Up In a Tree

by Ryan Krzykowski

When I was a little kid who loved sports, the Bad News Bears franchise was a big deal.  We had three movies in the 70’s, and a couple seasons of a TV series (Nickelodeon showed reruns of it in the mid-80’s).  While I didn’t have a lot of clear memories of the Bears and hadn’t watched them for decades, I remember them being part of the youth sports fabric.  When we thought of kids playing baseball, especially if they weren’t playing it especially well, the Bad News Bears came to mind.

A couple weeks back I found myself home on a Friday night looking for something watch with one of my boys, and decided to check out the original Bears movie.  If you’ve seen it, it’s probably been quite a few years and suffice it to say that dialogue for kids in PG-rated movies was written quite a bit differently than it would be nowadays.  But I found myself intrigued by the Bears’ coach, Morris Buttermaker.  A former minor league pitcher, Buttermaker agreed to coach the Bears purely for the money one of their wealthy parents offered him.  He is usually holding a beer at practices and games.  He’s not anywhere close to what we’d hope for from a role model or intentionally transformational coach.  But there’s one scene in particular where Buttermaker absolutely nails it.

Ahmad Abdul Rahim is an outfielder on the Bears, and at their first game he drops or misplays pretty much every ball hit his way.  Afterwards, when Ahmad is nowhere to be found, Buttermaker learns that Ahmad has gone and hid himself in a tree near the ballfields.  While some might be tempted to leave him there, Buttermaker goes to the tree.  He climbs the tree, sits with Ahmad, and offers the perfect encouragement.  Buttermaker talks about Hank Aaron, a hero to Ahmad, and tells a made-up story about all the errors Aaron made as a kid playing sandlot ball.  Two things happened there that are significant: first, Buttermaker went to the tree and got up in it.  He didn’t consider it a waste of time to have his plans interrupted and go looking for a kid in a tree.  Second, he paid attention to Ahmad.  He knew him well enough to know that a story about Hank Aaron was the way to get through to him.

Watching that scene reminded me of another person who climbed a tree and had someone come looking for him.  In chapter 19 of the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus allowing his plans to be interrupted, going to a tree and inviting himself and his entire group of travelers to the home of a man named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus wanted to get a look at Jesus passing by, and due to his lack of height needed to climb the tree to see what was going on.  Zacchaeus was a man in a despised profession – as a Jew who served as a tax collector for the Romans, he was seen as a traitor to his people.  Tax collectors typically got wealthy at the expense of their own countrymen, and Jesus’s willingness to enter the home of Zacchaeus was seen as scandalous.  Reading the entire story, we see Jesus doesn’t care much when some find his actions scandalous, he cares about the hearts of people.  He’s willing to change his plans, go to the tree and give someone what he needs to make a meaningful difference.  In that regard, if not much else, Jesus and Buttermaker have something in common.

I’m reading a book about working with teens called It’s Personal, by Virginia Ward, Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy.  The authors dig deep into the story of Zacchaeus, drawing a number of parallels to working with young people in today’s world.  A couple lines from the book that jumped off the page:

“Shallow leaders have a tendency to keep moving too fast, avoid personal interruptions, and never learn to see the kids who are climbing trees.”

“It’s hard to talk a kid out of a tree, if you have no idea why she climbed it in the first place.”

How many of our players/students/kids are up in a tree hoping someone notices and comes looking for them?  Are we willing to drop what we’re doing and do our best to give them what they need?

Let’s Coach With Purpose…