Tim Duncan and Plan B

Tim Duncan and Plan B

Even though we’re a long way from San Antonio, a lot of us here in Winston-Salem are celebrating the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA championship won last night. If you’re not a basketball fan, one of the key players in the Spurs’ five championships has been Tim Duncan, who is without question one of the greatest players ever to play the game and the only man to have won titles with the same team in three different decades. Some of us here in Winston started watching Tim play when he was a skinny, unknown kid from the Virgin Islands. Duncan played four years for the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest. (Duncan is one of the last great players to postpone the money of a pro contract in order to play four years and earn his degree.)

Here’s what you may not know, unless you’re a diehard Wake Forest fan. Duncan wasn’t the big man recruit everyone was excited about. Makhtar N’Diaye was a Sengelese player who came to Wake by way of Oak Hill Academy and was considered a top recruit. But before he played a minute for the Deacs he was declared ineligible due to concerns about the recruiting process. He transferred to Michigan and then to UNC. He gained notoriety for his bad behavior on the court. He signed as a free agent, played about 4 games in the NBA and then spent his career playing in Europe.

Tim DuncanThere was a lot of gnashing of teeth by Wake fans when Makhtar left. He was the big man we were counting on. We were stuck with this Tim Duncan fellow, whom only one other US college had seriously recruited. It didn’t take too awfully long before we realized that fate may have given us the better part of that deal. Tim went on the become National Player of the Year and help Wake win its first two ACC championships since the early sixties.

Duncan was the first pick in the 1997 NBA draft, won rookie of the year, two time NBA most valuable player, three time NBA finals MVP and fourteen time all-Star. And, as of last night, help lead the Spurs to their fifth NBA title. He makes news off the court by not making news.

When you put the two careers side by side there is really no comparison. While few knew it at the time, Wake got the better end of the deal all the way around, both on and off the court.

One of the things that is tempting for us to do as human beings is to create stories about our lives. Actually, in telling the story of our lives we find and weave the threads of meaning. But too often we create too quickly, creating stories out of incomplete evidence – or no evidence at all. As soon as something happens in our lives we have to make a judgment that it’s the best thing or the worst. We tell ourselves that because things didn’t go as we’d planned that it’s a disaster.

We create stories about what we’re sure other people are thinking when we actually have no idea what they’re thinking of us – or even IF they’re thinking of us. We think it’s a terrible thing that we’ve lost the best recruit from this class when in fact, we’ve opened the door for one of the greatest players ever.

The next time you’re ready to make a quick judgment and write a sad story of your life, remember a swimmer from the Virgin Islands who was Plan B.
His name is Tim Duncan.

Photo: AP Photo/Alan Marler

The Titanic and Small things

Usually stories about the Titanic focus on big things – the size of the ship, the amount of wealth held by the wealthiest passengers, the large number of lives lost. But in listening to a story on Bob Edwards Weekend I was intrigued by the small things.

The ship nearly had a collision upon leaving Southampton, delaying her by an hour. When she struck the iceberg, she was still running an hour behind. If the lookouts had seen the iceberg 10 seconds earlier, they could have avoided it. If the ship had been going half a knot slower, they would have missed it. Small things.

Those small things added up to a huge event; in this case, a disaster. But it made me think about how much of our lives is composed of small things. The phone call we make – or put off. The book we read – or don’t pick up. The person whom we speak to – or ignore. Sometimes we see the impact of small things but many times we do not. Over and over again I hear from people the stories of how one person’s comment or question or caring made an impact on their lives.

We can approach this truth in one of two ways. We can live in paralyzing fear that one of our small things is going to sink a ship. Or we can live in trust, trusting that as we do the best we know how that we are in fact cooperating with something – or Someone – greater than ourselves. It’s not up to us to figure it all out. It’s only up to us to seek to be faithful in the small moments and trust that at least some of those small moments are changing our lives – or the lives of others – in ways we cannot yet see. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to us.

The other insight  I had from the interview is about the story of the gates being locked so that steerage passengers could not get out and go to the top of the ship. Both major movies about the Titanic have very dramatic scenes of hoards of poor passengers begging to have the gates opened so that they could escape. But it didn’t happen like that.

It was true that gates were locked, but they were locked when the ship left Southampton. Steerage passengers quite often carried with them lice and other infestations as well as communicable diseases. It was the regulation of US Immigration that they be segregated. When the Titanic was damaged, crew members unlocked the gates.

Steerage passengers had two barriers to survival. One was geography. Their rooms were at either end of the ship, meaning they had the farthest to go to reach the top and the lifeboats. The other obstacle was psychological.

The turn of the twentieth century was a time of huge class distinctions. The steerage passengers lived lives in which someone else always told then what to do. When things fell apart, they perished waiting on instructions from their “betters.”

It made me think about how many times we wait for something instead of taking action for our own welfare; for example, someone else giving us permission that it’s okay to do it. Or we don’t take action because of inner beliefs that keep us trapped just as surely as lessons of class and privilege kept those passengers trapped.

What are you waiting on?

All Twisted Up

Sometimes it’s hard to take it all in.

Driving the very familiar road to the beach I noticed a lot of damage in one town. Old homes had trees resting top of them, pulling down gutters and destroying roofs. Other trees were uprooted, still lying in the yards where they’d fallen. I finally realized that the town had been hit by the tornadoes that swept through the eastern part of the state not so long ago.

It’s already been an ugly season for tornados and sometimes it’s hard to know how to take it all in. We’d not had time to take in the devastation in Alabama when a new town is added to the geography of disaster: Joplin, Missouri. Yesterday I heard a woman on NPR saying in a quiet, lost voice, “My husband has Alzheimers and he’s in (a care facility now destroyed.) We don’t know where he is now.”

A friend posts on his Facebook page a link to a site showing picture after picture of the utter devastation in Joplin. (One redeeming picture is the mixture of joy and relief of a young couple as they hold their just-rescued dog.) Over lunch I try to read a Sports Illustrated story  about the Alabama storms but have to stop. I’m in a Subway eating my sandwich and the tears are beginning to fall.

Perhaps instead of spending so much time, energy and money worrying about the end of the world we would do well to invest ourselves in those whose worlds have ended. As I looked at the pictures from Joplin I wondered to myself how one even begins. But the truth is that I know. You start where you are and you pick up one piece… and then the next… and then the next.

It’s what we do when our worlds have ended – whether it’s a natural disaster like a tornado or a private one like a death. It’s what we do when we don’t know what to do next because the worlds we’ve been living in no longer fit us or feed us or seem like life to us. We pick up the next piece. We follow the next thread. And when it seems that there is just too much that’s unknown or too much that’s too tragic we stop and breathe and in our breath allow our hearts to grow just a little bit bigger. For as I read the story and looked at the pictures I wanted to weep for the sadness of it all but also for the grace of it all… People who traveled far away from their homes to search through the wreckage of a stranger’s home. A dog who was willing to work through the hard days sniffing for life. A former football player who found that he could give something back to these people who’d cheered for him, that he could cheer them up just be being there with them.

Sometimes life leaves us all twisted up. But we pick up the next piece. We follow the next thread. And sooner or later we discover that while one life may have ended, a new one has begun.