From the back patio of my home in Hawaii, I could see the outdoor basketball court in the corner of the playground of Laie Elementary School. Lengthwise, the rough asphalt court was regulation size with standard ten-foot baskets at each end. Two shorter courts, each with lower eight-foot baskets, ran across its width.
Most afternoons, players of all ages, sizes, and colors jammed the court. But they didn’t play on the regulation baskets. They played on the eight-footers. With the shorter court and the lower standards, their fast breaks often ended in twisting two-handed slam dunks.
I wondered why so many kids would choose the lower hoops over the regulation ones, and this reason stood out: Who wouldn’t prefer a slam dunk over a jump shot?
I have to admit that I’ve played on that same court a few times myself, driving around my ten-year-old son to swoop down on the low basket with a rim-rattling dunk. Jonathan would be duly impressed by my leaping ability. And for a fleeting moment playing above the rim made me feel a little like Shaquille O’Neal or Patrick Ewing.
It was a good feeling.
But then we’d move to the ten-foot hoops, and I became a grounded bird; the rim seemed miles over my head, far, far out of range. All my shots would be off, ricocheting from the rim in weird angles. I’d have to play on the regular baskets for quite a while to get my shooting eye back. But no matter how much I played on the regulation hoops, I never did feel like an NBA giant. I just felt like a regular guy, hoping a combination of luck, wind currents, and my aim would guide the ball through the hoop.
Even though it was a blast skying over the eight-foot baskets to stuff in shots or snatch rebounds right off the rim, playing on the lower standards always hurt my ability to play on the standard baskets. Eventually, I wised up. Whenever Jonathan managed to get me to shoot around with him at the school court, I ignored the lower baskets, knowing that even though they might be fun, in the long run, they wouldn’t do my meager basketball skills a bit of good.
The funny thing is, I’ve known that since junior high school. I can still remember our coach warning us against playing on eight-foot baskets. “The game you guys are preparing for uses ten-foot standards. The lower baskets will only foul you up. So don’t you mess with them.” And if he ever caught any of us playing a lunchtime game on the low baskets, we’d get extra running at practice as a reminder of what was good for us.
So here’s a couple questions. Why, if I really had learned that lesson as a junior high kid, did I ignore it as an adult? And why didn’t I have the will or the good sense to resist the temptation to pretend, just for a game or two, that I still had enough spring in my old legs to slam dunk? (Of course, if I had really thought about it, I would have remembered that even my young legs didn’t have enough spring to dunk.)
Basketball isn’t the only chance we have to play by lower standards. I teach for a living, and I often see some students who skim with less effort than it takes to breathe. They’re happy to simply pass the class. “Just tell me what I’ve gotta do so I can get outta this place,” is an attitude I’ve seen more than once.
All of us are sometimes tempted by lower standards—what we watch or listen to, how we act or think, how we live the gospel. We’re tempted to give in to lower standards because they’re easier or seem like more fun. Lower standards in basketball ruin your shot. Lower standards in school mean you learn less—or nothing.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ reminded us that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we have to live higher standards than those around us. “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
As Church members, we know what standards we’ll be judged by and what standards we ought to live by, regardless of what people around us are doing or saying.
The bottom line is this: if you want to get ahead—spiritually, physically, intellectually, professionally—you’ve got to set high standards for yourself and stick to them. It’s not easy, it’s not always fun, and sometimes you may feel like the only person in the world who’s sticking to a higher standard. But it’s worth it, now and forever, to stick to your standards, to resist those eight-foot baskets no matter how tempting they may be. And believe me, the payoff for living higher standards is infinitely more satisfying than a 360-degree, behind-the-head slam dunk.