing to West—who is ranked #1 in class 3A—by 12 points.

The game meant more than the final score because New Prague had been coached by Jeff Gravon, one of my best childhood friends. Jeff died of cancer in January. I journeyed with Jeff during his fight—and it was a fight for Jeff—with cancer. I went to some of his doctor’s visits, talked frequently on the phone with him, and sat with him as he had drugs put into his system. The night he died I was called over to the hospital and sat with his family during those awful early morning hours. I then officiated at his two funeral services.

John Millea of the Star Tribune wrote two beautiful articles about Jeff and the New Prague team, one the week after he passed away and then another one in today’s paper. The second article can be found at:

As I shared in my funeral sermon Jeff was not a complicated man. He cared about two things in life: 1) his family and 2) coaching. He rarely outwardly shared his inner emotions, but he would have been very happy yesterday coaching at the State Tournament. All that was most important to him were present at Williams Arena—his two younger kids were cheering in the stands and he was coaching “his boys.”

Today he would be dying inside—as all competitive coaches would be after losing in the State Tournament. He would have been analyzing every play, wondering what he could have done differently, thinking about the lost opportunities. But after the sting of that loss went away—and this wouldn’t have happened for a while—Jeff would have been very proud of his team.

New Prague had a wonderful Boys basketball season. The New Prague team was successful in athletics, but I can’t help but think how the players grew to be men. I’ve hardly been more impressed with a group of teenagers than I was at the funeral in New Prague for Jeff. Three of the players from the team stood up and with composure talked about the qualities that Jeff had passed onto them. Speaking with such poise in that situation was more difficult than having to shoot two free throws in the final five seconds with your team down by one.

A few nights before Jeff died, he left the New Prague hospital and coached his final game. At a player’s party afterwards he told his team that they had played like champions. That became the motto for the New Prague season. Almost everyone in the New Prague section yesterday was wearing a T-shirt that had “Play Like Champions” on the front of the shirt.

Our culture celebrates winners. There is a movement within athletics and our culture that argues that we have watered down the achievement of winning. Just the fact that the Minnesota High School Basketball Tournament has four classes is an example of this thinking.

I go back and forth in my own mind about this argument. What I do know and what I think most of us could agree upon is winning goes far beyond achieving the most points in an athletic contest.

In the funeral sermon I shared about Jeff I said that he loved to call me and talk about this players—he would call them “his boys.” Today I think we can call the New Prague basketball players, “his men.” When athletics helps boys become men, then we all are winners.

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