When I was a younger man, early-morning pickup basketball games were a regular part of life. One Saturday, my friend Clark picked me up to go meet some of his friends at a church building in Mesa – about 20 minutes from our neighborhood in Gilbert.
When we arrived, there were already a half-dozen men there shooting around and warming up. It looked like the classic LDS pickup game – shades of the Richards Building at BYU, but with more ankle and knee braces, and less hair on heads.
Clark introduced me around to his friends with little fanfare. I knew my place – I was there to shoot some hoops – but I think Clark and I were the only ones there who didn’t belong to that specific Elder’s Quorum.
After some warmups, we all stopped for a minute to divvy up teams, but first, Clark and a couple guys went to hit the drinking fountain. As we waited, the door opened and in walked yet another stranger.
It was hard to tell the man’s age. He was short and wore a full beard, with straggles of gray in it. His shoulder-length hair was also mixed with some dingy gray streaks. He wore a ratty t-shirt and some baggy shorts, and gave off the vibe of a Forrest Gump at the end of his run.
Yet he held a basketball against his hip, and wore some really nice high tops.
The response of the men was fascinating. One of them, whom I presumed to be the leader, walked over to the newcomer and said. “Hi. Can I help you with something?”
The man scratched his beard and replied, “I just came to play some ball.”
The leader looked him up and down. “Well, we have the court reserved for our regular private group…” (I knew this wasn’t exactly true, because I was there as a stranger.)
“Do you need another?”
“No. We’re good.” (This was also untrue, as we needed one more guy for a complete ten.)
A couple of the other players stepped up with the leader in some sort of show of solidarity. The stranger looked uncomfortable as the reception he was receiving made it crystal clear that he was not welcome to stay.
He didn’t argue, but turned to leave. At that moment a voice rang out:
“Mike! You made it!”
It was my friend Clark, walking back to the group, wiping the water from his chin. He approached the homeless-looking man and gave him a quick hug with the requisite dude slap on the back.
“Hey guys, I want to introduce you to my friend Mike. I invited him to come play – good thing, he gives us even numbers.”
The show of force quickly melted away, and the leader, to his credit, stepped up with hand outstretched and offered a quick apology. “Sorry about that man, when you came in, we didn’t know you and you looked…”
“Like a hobo? I get that a lot.”
Clark started laughing like someone told a hilarious joke. We all looked at him as he explained: “Every year at this time Mike grows out his hair and his beard because he plays Jesus in the Mesa Temple Easter Pageant!”
That broke the ice. Everyone laughed, and within a couple of minutes were busy playing full-tilt basketball. It should be noted that Mike was a really nice guy, an excellent player and he could nail the outside shot. After we finished up and were walking out I heard one of the guys say to his friend, “Man, Jesus could sure hit the three.”
Whenever I think about that experience I feel a twinge of embarrassment and sadness: Embarrassed at the reception our vicarious Jesus received from a group of his priesthood brethren, and a little sadness that I didn’t step up and say something immediately.
It is said that, “With age comes grace.” I hope that my current self would respond differently than my younger self did in that moment. I imagine a group of thirty-something – now fifty something- hoopsters might feel the same way.
Something to ponder.
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:28-30)
PS: Next week is General Conference and Easter Sunday. In lieu of a regular Sunday post, I will be posting my semi-annual thoughts on Conference after each session.
Also: There is a very good possibility that I will be posting some very cool stuff mid-week, so keep your eyes peeled.