Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, January 14, 2018

YOU SHOOT THE BALL! [Sun 1-1-18]

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter For the Years of Winter…

[I posted this one a few years ago, but it’s relevant today, too, since it is a winter of confusion for IU fans and Chris Collins is bringing his Northwestern team to Assembly Hall this afternoon.]

YOU SHOOT THE BALL!    [Sun 1-1-18]

This has been a winter of discontent for an Indiana University basketball fan. Our young team is unpredictable, beating a juggernaut like Wisconsin on a T and losing to a bunch of biochemistry majors like Northwestern the following Saturday. I did have some good moments watching the NW game, though, because Chris Collins is in his first year as the NW coach. The TV cameras often went to his father, Doug, watching from the stands. It made me remember Doug’s first game at IL State U, when I was the Methodist campus minister there.

In 1969, Dr. Jim Collie announced his retirement as the ILSU basketball coach. I had just read an article in SI about Will Robinson, the great Detroit high school basketball coach. His ambition had been to coach at a university, but no one would hire him. He was black. He was getting close to the end of his career. It looked like his dream would go unfulfilled.

I went to Milt Weisbecker, the ILSU athletics director, and said: Why not hire Will Robinson? He’s won a million state titles and sent a thousand players on to the pros so he’s obviously an excellent coach. He really wants to coach in college, so he’ll be cheaper than most. He’s close to the end of his career, so if it doesn’t work out, he can retire. You’ll help a man achieve his dream. And, the clincher in my mind, think of the recruiting advantages the only black coach in the nation, at a non-black college, will have in recruiting!

Milt was polite. Wrote me a note to thank me, and explain why it wasn’t going to happen. He was not about to hire a high school coach with no college experience to replace a man with a real doctorate and a hundred years of experience. It sort of sounded like, “What if it does NOT work out? I’m not going to take the heat for being the first AD in the country to hire a black coach.”

I suspected that Milt was more open-minded than that, though. So I organized a letter writing campaign to persuade him. It wasn’t much of a campaign. Many were called but few [letters] were written. Only two that I know of.

Something worked, though. Will Robinson was hired.

Some worried that the best basketball recruit ILSU ever had, Doug Collins, would transfer. But he didn’t. I was there for his first game and Coach Robinson’s first game. Early in the game, Collins went for a steal and missed. Out of position as he was, the player he was guarding scored an easy basket. The black coach stood and pointed at the white player. The arena went quiet as a church during a request for volunteers to work on the stewardship drive. Robinson stamped his foot as he pointed at Collins. “You…SHOOT the ball!” he said.

Collins never forgot that lesson. He shot the ball every time it touched his hands during a distinguished college and Olympic and pro career. It’s fun to watch his son point to a Northwestern player and say, “You SHOOT the ball.”

Not everybody on the team is supposed to shoot the ball. Paul of Tarsus reminds us in I Corinthians, 12th chapter, that some are called to pass, [1] others to rebound, still others to take a charge. The point is: you do what the coach tells you to.

John Robert McFarland

1] I love Phil Jackson’s “If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball.”

I’m often a bit confused during the Big Ten [B1G according to their logo] basketball season. Helen and I are IU grads. So is daughter Katie. Granddaughter Brigid graduates from MSU this year. For 8 years before moving to Bloomington, we lived in Iron Mountain, MI, in the home town of Tom Izzo, the MSU coach and attended church with his parents. I went to theology school at Northwestern [Garrett-Evangelical]. I did my doctoral work at Iowa, and grandson Joe was treated for his cancer there and will matriculate there this fall. My good friend and one-time roommate, Walt Wagener, is a WI fan. Our children have four IL degrees among them. I was the pastor of Thad Matta, recent OSU coach, when he was a little boy. I’m always for IU, but when two of the others clash, I’m not sure where my loyalties should be. 

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! We now live in back home again in Indiana, but it feels like the UP here today.

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