It was a meaningless basketball game.
Wait. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever used the words “meaningless” and “basketball game” in the same sentence.
And it was definitely the last time.
Still, as basketball games go, it was as close to meaningless as a game could get.
It was a professional summer league game, featuring rookies and unaffiliated players trying to earn a place on their respective teams. Because these players are fighting for jobs and respect, the games tend to be spirited and competitive, if not always aesthetically triumphant. And because player evaluation in game situations is a higher priority than winning, coaches often make unpredictable strategic decisions that alter game outcomes — which is OK, because this is one time when game outcomes are irrelevant, rendering the games more enjoyable for their content rather than their consequence.
At least, to most observers.
Which is why it surprised me to learn that sports-betting operations in Las Vegas were establishing odds and taking bets on the outcome of these games.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I told Alma, a friend of mine, after he told me about the betting possibilities as we waited for the game involving our favorite team to start. “These games don’t mean anything. They’re raw and random, which makes them kind of fun. But you’ve got coaches and players out there with different objectives, some of which have nothing to do with winning. Who would bet on a game like that?”
Almost embarrassed, Alma raised his hand.
“I know, it’s kind of dumb,” he said. “But I have some inside information about this game that I think gives me an advantage over the bookies. Wait and see.”
So we waited. And what we saw in the fourth quarter was a game that was closer than anticipated, with our team struggling to keep pace with an inspired opponent. My sons and I enjoyed the ebb and flow of the game, cheering our team’s good moments and not worrying much about their bad ones because, well, it was, after all, summer league. But I could hear Alma behind me anguishing over every missed shot and failed opportunity.
“Oh, man,” he said dejectedly when a last-minute turnover put our team in an unwinnable situation. “There goes our daughter’s college education.”
He was joking, of course. He had only bet about $20 on the game, so his financial structure was probably going to survive the loss. But that’s sort of beside the point. While most of the rest of us in the gym had enjoyed a fun, entertaining basketball game between teams of remarkably talented young athletes, Alma was feeling tension and pressure during an otherwise meaningless game because he had wagered on its outcome.
It made me wonder about how often we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by the simple choices we make in our lives. We choose not to pay a parking ticket, and before long that simple $15 fine becomes a $200 penalty and a bunch of threatening phone calls from collection agencies. We choose to text and drive and find ourselves dealing with the harsh consequences — physically, financially and emotionally — of causing a freeway accident. We choose to lie on a tax return and voila! IRS happens.
Life wasn’t meant to be easy. We all experience a certain amount of pressure, anguish and frustration in the natural course of day-to-day living. One of the keys to true happiness and peace, it seems to me, is learning to avoid things that bring additional unnatural, unnecessary anxiety and angst into our lives, our hearts and our homes. As far as I know, nobody ever died from not enough stress.
Meaningless or otherwise.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr