Dominator Jesus, a Reflection on the Religion of Basketball
A friend put this image on my Facebook wall the other day. I’m pretty sure she was being ironic. Maybe she remembered that I’d written before what I imagined would one day be the opening salvo in my basketball autobiography “My Life as a Point Guard” — an introductory rumination called “Between Jesus and Wilt Chamberlain.” This image comes from what seems to be a Catholic church affiliated website selling “inspirational gifts, books, and church supplies.” This particular item, called “Jesus Sports Statue Basketball,” is recommended as “a wonderful way to encourage your young athlete on the court and in their faith as well.” It “serves as a contemporary reminder that Jesus is with your child in basketball and in all that they do.”
I don’t want to take the easy potshots at this. To begin with, I attended Catholic school for 12 years, played competitive basketball in a parochial school league, and have precious memories of all-out one-on-one competitions when I was around 10 against a dear, late family friend who was an Irish-American Catholic Priest. 6′-3″ Father Mac, as I knew him, took me seriously as a ball player and I needed that. Moreover, part of the heretical history of basketball (soul saving WASP athletic invention that it was intended to be) — involves the occupation of the game — from almost the very beginning– not only by African-Americans, Jews, and women, but also by working-class Catholic immigrants on the Eastern seaboard. So the connection between Catholicism and basketball runs deep in the grooves of my soul. To connect Jesus and basketball seems obvious to me and not surprising, let alone offensive.
After all, as the website notes, “Jesus is easily the greatest coach of all.” As I wrote in “Between Jesus and Wilt Chamberlain,” I thought of Jesus more as God’s own point guard. But, you know, whatever, the point guard is the coach on the floor anyway, so it’s fair — once you grant the whole basic premise of Christianity: I mean that Jesus is the incarnate son of God — to think of Jesus as a coach, and from there maybe, once again granting that premise, as the greatest coach of all.
But “easily” the greatest coach of all? That “easily” caught my eye. Naturally, any assertion in the who is the greatest coach of all debate will involve at least some implicit comparison. I wonder who the authors of this text considered Jesus to be competing with? Phil Jackson? John Wooden? Mohammed? Abraham? I won’t go further.
I get it, there’s a legitimate discussion to be had here and reasonable people can disagree on the matter. But that “easily” rings to my ear like anxious overstatement, the sort of adverbial exaggeration that a kid might throw into a schoolyard argument. You know, “my dad could easily beat your dad in one-on-one” or “Luke would easily have defeated the Emperor even if Darth Vader hadn’t turned Good and butted in at the end of Episode VI.” You believe it’s true, you want to believe it’s true, but maybe you aren’t exactly certain in your heart of hearts of hearts ands o you amp it up with that “easily.” I like to imagine that the authors of this particular advertising copy were earnestly struggling with their assessment of Jesus’ place in the coaching pantheon, and overcompensated for their doubt with that “easily.”
That mixture of earnest doubt coupled with unearned certainty stirred in my own small Catholic heart as I was growing up, as I was taught by the Dominican sisters that it swirled in the souls of the heroes of my Catholic boyhood. Maybe this statue would have helped.
Though, now that I think about it, I kind of doubt it. As a kid I would’ve found the Jesus in this statue a little intimidating. In fact, the Jesus in this statue would have resembled a little too closely for comfort Wilt Chamberlain toying with mere mortals in the nightmare/fantasies of my youth. Look at the image again. What basketball play is happening here? Is Jesus holding the ball aloft, taunting the children ineffectually leaping to try to gain possession? Or has the child in red just attempted a floater in traffic and has Jesus — easily, without even having to leave his feet — not only rejected the shot but snatched it right out of the air. Either way, Jesus is not smiling. And, as far as I can tell, he’s not coaching either. Jesus — sandal kicks and all — is competing. It doesn’t look like he’s holding anything back and he’e certainly not helping, which was what Jesus stood for to me when I was a child: the quintessential helper (God’s own point guard remember).
Today, of course, I’m grown and largely rearranged the figurines in my spiritual and moral fantasies. Today, I respond very positively to this Jesus who doesn’t care that they’re just little kids and so smaller and weaker and slower than he is. I like this Jesus that is straight ballin’: “Get that weak shit outta here!” or “You want this ball? Get up off the ground and come up here and get it.” I’d love that Jesus to choose me first in a pickup game. And I would totally — easily — choose him over almost any other player I can think of. In fact not only would I want him on my team, but I want the statue. What’s more, I want to have been the kind of kid that could’ve seen this statue in this way and wanted it then. It would’ve saved me some troublesome moments to have Dominator Jesus with me in basketball and in all that I did.