One month before the Pitman High School Boys Basketball team was to begin their season, I decided to invite them to a retreat at the Discovery House, in Mullica Township New Jersey. I had been coaching these young men for the fall basketball season and was getting ready to turn them over to their head coach for the 2013-2014 basketball season. It was my hope that they had grown as teammates, both as players and as people. After winning every game in the fall by an average of 20 points, I was pretty certain they were all ready to play basketball. I was not as convinced that they were ready to go into battle – as the highly touted team with the proverbial red X on their back – as a unified and bonded group of young men.
With a blend of players from out of town (tuition paying) and local players, along with four college level players and several talented two sport athletes, chemistry and unified strength was not a given. Some of the players had been together since grammar school, some for three years as JV-Varsity players, and some were new to the team, having arrived during their junior or senior year to Pitman High School.
The team had a lot in common; a passion for winning, a love for the game of basketball, and a knack for scoring. The question remained – did they have the intangible qualities that defined successful teams?
I took this concern to Monsignor Mike Mannion (aka Father Mike). As a sports enthusiast and a gifted spiritual advisor, he generously offered to host the entire team, including managers and coaches for a day at the Discovery Retreat House.
Father Mike has over 35 years of experience in leading retreats and inspiring self-leadership and self-discovery for people of all ages, backgrounds, and challenges. He is gentle, wise, inspirational and faithful – and very creative and funny at times, too.
One Sunday in October, the team drove a caravan of cars through the rural towns and into the remote but beautiful land of the blueberry capital of the United States. As Father Mike welcomed our team to the Discovery House, the players had a sense that they were in for a good day. Any day that starts with a huge hoagie tray, cookies, chips and soda at a kitchen table that sat 20 people, is a good day for this group!
As soon as the team finished eating, Father Mike made a casual announcement: The firewood that was delivered to the house was mistakenly left in the front yard and needed to be moved to the backyard before we could get started on our retreat. It was due to rain that night, and he made it clear that the whole 4 cords of wood needed to be under a tarp to stay dry. He asked if the boys could lend a hand and get it done within 1 hour. Having been well fed, the boys enthusiastically filed out of the kitchen. Father Mike let them know that there were two wheelbarrows in the yard, one that worked and one with a flat tire. This casual comment became more meaningful as time went on…
The boys approached the pile of wood confidently as I stood back for a moment and observed the actions of the team. Within minutes, I saw our senior captain, a four year varsity player, jump in. he was determined to make a big impact on the wood, just as he approaches basketball games where he comes out determined, looking to score early. He grabbed as much wood as he could carry in his arms and led some players to the backyard.
I also observed our newcomer, a senior power forward who we referred to as the clean-up guy. He is always mixing it up on the court, getting the rebounds, attacking with aggression first, worrying about fouls second. Our power forward jumped on top of the new pile of wood and began cleaning up everyone’s misses as the players hoisted the wood onto the growing pile. It was like watching his job on the boards as a rebounder.
Next I saw our senior point guard, also a newcomer to the team, begin pointing and directing traffic. At 18, he was a year older than everyone, and having come to us from the acclaimed St. Anthony’s basketball program, he had instant clout. We often referred to him as “grandpa” – because he had his license, was very mature, and provided a lot of advice, sage or otherwise. He was immediately active, giving commands on how to utilize the wheelbarrow and taking the lead to push it once it was full of wood. Many of the players fell into line under his lead. They did what he asked and played their roles – much like they do on the court.
My eyes then caught site of our 6th man. He was picking up the wood that fell out of the wheelbarrow, then asking if he could “sub in” and push the wheelbarrow for a while. Shortly after, I saw him climb up and relieve our power forward so he could get some water. Off to the side I watched as our managers worked to fix the broken wheelbarrow. Along with them were our JV players, performing just as they play – hoping to make a difference.
Lastly, I watched our 6’9” starting center, an underclassman, yet the leading scorer and rebounder on the team. Just like in a game, I saw him step back, observe the situation, make a few calculated moves, and then get to work. He was used to playing the whole game without a sub, and usually took the last shot if the game was on the line. Steady and not flashy, he realized that everyone was able to do their job, but it would be slow and tedious with one wheelbarrow. The second wheelbarrow was needed – and could not be fixed.
I watched as he and a few teammates loaded the broken wheelbarrow, and then hoisted it up in his arms. He carried it, across to the back yard. He used his advantage of size and strength, while the others supported him with a lot of encouragement.
Our power forward was still working on the new pile of wood, standing on top and accepting logs that fit into a strong square shape. Our point guard was still directing traffic and handing off assists as his teammates delivered the wood to the top of the pile. Our senior captain was still going strong, leading his team, one log at a time. Our 6th man was still subbing in as needed – offering to help carry the broken wheelbarrow or push the working wheelbarrow as needed.
As the final log was perched on top, our center, always strong at the end of games, climbed on top of the wood. As everyone collapsed on the grass exhausted, he finally pulled the large tarp up and over the pile. Victory. The job was finished – and unbeknownst to the team, the retreat had started an hour ago.
Roles defined and accepted on the basketball court were consistently revealed in this team activity of moving firewood. It was amazing to watch as the players leaned on each other, communicated with each other, played to their strengths, picked up for each other’s weaknesses, and depended on each other as a unified group to complete a difficult and challenging task. They faced mechanical challenges and had to figure out a way to get it done as a team. They confronted their own weaknesses and accepted their individual limitations. No one could have done the job alone. At times, it seemed like they could not do it as a team, either. However, by working together and staying focused, they successfully moved four cords of heavy, prickly firewood into a perfect square within 1 hour – for a little man with a huge heart who simply wanted to help the team bond and grow.