It was pick-up basketball as it was meant to be played. We were dressed in scraggly shorts and shirts that Goodwill wouldn’t want anything to do with. And our play was as ragged as our clothes. But we were having a good time, getting a workout, and blowing off some steam.
Craig was one of the players. He wasn’t a regular—more of a semi-regular. He walked with a bit of a limp that was more pronounced when he ran. He had some coordination issues as well—I’m not sure if it was something congenital or the result of an accident. But he was a scrappy player, and it wasn’t a big deal—once you stepped out on to the court you were just a basketball player. You might be tall, short, fast, slow, or run with a limp—but you were a player.
We were getting near the end of the game. Play was intense, guys were tired, and tempers were short. Craig had the ball in the paint and went up for a shot. It was summarily blocked, and he went to the floor.
That’s when things went south.
One of the guys (I can’t remember if he was on Craig’s team or not), got up in the face of the person who had blocked Craig’s shot. He screamed, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU CAN’T BLOCK CRAIG’S SHOT! HE CAN’T DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT!
It got very quiet in the gym. No one knew exactly what to say. The guy who had gone off meant well, but I think most of us understood that while his intent was good, his words were not. Getting his shot blocked was Craig’s badge of belonging and his words had taken that away from him.
Someone helped Craig up, we resumed play and finished the game. I don’t remember who won or lost. I don’t remember anything about the game other than the incident with Craig. I’ll never forget that.
Michael Gershon speaks of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Craig stepped on the court with one expectation—to be treated like a basketball player and we hadn’t done that.
I think about that today and wonder if the lesson we learned in the gym that day isn’t needed now more than ever. We failed Craig because we allowed him to be treated differently and with reduced expectations. I wonder if this isn’t exactly what happens when we look at people and the first thing we see is all of the ways they are different from us. Immediately our expectations lower.
What if we went back to looking at people as people before we or anyone else tried to categorize them? What if we saw them as someone who has stepped on to the court of life like us—and we treated them with the understanding and expectation that we are all in this together?
It might just make a difference.