by Ben Byrum
Ball is life.
I used to think that.
I started playing church league basketball when I was in third grade. We played our games at the church I attended, Columbus Avenue Baptist. These games were an awesome way for little kids to feel like a pro, complete with each player having their name called out by an official announcer. There were four quarters and a halftime with each quarter only being about four or five minutes long. Our team’s names were always well-known collegiate mascots like the Aggies, Bears, Tarheels, or Wildcats, and one particular season we were able to use NBA team mascots. I played church league all through grade school. When I got into seventh grade, I started playing for my public school. I also played all four years of high school. When I was a freshman in high school the words, “Ball is life,” started to become a popular catchphrase, made popular by a couple of guys who created a website called ballislife.com. My friends and I threw out that phrase all the time. “Ben, do you want to play pick-up this weekend?” My response would be something to the effect of, “Duh, ball is life.” During my sophomore year of high school, my team lost every game we played that season — we went 0-10. The point of playing competitively is to win, but that season we literally didn’t. Still, I continued to play.
I played one year of college at a small Baptist university in Plainview, Texas. Playing basketball in college was something I wasn’t prepared for. There’s a reason they say the game at the college level is 30% talent and 70% mental. Every single day, every single practice was meant to break me and make me quit. I was there to be weeded out of the program. My college team wasn’t all that great — once, we lost to a local high school team during a scrimmage – and our coach knew it. He told us we sucked every chance he had.
One Saturday one of my teammates and I were playing a pick-up game at our college’s rec center. He passed me the ball. I shot a 3-pointer. If I made the shot, we would have won the game. I missed the shot and the other team ended up winning. My teammate proceeded to sprint towards me, get in my face, and cuss me out. I did nothing except stay silent, turn my back on him, and walk out. He followed me off the floor and out into the rec center lobby. His confrontation with me became so bad that the student working at the front desk threatened to call the campus police. This was one of my teammates, and we weren’t even playing a real game; we weren’t even at practice, and he was behaving like this.
Another time in college, however, I was the one who became hotheaded. It was during a long practice one night. Tensions were running high within all of us. We were trying to learn a new play but nobody understood what to do. The coach had grown increasingly frustrated with us, too, making us run an insane amount for not understanding his instructions. At one point, the play finally clicked in a few of our heads, so our coach had us run it against our teammates to create an “in-game” scenario. I was one of the players who understood the play, and when the play started, one of the other guys who said he understood the play ran straight into me, knocking us both to the ground. I picked myself up off the court, grabbed the ball, and threw it at him. I was frustrated that he didn’t know what to do. After that practice, I started to realize that I wanted more out of my life than being a basketball player. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the kind of man that showed himself in practice that night.
A few days later, I walked into my coach’s office with the intention to quit the team. I fully expected him to make every attempt to keep me on the team, but he never did. I will won’t forget what he told me. He said, “Ben, you may think this was a hard decision, but in a year from now, you won’t ever second guess yourself.” He could not have been more right.
I completely quit playing college basketball, withdrew from the university I was playing for, and moved back home to live with my parents until I figured things out. I enrolled into the local community college in my hometown, and all my old friends pushed me to try out for the school’s basketball team. I never did. I had nothing to do with basketball for over a year. Friends would ask me to play pick-up and I would refuse. They would ask me to play in tournaments or intramural games and I’d turn them down. I didn’t watch, touch, hold, shoot, or look at anything to do with basketball after quitting my college team. I did a lot of self-loathing, moping, and doubting. I was going through an identity crisis, and I felt like I was a failure to all my friends and family for giving up such a great opportunity.
Almost two years after I quit, I received a phone call from my brother who was attending Sam Houston State University. He had become involved in a slow-pitch softball prison ministry. He invited me to participate in their next prison ministry outreach, but there was a catch. Instead of playing slow-pitch softball, they were going to play basketball. Immediately I turned him down. I wanted nothing to do with that. He stayed persistent, however. As a Christian, whenever I face struggles, I go to God in prayer and allow Him to help me. I prayed about this prison ministry opportunity, and I remembered the verse from the Bible, Matthew 4:19: “Jesus called out to them, ‘Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!’” That verse wouldn’t get out of my head. The prison ministry opportunity became less about me and more about how I could meet the needs of other people. I decided to join my brother and go to the prison.
The prison we went to was somewhere around Brazoria County. We went through an intense security check, and then we were led into the gym. When we got there, the inmates were already warming up. That is when my nerves kicked in. A flood of men in white jumpsuits filed in. I became nervous and scared. We were told we would be playing against some of the better-behaved inmates. What we weren’t made aware of was that all of the inmates would be coming into the gym to watch us play. Suddenly, that gym became tiny. We eventually got the game started, and after taking my first shot of the game, I was brought back to why I had loved basketball all along. The fears and nerves I had went away rather quickly. We came to an understanding that we were not playing against prisoners and they were not playing against outsiders. We were just men playing basketball.
After the game was over, we were able to interact with all of the inmates, not just the ones who played in the game. The floor was opened for anyone who felt a desire to come and talk with us. I ended up speaking to three men who each told me their stories, what they had done that led them to prison. No longer was there any pressure to be the best player on the court. I was able to get outside of my head and was free to be myself. After playing the game for so many years, I was finally able to have fun.
I eventually finished out my education at the community college, and I transferred to Baylor University. I did not play basketball for the university, but I absolutely played basketball there. I was involved with intramurals, 3-on-3 tournaments hosted by different student associations, and pick-up games with my buddies on the weekends. It felt good to play the game in a carefree mindset. Quitting competitive basketball reshaped the way I play the game in any context – whether in a local city league or in pick-up games on a weekend. It is less intense now. Basketball is now a means of exercise for me, a way to stay active. I look back on my life of playing basketball competitively, and I am most appreciative for the lesson it taught me when I lost every single game my sophomore year: you won’t know how to win until you learn how to lose. This sentiment has helped me define what success means in my personal life and in my career. By losing every game during an official season for a public high school, I know that it is possible to lose what you hold valuable and still bounce back. Losing requires you to display a certain level of grace, but the caveat is so does winning.