What’s something you used to love to play as a kid? Maybe it was cops and robbers, or red rover or maybe even pogs. Or maybe you played a sport like hockey, soccer or baseball. As young children, we’re encouraged to play but gradually, the importance of play is replaced by the priorities and obligations we’re taught we ought to have as adults. Do you still play?
I love basketball. I’ve loved it since I saw Michael Jordan play on TV when I was 8 years old (I immediately asked my dad to put up a net in our driveway). I played a lot when I was a kid – in elementary school, high school, and in other recreational leagues but as I got older, I found that I was playing less and then eventually, not at all. That changed the summer of 2008, when I began meeting with some fellow theatre artists every Monday night from 10pm to midnight. We gathered to play basketball – a game we loved but had somehow become estranged from. We came as individuals with very different things happening in our lives: dealing with a broken heart, falling in love, becoming a parent, wanting to be one of the boys and looking for an escape. That summer, Monday night basketball became a sacred ceremony. We experienced communion with each other and with ourselves. We reawakened the child in each of us. We reconnected with a sense of play, the value of competition and were reminded of the camaraderie of being on a team. One night, the skies opened up and it poured but instead of looking for cover, each of us stayed on the court – slipping, falling, and soaked to our socks – because we didn’t want to let that feeling go. We were family. We went on a journey from being isolated individuals to being part of a supportive community.
Sports impart valuable life lessons; lessons about facing your fears, the importance of work ethic, perseverance and teamwork. Each time I play basketball, I remember a lesson learned: when I dribble, I remember that I have to risk losing control to move forward; when I pass, I remember to trust in others; when I shoot, I remember that I have to risk failing to succeed; and when I rebound, I remember to try again after a failure.
These lessons have served me in many areas of my life. But sport is about more than an individual story. It’s about our collective story. We participate in and watch sports for the same reason we watch theatre – they enable us to re-tell stories that allow us to connect with parts of our own humanity. When we witness an athlete or actor’s story played out in front of us, we project a part of ourselves in their place. Through them, we’re given permission to feel a gauntlet of emotions: sorrow, outrage, hope, ecstasy – emotions central to embodying and living our own humanity.
I’ve realized that sports are not compelling because they’re about heroes and underdogs. They are compelling because they reveal the hero and underdog in each of us. Sports let us create new myths – modern day stories of Jason and the Argonauts and David vs. Goliath – and allow us to place ourselves within them. When you play or watch sport, you become the hero (or underdog) of your own story.
Both sport and theatre are communal events that provide a canvas for us to create stories. These stories give us great comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone. This sense of community is the single greatest benefit of sport. It’s why we created Monday Nights – to remind ourselves that sometimes a ball is all you need to make a stranger a teammate.
Lebron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers is a current example of the playing out of myth in contemporary sport by echoing the Prodigal Son parable from the bible.