It was the end of my sophomore year in college and I was leaving the team. The basketball team that I had long admired, adored, venerated, and devoted my blood, sweat and tears to, was no longer going to be a daily part of my life. It had been a 6-year journey and I was empty.
I’ll never forget the date, December 11, 1981. It was the first women’s college basketball game I had ever seen and I was an impressionable 14-year-old girl. My high school basketball coaches took me to see their alma mater, Cal Poly Pomona, play San Diego State University. Cal Poly won, not only that night, but they went on to win their first NCAA Division II National Championship that year. From that very first game, I was hooked. I was determined that I was going to be a Cal Poly Pomona Bronco and play for one of the most successful coaches in women’s basketball, Darlene May.
It’s worth noting that in 1981 I was 4’11” and about 88 pounds soaking wet. I was playing for a tiny, private high school with 250 total students, portable buildings for classrooms, and no gymnasium. And, I had only been playing basketball for about two years. Yet none of these facts deterred me. There was nothing I wanted more in life than to play for Cal Poly Pomona.
By my senior year in high school, I had grown to a towering 5’0″. (Although I think my coach was generous enough to put 5’1″ in the program for our home games.) My skills had improved over four years, but sadly, I was not on anyone’s scouting list, much less Coach May’s. Still, undaunted, I pursued my dream, got accepted to Cal Poly and signed up for Coach May’s basketball activity class that first Fall. At least I could be close to her and maybe, just maybe, she would see my skill and show some interest.
It was after one of those first basketball classes that Coach May approached me. She knew who I was, not because of my basketball skills, but because she knew my coaches and she had seen me in the stands for many of her team’s home games.
“So Chris,” she said. “I’m looking for a Team Manager. Are you interested?”
I don’t know how successful I was at playing it cool. I’m sure the look on my face gave away my utter shock and elation. Inside I was ready to pass out. I really have no recollection of the rest of our conversation but I’m pretty sure it included the words, “Yes, please! When do I start?”
In just a couple of weeks I was setting up the gym before practice, participating with the players in every drill, occupying my own locker in the Team Room, and once the season started, I was sitting on the bench for every game. I knew every offense and defense and I would stand in for players during practice when needed. It was my job to anticipate the needs of the players and coaching staff and I loved every opportunity I had to serve them. That first year our team won another NCAA National Championship and I had the great privilege of cutting down the net along with the rest of the team. It was quite nearly a dream come true.
My sophomore year began as promising as the year before. I had learned a lot my freshman year and I was confident in my role as Team Manager. The team dynamics had changed some. A few star players had graduated, a new coach was added to the staff, and we had a few new players. However, in those early weeks the make-up of the team seemed to change daily. One athlete left college to get married. Another blew out her knee during conditioning. Two athletes were on academic probation and unable to practice until their grades improved. Each day seemed to bring more bad news. Then I heard the coach say something that quickly got my attention.
“I’m just going to have to put Chris on the team.”
My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. Was she serious? She said it within earshot of me and she didn’t seem to be cracking a joke. Was I finally going to wear a green and gold jersey?
A few days went by, then a week and I heard it again. Same words. Same tone. And again, my heart leapt. I thought to myself, Maybe this is it. She said it twice now. Our team is struggling. She’s seen me practice. She knows I know her playbook – at times better than her own players. This has got to be it. And then another week passed.
The same pattern was repeated over and over again during those first 6-8 weeks of the season. And each time I heard those words my hope and my heart soared. When nothing happened, when nothing changed, I was crushed.
Ultimately, it never happened. I came to find out years later that the coaching staff had seriously considered putting me on the team but they knew I would never play. They didn’t want to use me just to pad the roster. They didn’t want to take advantage of me. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I wasn’t good enough to play. I wasn’t tall enough. I wasn’t big enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I wasn’t… enough. And by the end of that second season, even though we returned to the National Championship tournament and were runners up, I was empty.
I made the decision to leave the team. It was heartbreaking. This dream, this passion, this driving force that had been a part of me for six years (more than a quarter of my young life) was no longer going to exist. I was terminating it. I was choosing to walk away from the very thing I loved most. And yet it hardly felt like a choice. If I stayed, I was having to face the fact on a daily basis that I wasn’t valuable enough to ever wear the jersey of a player. If I left, I was leaving the people, the game, the team, and the sense of belonging that I loved more than anything.
In 2 Kings 17 we read of a pivotal moment in the nation of Israel’s history. God has reached the end of His patience with His beloved children. After centuries of warning them that their sin of idolatry would have its consequence, He finally made good on His promise to punish their sin. It’s in this Chapter that the 10 Northern Tribes of Israel were taken into exile by Assyria. Verse 18 says, ” So the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah was left.” (2 Kings 17:18)
The bulk of Chapter 17 (verses 7-23) gives a laundry list of reasons for God’s actions.
