Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
I arrive early. Leaning into a March wind and spitting rain, I scurry to the back of the building where I let myself in. Traces of varnished oak and perspiration greet me. I walk to the sideline, set down my bag and put on my court shoes. One woman has arrived ahead of me. She stands still, focuses and lets fly a ball. Swish.
We are eight or so women who gather twice a week to shoot hoops in a small YMCA gym on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. We seniors, between our late 50s and mid-70s, have been gathering for nearly 10 years. Many players have come and gone. We’ve persisted through ankle twists, arthritic knees, broken fingers and COVID-19. None of us played high school or college ball. We are not great players and never will be, but we’ve improved.
The professional women’s team in our region is the Seattle Storm. We call ourselves The Drizzle. For us, it is not about performance. It is about bliss.
Basketball was invented by James Naismith, a Canadian American physical education instructor, gifted athlete and Presbyterian minister. As a young seminarian and rugby player, Naismith had been torn between his faith and his love of sports. Many of his fellow students believed rough physical competition was discordant with Christian faith and prayed he would find his way. During his senior year, he realized he didn’t need to choose. He could help young people through athletics, something he and others called “muscular Christianity.”
Instead of going to work as a pastor, he trained to be a youth leader and served on the faculty at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachu-setts. In December 1891, a blizzard hit, and students were cooped up for days, roughhousing in the halls. Naismith attached peach baskets 10 feet high on opposite walls of the gym, divided the boys into two teams and encouraged them to try to lob a soft soccer ball into the opposing team’s basket. The first game was chaotic, resulting in black eyes, a dislocated shoulder and one boy knocked out. Naismith needed to add more rules, and by 1893 he had refined the game, emphasizing cooperation, fairness and limited physical contact, and the YMCA began promoting the game around the world.
Naismith achieved international fame for the invention of basketball and remained deeply religious. He was interested neither in self-promotion — refusing to name the game for himself — nor in the glory of competitive sports. According to his grandson, “he had this strange idea that competitive sports would be more helpful to young people than talking and preaching to them” and sought to “develop the whole person — mind, body, and spirit” in the gym.
Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer, expounds on this idea. “Every human pleasure is meant to be a stepping-stone to . . . discovering some new aspect of God. Only when that stepping-stone becomes an end in itself — that is, when we overidentify with it — does it distort the divine intention. Everything in the universe is meant to be a reminder of God’s presence.”
More women trickle into the gym. One is accompanied by her neighbor, a woman struggling with memory loss who finds joy in our delight. Soon the thump of balls on the wood floor echoes off the walls, followed by the clunk of rubber against rim and the whoosh of net. We dribble the length of the court to warm up our muscles, iron out the week’s kinks. We chat about work, our kids and grandkids, church activities, the news about town. We joke, complain about aches, commiserate. We shoot around the hoop for a quarter of an hour before we divide into two teams and begin a light game of three-on-three. We play for fun. We don’t keep score.
Joanna remembers crocheting while watching her daughter play high school basketball 10 years ago. Noticing that her stitches were getting tighter and tighter, she confided to a friend that she needed to find something to help her relax — something joyful. Robin suggested they start playing basketball. Though she knew little about the sport, she assumed it wasn’t too late to learn. They each called a few friends and met that week on an outdoor court.
When I joined the group, I hadn’t played basketball for decades. I’d learned the rules of the game playing in grade school on Catholic Youth Organization teams that emphasized physical, social and spiritual development. Sue had only played in PE class or with family. Anna grew up watching her brothers play but didn’t have much chance to join in. Jean remembers playing in the seventh and eighth grades when “girls’ rules” had six on a team playing half court, either defense or offense, not both, and limited to three dribbles before passing. Anything more was thought to be too strenuous. When Diane, who is now 74, was young, she had no girls’ team to join. That was before the passage of Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibited discrimination due to sex in any program receiving federal funding. It meant that girls, too, had the right play organized basketball.
Yet women, despite repeated censure, had embraced the game from its beginning. In 1971 the five-player, full-court game was officially adopted for women, and in 1976 women’s basketball became an Olympic sport.
Collegiate and professional basketball are now big business, and Naismith would likely be dismayed at the proliferation of a high-cost, high-pressure youth sport culture. Still, many programs have remained true to his philosophy.
In October 2016, the Pontifical Council for Culture sponsored the first Global Conference on Faith and Sport, titled “Sport at the Service of Humanity.” The purpose was to unite people of every faith, especially the marginalized and disadvantaged, “to develop their life skills, character, values and enjoyment of life itself, through sport.”
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, then the council’s president, commented on the challenge to live with respect and understanding of each other’s traditions and values, to foster healthier lives and more integrated communities. He added that sport provides the opportunity for people “to open up to the trials of life . . . meeting opponents on a fair playing field while striving to be the best they can be, in some sense aiming for the Transcendent.”
After a busy or stressful week, I am grateful to enter another zone, shrug off worries and play in the gym. The game is deceptively simple. Lob an orange orb into a circle — a center, a bullseye, a holder of things. I enjoy the beauty of a simple task. It is a ritual activity, like many sports. Shoot, miss, rebound, dribble, shoot, score. Failure and renewal, again and again. I try to not take myself too seriously, to laugh at my mistakes. I will always be a beginner at this game.
When I was playing CYO basketball in the early 1970s, I would lie in bed the night before a game and pray that I might score some points, that I wouldn’t foul out and, if it wasn’t too much to ask, Lord, that my team win.
These days when I lie in bed on a Friday night, I say a prayer of gratitude. I am thankful for this heart that pumps blood from head to toe, for lungs that carry oxygen, for hips and legs that can still swivel and jump, for knees and ankles that still support them, for arms with enough muscle to throw a sphere through the air and stretch for a rebound. For eyes that can still focus on that circle of a hoop and follow a shot.
Playing basketball is all the more dear to me now, because I know things change. One day, age, injury or illness will force me to abandon this exercise and challenge me to develop new pursuits for pleasure, health and fulfillment.
Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, writes, “In us is the presence of God on Earth.” Whether intentionality in movement can be considered a manifestation of prayer — I think of surfing, yoga, hiking, paragliding, swimming . . . or lofting a basketball through the air on a parabolic arc — I am not certain. What I know is that on Saturday mornings we play. We jump and run and shout and celebrate being alive.
Maybe transformation does not always come in a deluge. Maybe it’s more like a drizzle — a mist of small joys that over time open our hearts and make us bigger, more empathetic, more grateful, more generous, more holy.
Teresa H. Janssen played volleyball at Gonzaga University in the late 1970s. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where she writes and still enjoys weekly pick-up basketball. Her debut novel, The Ways of Water, inspired by family lore, is forthcoming in November 2023.