Back in my 20s, when dinosaurs roamed the land, I coached basketball in an inner-city league in Nashville, Tennessee. Inspired by “The White Shadow” television show at the time, the teenagers on my team named themselves the Shadows because I was the only white coach in the league.
We lost every game that season. Despite the fact that we had a standout team captain who worked the post with great skill, a guy we all called J.C., we just couldn’t pull off a single win.
Of course, we didn’t lose because I was white. Maybe “white guys can’t jump,” as the old movie suggests, but clearly other white guys can coach. I was, however, ill-prepared to coach this team. My basketball career had consisted of backyard play as a kid and some intramural games in college, so I was seriously under-qualified for the urban style of ball our youth league offered. But I was asked to coach the team so I did, and the kids liked me and I liked them—and it didn’t hurt that I had the keys to a church bus to get us around to the games.
Despite our losing season, I came to respect the players on our team, especially J.C., who was a natural born leader. Despite our season-long position in the cellar, just about every player stuck it out to the end. And so did their coach.
In other words, we finished.
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Maybe I learned about the value of finishing from my foster brother, David Driver, who just a few years earlier took nearly six hours to finish a marathon. Even after making a wrong turn, which added extra miles to the mountaintop course he was running, he was determined to finish his first marathon.
Pretty much everyone was gone by the time he crossed the finish line dead last. But I was there, and when I saw the look of fatigue in his face at that moment in which he collapsed in front of me, I was forever impressed with the sheer determination that had kept him going. Most guys would quit when they discovered they’d gone off course; David never did. He just kept running until he finished.
My own athletic career—consisting mostly of a little football and a lot of long-distance running—was by no means outstanding. Occasionally I won something, or was part of a team that came out on top, but those weren’t necessarily my greatest accomplishments.
Mostly, I finished.
In football, I stuck it out through two-a-days, when the heat and humidity of an Arkansas August made the sweat pour from our bodies and the coaches gave us salt pills to keep us from cramping up. At that time in my life, it was the hardest physical challenge I had ever endured, but I got through it.
I didn’t enter the military so I never experienced boot camp, but of course I had friends who did. One friend, while home on leave, told me that in basic training he faced his greatest physical challenge ever. I could see his new pride in his behavior. He was tougher, more disciplined, stronger. We were both still quite young back then, but he’d become a man.
I must admit, there have been times when I didn’t finish what I started. Sometimes I quit, and I’m not proud of those times. I’m proud of the times I finished.
* * *
Sometimes finishing comes too soon.
A couple years after the Shadows finished their season, J.C. was killed in the South Nashville projects where he lived. Seems he was taking up for a friend over something or another and someone pulled a gun and shot him.
The world lost a lot of potential that day. If he’d been allowed to finish out his life, I think he would have made a big difference in this world. He was a natural born leader. You could see it in his game.
My brother David Driver passed in his 40s, from a bad liver. He died on an operating table, still determined to live another day. He was no quitter. He showed our family what a great effort, against even greater odds, looks like. He touched our hearts and inspired our spirit.
Sometimes losing is unavoidable, and we can only give it our best shot—and finish, one way or the other.
The Japanese have a saying: Fall down six times, get up seven. That sounds like winning to me.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at email@example.com.