Stephen Curry’s Beautiful Basketball and the Catholic Sacramental Imagination

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In his unforgettable essay “Federer as Religious Experience,” which appeared in the New York Times’ tragically short-lived Play Magazine in 2006, David Foster Wallace reflects on watching the all-time great Roger Federer play tennis. “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments,” he writes. “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

In my family’s house, this year has brought a handful of extremely similar experiences, but they’ve come during televised basketball games, not tennis matches. You could call them Stephen Curry Moments.

Here’s one: tied at 118 with the Oklahoma City Thunder with about 5 seconds to go in overtime, Curry picks up the ball in the backcourt, calmly dribbles over the halfcourt line, pulls up about 35 feet from the basket, and launches:

(I have trained myself to not yell after moments like this, as they often come after my infant daughter has gone to bed for the night. I do pace wildly around the room, though.)

For all human beings on Earth except Curry, 35 feet is a crazy distance to shoot from. For all human beings on Earth except Curry, a shot like this would be pure desperation. The crazy thing watching this live was that, for the 1.7 seconds the ball arced through the air, I was sure it was going in. (Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter, on the bench at the time, agreed, throwing up a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ before the ball found the net.)

I was sure it was going in because Curry is the greatest outside shooter of all time, and it’s not particularly close. That alone would make him worth watching. But he also has perfected inside shots, gracefully flipping the ball high over taller defenders and watching it nestle gently into the basket, time after time. He is also a brilliant passer and ball-handler and will even snag you a steal or two on defense.

Oh, and he is the reigning league MVP and NBA champion, and he guided the Warriors to a league-record 73 wins this regular season, capping off the historic run with 10 three-pointers and 46 points against Memphis in Wednesday night’s finale. He’s a lock to repeat as MVP this year, and some media folks who cover the NBA have been arguing that he should also win the league’s most improved player award as well, since he went from really great last year to can’t-believe-what-I’m-watching great this year.

Watching Curry this year reminds me of another passage from David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war,” he writes. “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty.”

This is one of the biggest reasons why I love the NBA. It is full of raw, improvisational, gravity-defying, gobsmacking, kinetic beauty. No other sport provides such consistent opportunities for dazzling displays of athleticism. And while Curry’s individual achievements this season are beyond description, the Warriors wouldn’t have become the best team in history without their balletic passing and cutting and their stifling defensive rotations and their deep collection of secondary players each doing exactly what was required of them. The most beautiful basketball is always team basketball, a collection of individuals working together as one seamless unit.

Beauty is a key ingredient to what’s called the Catholic “sacramental imagination” – a way of seeing that finds God in all of creation. The Church’s seven Big-S Sacraments all require tangible stuff and our physical senses: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands. God comes to us through these signs.

This way of God reaching out to us doesn’t stop when we walk out of the church doors, though. Formed by the Big-S Sacraments, we can find small-s sacraments all around us, most easily in those places, people, and moments that we find beautiful. My favorites include my daughter’s wide-mouthed smile; certain instants when my wife and I make knowing eye contact when something is hilarious but the decorum of the time and place prohibits laughter; the sudden explosion of flowering trees that marks the beginning of spring here in the Mid-Atlantic; music by the band Wilco; a few slices with peppers and onions at DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies of Robbinsville, NJ; and, yes, the exquisite basketball choreography of the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

When I find myself zoning out at Mass or otherwise spiritually lethargic, I do a quick mental check-in on small-s sacraments: Have you gone on a good long walk recently? Have you listened to any good music? Have you spent enough quality time with your wife and daughter with your cell phone turned off? Making time and space for beauty in my life helps me connect more deeply with the Eucharist. It’s not such a leap of faith to believe that God comes to us in the form of bread and wine at Mass when I’ve been finding God in other everyday objects and moments.

So if you tune in to watch the Warriors during the playoffs, which begin this weekend, don’t get mad at yourself for being lazy. It’s not vegging out! Instead, consider it a mini-retreat on the theme of kinetic beauty and the sacramental imagination.

(Yes, I think that’s exactly what I’ll say to my wife on Saturday afternoon at 3:30. It’s worth a shot.)


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

CCHD: Putting the Gospel into Practice by John Gehring: “At a time when 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty and extreme income inequality is growing, a contribution to C.C.H.D. is a powerful way to affirm Catholic identity and empower those struggling to lift themselves out of difficult situations.”

“Getting” Pope Francis, or Not by Michael Sean Winters: “Here, too, we see the greatest point of continuity between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, both of whom, in different ways, were rooted in the Communio school of theology we associate with the Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Christian proclamation is first and foremost about God and His accomplishments and only consequently about us and our obligations, moral and otherwise.”

The Christian Intellectual by R.R. Reno: “Love and freedom. There’s nothing uniquely Christian about these qualities in an intellectual. Socrates had both. But grace perfects nature and helps us overcome our weaknesses. The Christian intellectual may not be welcome today as a Christian, but it’s as a Christian that he can be salt and light.”

TJP Sits Down with Coach John Beilein by Dennis Baker, SJ: “I do the Examen all the time during the season.  That helps me put things into perspective—how grateful I should be for the life I’ve been blessed with.  Sometimes I write my Examen down with my iPad.  I have pages and pages and pages during the season.  So I think it’s just the overall appreciation of understanding your purpose in life, understanding God’s will for you.”