- They disregarded the God who redeemed them. (v. 7)
- They made themselves like the nations around them. (v. 8)
- They practiced idolatry in secret and openly. (v. 9-12)
- They rejected God’s warnings through the prophets. (v. 13-15)
- They forsook God and served idols. (v. 16-23)
And ultimately, God did what He said He would always do, He brought judgment upon them.
There are some powerful words in verse 15. The New International Version translates it this way, “They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.” (2 Kings 17:15) Biblical commentator Russell H. Dilday says, “The original is more accurate at this point: ‘They worshipped emptiness and became empty.’ The word here is hebel meaning ‘air,’ ‘delusion,’ or ‘vanity.’ The idea is that they became like the gods they worshipped. They bowed down to nothingness and became nothing.” (The Communicator’s Commentary – 1, 2 Kings, W Pub Group; 7th Print edition, 1987.)
What a profound truth captured in just a few words. “They worshipped emptiness and became empty.” When I think of the people of the Old Testament bowing down to images carved out of wood, or stone, or forged metal I scratch my head. How on earth did they expect to receive anything from these “things,” these inanimate objects that have no real worth or value? What did they think those things would do for them? What kind of low self-worth did they have, to expect a rock from their back yard to meet their needs?
Then the Lord reminds me of my own foolish, human heart. I may not have been worshipping a rock, a piece of wood, or a golden calf like the nation of Israel once did, but I was worshipping something just as empty when it came to wanting to play college basketball. While I don’t believe there is anything wrong with setting and pursuing goals, even lofty ones, it becomes a problem when we lose sight of our true identity. That’s what I did. I believed that my identity, the very core of who I was, was an athlete; not just any athlete, a college athlete; and not just any college athlete, a Cal Poly Pomona college athlete. I had placed all my worth in the attainment of a worthless idol. And when I didn’t attain it, when I realized I didn’t measure up, I was left empty.
Like the nation of Israel I was forced to leave what I loved, forced to see the emptiness to which I had been clinging for so many years.
- I had disregarded the blessing of what God had done for me by even giving me the opportunity to be Team Manager.
- I was comparing myself to the others on my team and desperately wanting to be like them.
- I was hiding my true ambitions in my heart and harboring heartache over the times I felt passed over.
- I did not see my true identity as a believer and follower of Jesus.
- I made basketball the most important thing in my life.
I had made the same mistakes as Israel did and I left the team as empty as they were when they left their homeland.
Thank God we have a God who is patient and long-suffering, One who allows us to experience heartache and rude awakenings so that we can turn and come back to Him. I had based my worth on an empty idol that would have never filled me up even if I had attained it. I felt worthless, devalued, like I wasn’t enough. And I gave that power, the power to determine my worth, to what may as well have been a rock from my backyard. I turned becoming a Cal Poly Pomona college athlete into an idol. There was nothing wrong with Cal Poly, the coaching staff, or being an athlete. What was wrong was the way I saw those things, the position and authority I gave them in my life. I was worshipping emptiness and I became like the god I was serving… empty.
It’s not uncommon to hear in our culture these days the phrase, “I am enough.” I’m not a big fan of that phrase because it is used outside the context that I believe it must have in order to be true.
My value, my worth, my “enough-ness” is because I am loved by the God of the universe. It is not because of an inherent quality that I possess independent of Him. It is because I have a God who loved me enough to send His one and only Son to die a horrific death so that I didn’t have to pay that price myself. In the midst of my emptiness and brokenness, when I had nothing to give Him, when the stench of my wrong-doing reached the throne room of heaven, He still said, “Her too, Son. I want you to die for her too.” It is only by God’s grace that I am “enough.” It is only in Him that I have my meaning, my worth, my purpose, and my identity. Basketball, even the best basketball team in the nation, can never give me that. In fact, nothing in this world can. But God, The God, our Creator, our Heavenly Father, if we worship Him and find our identity in Him we will never come up empty.
I am happy to say that after more than 30 years I’ve had the great privilege of returning to Cal Poly Pomona to support and cheer on the women’s basketball team. God has brought me back but now I get to show them His love, His kindness, and the value that He sees in each one of those young women and their coaches. It is such a blessing to me to once again be a part of something that was once so important to me, but this time, from a place of a secure identity in the only God of any worth.
Lord, I thank you for your patience. Thank you for the love you have shown this world by sending your Son, Jesus, to die for us, to take the blame and punishment for our sin so that our relationship with you can be restored. We are not deserving of that, Lord, but because of it we have worth and are called your sons and daughters. May we never lose sight of who we are in You. May we never be distracted by the many empty and worthless idols in our world. And please bless the Cal Poly Pomona Broncos, Lord! In your Son’s most precious name, amen.