by Rick Telander
It’s hard to imagine a world without play. And if you can imagine such a world, it’s not fun to dwell on the image.
Years ago I wrote a book about an inner-city asphalt park in Brooklyn, New York, and the kids and young adults who hung out there during the summer. There were some bad times, but most times were good. Playing basketball held the teenaged community together; the little kids dribbled balls and dreamed of the future; the older men shot and remembered the past. I titled the book Heaven Is a Playground. And I called it that because I think it’s true. I think the freedom to play is the greatest gift people have.
One of the best things about the United States is how much sports and play are an integral part of everyday life in American communities and neighborhoods. On any Saturday afternoon, people of widely differing backgrounds, professions and religions can be found on the playing fields and in the gymnasiums of their local schools and community centers, playing soccer, American football, basketball, baseball and other sports, while their families cheer on the sidelines. Playing sports has long been one of the ways in which Americans put aside their differences and bond as individuals — player to player — and as communities.
If you have ever seen the way a local team can capture the imagination and passion of a community and help everyone from players to parents to observers feel lifted up, you have seen something beautiful, indeed.
The New Orleans Saints are a large, professional team, but the same type of bonding and uplifting goes on regularly in large and small towns and schools across the United States. Grammar school kids in Little League baseball play all over the nation, and invariably there will be an unlikely team that starts winning games, then tournaments, and — before the moms and dads and siblings know it — is on its way to baseball’s Little League World Series.
The boy from four houses down the street from where I live in suburban Chicago — a gangly, goofy kid who stood at the school bus stop with my kids — has now won two gold medals and a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is a favorite to win more medals at the 2012 London Games. His name is Matt Grevers and when he was swimming in high school, the entire swim team went with him to an Illinois state championship. Without his opportunity to swim — and the support he received from fellow teammates and the rest of our community — Matt would have been just a lanky guy with gigantic feet instead of the Olympic athlete and leader he became.
The ripple benefit of community sports and the pursuit of excellence in sports is hard to overstate. The same can be said of the life lessons that you can learn through sports. In any job, any art, any form of expression, you will get knocked down from time to time. Through sports you learn to rise up time after time, like a spring crop.
But resilience and determination aren’t the only benefits of playing sports. The great basketball player Michael Jordan had a very unusual clause in his contract with the Chicago Bulls. It was called his “joy of the game” clause. It said that, unlike most valuable professional players, he could play basketball for free anytime and anywhere he wanted — just for the joy of playing.
Playing a sport can make anyone feel the same joy as Michael Jordan — whether they can sink a basketball or not. When the rules are followed and the spirit of the game takes hold, players and onlookers alike become as one. And that is how sports transcend differences and strengthen communities.
Rick Telander is the senior sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of numerous sports-related books, including Heaven Is a Playground.