The Triumph of C.S. Lewis By Fr. Robert Barron: “He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.”

When Children Are Traded by Nicholas Kristof: “A first step to address this issue would be to make adoption agencies responsible for children they bring to America, including finding new homes when adoptions fail. If we have rules about recycling bottles, we should prevent children from being abandoned and recycled. The larger point is a more basic failing in America: inadequate child services. Kids don’t get the protection they need from predators, nor the nutrition they need, nor the books and reading programs they need for mental nutrition. The threat to the food stamp program, whose beneficiaries are 45 percent children, is emblematic of this broader problem. Children don’t have votes and are voiceless, so America’s most vulnerable become its most neglected.”

The GOP’s Cruel Crusade Against Food Stamps by Norm Ornstein: “I would love for all sides to find common ground here: Provide the kind of job training that will enable people to find work and move out of poverty while helping them with the basics of food, shelter, health care, and transportation. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mindlessly without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.”

Father Albert Foley: How one priest took on the KKK by Kristen Hannum: “Everything changed for Foley in 1943, when, as a young Jesuit, he was assigned to teach the class ‘Migration, Immigration, and Race’ at Spring Hill College in Mobile. His research—which included interviewing local black Catholics and wide-ranging reading—opened his eyes: Segregation was sinful. He looked to the church fathers and social justice teachings to better understand his new realization and to discern what should be done.”

The Habit of Gratitude and Hopefulness by Christopher C. Roberts: “We are praying that a good community of peers will be in place when they become teens. And we are trying, gently for now, to prepare our girls for being different from the surrounding culture in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I hope for the moment that we’re laying in the spiritual and psychological resources to see us through whatever’s coming.”

Now and Then I Feel It’s Working by J. Peter Nixon: “There is always a temptation as a parent to think that your children are clay that you are called to shape. The truth is that we are merely stewards of something precious that ultimately belongs to God. If he can call a prodigal like me back to him, he can certainly do the same for my children if he so chooses. In the end, faith is his gift to give, not mine.”

How Children Succeed: You Should Read This by Jason King: “We need grit to be able to confront sin—personal, social, and original sin—and keep going.  We need grit, but we also do not develop it by ourselves.  We need a community that is safe enough for us to develop trust and confidence in our decisions and actions.  We also need a community that fosters vulnerability, one not closed off to adversity, not closed off to others.  We need the Church to help us become disciples who perpetually pickup our crosses and follow Christ.”

The pope is forcing us to redefine ugliness by Benjamin W. Corn: “Because our aesthetic standards are arbitrary, our definitions of beauty have shifted slightly, over time, to encompass, for example, anorexic-appearing fashion models with little resemblance to the shapeliness of Botticelli’s Goddess of Beauty. There is one vital point in that dynamic: the arbitrary—including our ideas of what is beautiful, ugly, visually acceptable, or socially stigmatizing—can change. And each of us can contribute to that change.”

In Central African Republic, thousands turn to bishop for protection by Barb Fraze, CNS: “More than 35,000 people are living on the 40-acre diocesan compound in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, seeking protection from rebels who are targeting Christians, said the local bishop.”

Seeing the Divine in the Sky and the Poor

One of my spiritual practices is to look at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day each morning. I am humbled by the greatness and beauty of the universe. There is a certain holy fear that staring up at the stars inspires in me. The universe is filled with amazing, beautiful things that have been present for as long as humans have walked this world, but we are only now able to see many of them. Take for example how  we have been able to slow down the noise of crickets and reveal how amazingly beautiful their chirping is–or how microscopes have helped us to see the magic of butterfly scales and unveiled incredible creatures we never knew existed 

The universe is amazing! And it’s far beyond anything we can even imagine.

Scientists estimate that in the observable universe alone there are 170 billion galaxies. That means that if each person in all of human existence (about 100 billion) was given a galaxy, that would still leave about half of the galaxies we can observe unclaimed. Each of these galaxies contains an estimated 400 billion stars, and the closest of these stars (other than our sun) would take 19,361 years to reach using the fastest vessels we have today (which go 150,000 miles per hour).

What’s more amazing to me is that the One who upholds and sustains this extraordinarily vast and complex universe would reveal himself through the humble frame of a man, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God comes to us as a child at his mother’s breast, as a day laborer in a backwater district of an occupied nation, as a man stripped, beaten and killed, as one like us.

The glass contains the ocean. A breath contains the sky. The womb contains majesty without end. The unmoved mover was moved to meet us where we move.

In Jesus, God reveals himself in the universal human language of humanity itself. God adopted human flesh, and so human flesh has become the greatest icon (image) we have of God.

How are we to venerate this great image? Jesus tells us we do it when we love, when we feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, and take our coat and give it to the one who is cold and naked (Matthew 25:31-46). Yes, one of my spiritual practices is to admire God’s handiwork in pictures of the universe, but perhaps I would be better served in seeing God by making an extra lunch in the morning and keeping my eyes open for icons of God in need of a sandwich.

Perhaps this is what Dorothy Day realized when she stated, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Billy Kangas is the Catholic Relations fellow at Bread for the World, a PhD student in theology at Catholic University, and the editor of The Orant.