On Basketball


In the Name of Allah, the extremely Merciful at this very moment, and the extremely Merciful at all times.

With the Name of Allah, the extremely Merciful at this very moment, and the extremely Merciful at all times.

Abu Hurayrah (ra) narrates in Sahih Bukhari (Volume 8, Book 73, Number 135):

Allah’s Apostle said: “The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.”

The point of basketball is to put the ball in the hoop, and whoever does it the most wins.  Yet, beyond this simple premise, there is underlying complexity that might forever be obscure to those who don’t play or watch the game.  What’s the point of watching 10 people run around trying to put a ball in a hoop anyway?

It’s a simple game, yet the influence basketball has had in my life has been tremendous.  It is on the court that I made friends, built rivalries, stopped fights, been in fights, hustled the oblivious, made a name for myself, got injured, spent my happiest days, spent my saddest days, became a leader, and became a follower.   At 10 years old, with my strict regimen of making 200 shots before going in the house, I became dehydrated and had to go to the hospital for fluids.  All this, and I didn’t even play high school ball.

But perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in basketball is what it means to be honorable.

Putting on a show

Basketball for the most part is a showman’s sport.  There is not much that I am aware of that is more thrilling than dribbling the ball in front of an opponent and making him guess, making a move, and scoring the ball.  If that “move” was a crossover, pump fake, or dunk then it’s all the more exciting.  If the defender falls or looks bad when you execute the move, then you’ve made a name for yourself.  If you don’t believe me, watch this sequence.

One might think that for the showman, basketball is purely an offensive sport.  However, the same opportunity to one up another player is at the disposal of the defender.  If the defender blocks your shot, picks your pocket, or defends you to go 0-10, then the laughs on you.

This one-on-one, “who can one up the other,” mentality, is precisely the appeal of the sport, and unfortunately, what also leads to the anger and fighting that has become commonplace on the court.  One expects it because competitive sports like basketball force men to defend their “honor” if they get embarrassed.  That’s why tall people need to call foul if a short guy like me blocks their shot- even if it was all-ball.  That’s why the defender needs to call a travel on you when you make a beautiful move to the basket past him.  And that’s why people feel the need to fight when the opponent has made 7 straight buckets on them and gives them the look of “you can’t stick me.”

Fighting in a basketball game- psychologically speaking- is a form of regression.  A person has no way of showing his frustration when he is not performing better than the other player except to throw a temper tantrum.  This holds especially true when you have a short fuse.  But when you’re a short fused 35 year old, a temper tantrum means swinging your fists around hoping to hit another person.

The fallacy however, is that one has to defend his “ honor” either by showing up another person with a spectacular move or becoming angry and physically overpowering a person who is better than him. It’s not about “defending” your honor but rather, being honorable.

There will always be someone better at what we think we do best

Honor on the court

If the basketball skills between you and another person are evident, then an honorable act would be to tone down on the firepower and allow the other to play at a competitive pace with you.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you to lose to them, I’m telling you to keep it interesting, and then win the game in the end… ;).  This way, we keep our competitive edge, practice some moves or shots we don’t ordinarily take in games, and at the same time don’t make the guy we’re playing against look bad- or worse- angry and try to start something with us.

At the same time, a fact of life is that whenever we think we’re the best at something, there will always be someone better than us.  So when we play against people who are much better than us and showing us up, what do we do?  Fighting about it or cheating isn’t honorable.  Honor would be acknowledging that the other person played better and that we have work to do.  We don’t even have to say it aloud to them to internalize the lesson.  Instead of trying to make up how he traveled or carried when he got past you, reflect on how he beat you with a quick first step, and how you can work on your first step.  When a person pops you up in the air on a pump fake, reflect on how you can add that to your post game.  Or simply work on your defense.  This way, we keep our competitive edge, learn some new moves or shots to improve our game, and at the same time keep our honor by not becoming angry or trying to start a fight.

But if you’re standing on the same footing with another player or rising to the challenge as an underdog; then by all means bring out the best- fierce competition is one of the beauties of basketball.

We must remember that the line between confidence and arrogance in basketball is very thin.  So if it happens that someone falls when you cross them up, don’t rub it in their face- help them up.

Similarly, the line between competitiveness and frustration in basketball is also very thin.  So if it happens that you got crushed in a matchup, take the loss as it is.  Identify weak areas in your game and improve them.

Conclusion

Its natural to feel angry, especially if you’re competitive and getting beat in a sport you love and practice for hours on end.  I’m reminding myself and you to channel that anger into something positive.  So the next time we feel angry and feel the need to knock someone out, take a step back and remember that the same reasons you love the game are the same reasons he loves the game.  Your honor isn’t based on whether you can win at a game of basketball; your honor is secure in your relationship with Allah.  And if you get tricked into thinking you need to defend your honor on the court, remember that true strength is how the Prophet (saw) described it, not how society does.

For more- Who are the people of Taqwa?

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