03403_000_010It was our year to win. How could the coach put Billie in when we were behind?
With a physical handicap and learning disability, Billie, at 15, was all but forgotten by our quorum. It was not necessary to baptize him. He had his own school to attend. With his physical handicap, Scouting had not seemed realistic. Then a new teachers quorum adviser was called. “If Billie is going to be on the rolls, then he should at least be included in the activities.” Brother Wilson made the first contact, and the response was overwhelming. Sure Billie wanted to come. “No one had even thought to ask,” his mother said apologetically.
Over the next few months of spring and summer Billie was at every Mutual activity, and we started to get acquainted with him. He felt like he belonged. Some of the boys didn’t understand Billie and were critical of him for being clumsy and awkward, but Billie felt wanted and knew our adviser loved him.
When Billie turned 16, he was forgotten again, but only until some of the rest of us turned 16. We remembered Billie and started bringing him out; with us around again Billie felt even more accepted.
Volleyball season came. We knew we were the best team in the stake. For two years we had been knocking on the door, and this was our year. We had the veteran “senior” boys. We had the height; we had the talent. And we even had a mascot—Billie. We even let Billie play. Just hitting the ball was a major achievement, but everyone clapped and encouraged him, so Billie really felt that he was making a contribution.
Being at each game was more important than ever to him. During the regular season, Billie might have cost the team a few points, or even one game in a series, but everyone recognized the sparkle in his eye when he played and we all felt good because of our sacrifice.
Finally the stake championship came. It was the same rivalry that had been there for the last two years. This time we would win. We had beaten them during the regular season, and we would beat them in the championship. Perhaps as an extra precaution someone “forgot” to tell Billie about the game.
Saturday afternoon at game time some of our players were overconfident and had run down to the store for some pop. The first game started without them, but the second string was good enough. Then in came the bishop with Billie. Both teams were well coached. The game was close, but we lost. We couldn’t afford to hold back. We had to have the next game if we were to win two out of three.
Billie had been at the coach’s side the whole first game. “Now? Should I go in now? Do you want me to play now?” His persistence was distracting. The coach spoke firmly but kindly, “Go sit down; I’ll tell you when, Billie.”
At the end of the first game, Billie couldn’t wait any longer. Scores didn’t mean anything. The only thing that was important was playing. The coach looked at Billie; for a long minute he agonized. He had always played all the boys. Would he change the rules now? Was the principle more important than the game?
This was a unique group of boys. Just weeks before, the coach had told us that sometime in his life every coach should get a chance to work with a group like ours. He felt that we could understand principles. There wasn’t any choice; he had to let Billie play.
The other team served—right to Billie. Another serve—to Billie; and another. Again and again the serve was to Billie. The other coach called time-out; he was talking to his server. Another serve—right to Billie. The score was 11 to 0; no service had been returned. Finally a service went into the net, but it was too late. The final score was 15 to 6. It was our year to win, and we lost.
The other team walked off the court with heads lowered. We were fighting back tears. We didn’t understand. We went outside, and the coach tried to talk. “I thought I knew what was right.” Even he was fighting for composure. “I believe it’s important for everyone to play. I’ve always let everyone play. I hope I’m doing what’s right.” The bishop was there with Billie. He looked as if he wanted to talk but didn’t know what to say. Finally Billie broke in and said, “Well, we won another one!”
Something happened after that. The bishop gave a lesson in priesthood meeting on winning. He said something about an inactive father going to the temple because his handicapped son was loved by our quorum. He said that was winning. Somebody said if Billie could play volleyball he could come to priesthood meeting. All of a sudden Billie was really part of us. We’d invested a volleyball championship in him, and he was important to us.
Basketball season came. Everybody knew Billie by now. Everybody knew he would be playing. The referees knew what to do when he tried to dribble. The teams made certain allowances. He was really part of things.
Stake championship again. We worked our way through the teams in the stake, and the final game was between us and—you guessed it—them.
Well, it was close the first half, but then we fell apart. The coach could see what was happening, and by the third quarter it was pretty obvious that nothing was going to work for us that night. While we were looking for some way to get even with the same guys that beat us in volleyball, something unique was happening on the basketball court.
Billie was playing. He really couldn’t shoot. One arm and hand was withered, and he couldn’t give much direction to the ball. But every time he got the ball, their coach yelled for someone to foul Billie. That was the end; I was fighting mad. Even the people in the crowd couldn’t believe their ears. Why was our bishop smiling? Then one of their players gingerly went out and tapped Billie. One referee was so mystified by what was happening that he just stood there. In fact everybody just stood there for several silent seconds. Then the other referee blew his whistle, and when he did everyone understood. Billie got to shoot a foul shot. In fact, he got to shoot two foul shots (intentional foul), and when he missed those, one of the boys on the other team was standing with his foot over the line and Billie got to shoot again, in fact several more.
The crowd was clapping and cheering for Billie; we were cheering for him, but so was the other team. Was this really losing? Everyone was pulling together. No one seemed to care what the score was; everyone was helping Billie. Both teams were helping and cheering and pulling for Billie.
Billie shot a lot of free throws that night. We all cheered; we laughed a little; and Billie went home the star of the evening. Who won? They did, we did, and the stake did.
We found out that when we forget ourselves and our selfish goals, scores aren’t as important as the individual; and we found out that we all care about the same thing. Those guys on that other team aren’t so bad. The referees are really human. And losing a game isn’t the end of the world, not when you’re winning.
We went on that year to play in the Explorer Olympics. We played team sports in volleyball and basketball, and we won some and we lost some. But our investment in Billie was there, and we taught some other teams—or Billie taught some other teams—that winning only matters if you’re building your own stature or, as our bishop says, “if you’re developing character.” And I guess that’s what we learned from Billie—character.
Our bishop said that Billie is here to teach us. We’re all watching him a little more closely to see what other lessons we might learn from him.