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Here’s a basketball story. One day I am standing in a small room at the University of Portland, where I work. It’s the university’s athletic hall of fame, so there are dozens of shrines to glorious student-athletes of the past on the walls. The university used to have a great football team, before it canceled football 62 years ago, so many of the guys on the walls are football players, but there are a few baseball players too, and basketball players of both genders, and now a few soccer players, mostly women, since the women’s soccer team has been among the best in the country in recent years.
I am alone in this room because the photographer with me has vanished, I think to buy a horse or sneak a cigar. We had been waiting for the Dalai Lama to arrive and be photographed, but His Holiness was thronged by handlers and well-wishers, and he was late, and the photographer was a nervous sort, so I was standing there alone, gazing happily at the basketball shrines, when a burly Buddhist monk entered the room alone, and came right up to me, direct as a bolt of light.
How you doing? he said, very blunt and forthright.
Good, sir, I said, thinking that the guy sounded like he was from Brooklyn, which I hadn’t thought was much of a monk factory. How you doing?
Good, he said, real terse and blunt. Kind of a commanding guy, obviously used to being in charge, I was thinking, when he continued, crisply, Who are all these people on the walls?
Mostly football players, I said, and I explained how we had a glorious soccer team and pretty soon, in my view, the walls would be covered with soccer players, but for now it was still mostly football players.
That’s too bad, said the monk, because soccer is the greatest sport of all.
No, it isn’t, I said, smiling at such foolery. Basketball is the greatest sport of all.
Maybe you didn’t hear me, he said, and he actually, I kid you not, shook his forefinger at me, like a schoolmarm, but a schoolmarm with a shaved head and maroon and saffron robes. Soccer is the greatest sport of all, he continued, and he said this with an unutterable conviction, as if he was actually right and I was some nut who didn’t know a horse from a cigar.
Maybe you didn’t hear me, pal, I said. Soccer is a great sport, very sinuous and quicksilver, but no one ever scores, whereas basketball is sinuous and quicksilver, and everyone scores constantly, it’s the most generous sport there is, unlike soccer, which is kind of . . . prim.
And just as the word prim escaped the prison of my teeth and fell into his ears, some neuron in me woke with a start, and I stared at his face, the famous face that has been plastered on television and newspapers since he was a boy, and I realized, with a feeling I cannot describe, that the man in front of me, bursting into laughter at my gracelessness, the man I had just called pal, was the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, and he was roaring with laughter, bless his soul.
That man has the most wonderful infectious heartfelt genuine guffawing laugh I have ever heard, I have to say, and just as he really got it going full blast, his entourage flooded into the room, and he was instantly surrounded by people with cell phones and agendas, and they began to hustle him out, because there was an arena of people waiting, etc., but just as he got to the door he turned, and found me moaning in the middle of the room, and he pointed at me and grinned and said You! We will continue this conversation, in this lifetime, or the next! And he roared with laughter again, and his handlers hustled him out, and that was that.
Well, later that day when I went home and my lovely bride asked about my day I told her this story, and she was aghast that in the moments I had alone with one of the great spiritual visionaries of all time I had argued about sports, and she stomped off down the hall, and there was a long silence in the kitchen, until our son Joey said, But dad, you were right about basketball, so what’s the problem?
Which cheers me up still, years later. I was right.
BCM invited Brian Doyle to write the Prologue to this issue. Doyle worked for BCM from 1987 to 1991. He is editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of Grace Notes (2011). Our feature on Boston College men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue begins here.
Read more by Brian Doyle