It’s Game one of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers. “The guy” who lives out of town and I are wildly texting. He’s a big Celtics fan and the energy is changing before our eyes. Suddenly the Celtics are in big trouble.
I’m about to go out on a limb here, given that my hometown team, the Lakers, and the Celtics are mortal enemies. This may be viewed by some as treason.
“As a devoted Celtics fan, now would be a good time for you to say a blessing and give some tzedakah.”
He texts back. “LOL.”
“Seriously. Start praying, and give a few bucks in the merit of a Boston win.”
I hear nothing back. Then Paul Pierce, the back-bone of the team, gets hurt. He’s taken off the court.
“I’m not kidding. NOW!!!!,”
“When the Miami Heat are down, my son, Benj, takes out his teffillin.”
“God has nothing to do with this. It’s in the hands of the trainers and the ice packs.”
I feel a thump in the pit of my stomach.
I know a lot about the guy. There’s real keeper potential here. But I didn’t know he thought God has nothing to do with this.
A gulf between us is growing. “I think God has something to do with everything.”
“God has better things to do than worry about basketball,” he texts.
“This is a juicy conversation we can have tomorrow,” I text.
But the truth is, I don’t want to converse, I want to convince him that God is the ultimate MVP. Why doesn’t he already know that?
The game ends but the thump in the pit of my stomach remains.
Is a difference over prayer a deal breaker? And, can God throw the NBA Finals?
Game Two. We’re watching it while talking on the phone. A player makes a fast break, then trips and tears a muscle, ending his season. “I don’t want to get into the prayer thing, but that had nothing to do with God. That recovery was from years of stretching.”
There’s nothing that endears a girl less to a guy than her making him feel wrong. You can disagree. You just can’t make him feel wrong.
I feel like I’ve stepped into making-him-wrong territory.
But I've given “the prayer thing” a lot of thought. For a lot of years. A LOT. For over 30 years, my spiritual quest to find Judaism meaningful has sent me studying with dozens of rabbis, delving into endless texts, asking zillions of questions, and well, praying. A LOT.
“The prayer thing,” it’s the core of my life. And as a self-appointed mouthpiece for the Creator of the universe, I’m not backing down. Especially to a Celtics fan.
I’m not proud of what I did. I actually prayed for the Celtics to lose. And they did.
I’m done for tonight. I’m not proud of what comes next. I can’t think of a time I was so mean-spirited, and I will probably be banned for life from Beantown for this: I actually prayed for the Celtics to lose. Then they did.
The next day, he’s recounting last night’s game. “I don’t know what happened, it was going so well then it just fell apart.”
“Kind of like us,” I’m thinking.
Instead, I tell him about what happened earlier. The Lakers were losing badly to the Spurs. My son’s friend Dorel was so distraught, he clutched a Chumash hard to his chest, and prayed out loud, “Please God, let the Lakers win… let them make this basket… let them get this rebound…” It was so heartfelt, I almost cried.
It’s been hard for me to love the Lakers this year after they showed no love to Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher and dumped them like yesterday’s trash. But Dorel’s prayer was so moving, I had to join in. A longshot, no doubt, but God’s taken on mightier foes than the Spurs’ starting line-up.
It’s true I expect my prayers to be answered, and sometimes they aren’t. And sometimes that hurts. But that’s no reason to give up. At 15, Dorel gets that. He might not be a Laker on the court, but he’s on the Laker’s team, doing his part. So, the Laker’s lost that game. But he was right back at it, Chumash in hand, prayers flying, the next game. If you don’t believe prayer works, who, then, is God to you?
Game Three. I’m getting ready for Shabbat. He calls and I’m feeling bad about trying to tank his team.
“It’s a close out,” he says. But I hear: Boston is great without your prayer thing.
I’m not going to make him wrong. And I’m not done cooking for Shabbat so I have to go. “Yeah, the Celtics are on fire. Thanks for calling.”
It’s been prickly this week, with me and the guy. I light the Shabbat candles. I pray my usual prayers. I pray for him to pray. I pray for love, for my bashert, but not for the guy to love me or for the guy to be my bashert.
He didn’t call or text over the weekend. Except to say that in a stunning comeback, Phillie hammered Boston. Oh, well.
Monday – Game 4. It’s tied at halftime. “Saw the score, it’s your call,” I text.
To pray or not to pray, that is the question…
“We could use all the help we can get.” I take that as a sheepish yes.
I text back a smiley face.
I have to admit, I stand before the Almighty feeling sheepish myself now asking Him for The Celtics to win after having just asked for them to lose.
On one hand, it’s kind of chutzpadick, this changing my mind. On the other hand, it’s me involving God in what’s important to me in the minute. I hope He won’t take out my mercurialness on the guy’s team.
“Please God, may it be your will the Celtics win.”
Let me say, I like Paul Pierce, and he’s an LA guy, but I’m not a big fan of Rajon Rondo who walked right by me once and snarled. It doesn’t seem right to pray for a meanie. Ray Allen, though, seems like such a nice guy, and he’s near the end of his career. If anyone deserves to win, it’s him. But who am I to judge who “deserves” to win and who doesn’t. My head hurts thinking about how God sorts through all the pros and cons of every decision, as if I can apply human thinking to God. For a split second, I think, “Who am I to pray for the Celtics to win?” And in a way, I should be rooting for Phillie, I went to college in Philadelphia. I’m kind of a traitor. Maybe I should just stay out of it. But I don’t.
“God, let’s show him who runs the world. Let’s show him that prayer works. Please God, may it be your will the Celtics win.” Minutes later, my cell phone vibrates.
“AMAZING run!” he texts.
Big surprise, I think.
Ten minutes later, Boston is up by 12. The game’s over.
I text two words: “You’re welcome.”
Game Five was Boston’s, game six, Phillie’s. The last minutes in game seven advanced Boston to the Eastern Conference finals – against the Heat.
The thing about prayer, you can talk all you want about it. But it doesn’t make sense until you do it. A wise rabbi once said to me, “Start by saying hi. Start a dialogue, and then listen.” Maybe the guy will start a dialogue.
The Heat – Celtics Eastern Conference Finals, it’s game five. The guy asks, “Sher, could you say a brucha for both teams?”
“Ummm,” I said, as if I were giving it some thought. “No. I’m davening for Miami.” I like the guy but Miami’s my son’s favorite team.
“Well, I’m praying for Boston,” he says. We start laughing. “I’m so glad you’re praying,” I say.
But in my heart, I wasn’t glad at all. I knew we were doomed that night and the game hadn’t even started. Because now the guy is praying real out-loud can-you-hear-me-God-I’m-talking-to-you prayers.
I’ve turned over my best defense to the enemy.
Based on no facts whatsoever – no Torah, no Talmud - I see it as a “welcome home” gift, from God to the guy, this Celtic win that hasn’t happened yet but I know will. “So glad you’re back!” I imagine God thinking. “Stay awhile, what can I get you? A Celtic win? It’s yours!”
I have total faith the Heat can handle this loss but I feel totally responsible.
Game Six. “Beginner’s luck,” I tease.
“Game on,” he says.
It was a valiant effort on his part, but Miami wins.
It all came down to the last quarter of game seven, a prayer duel of epic proportion and Miami wins again.
Now, it’s the Finals. Oklahoma Thunder vs. Miami Heat.
“You’re praying for…?” I expect Miami-madness. “I’m praying for great basketball and seven games.”
“You want my son’s team to lose three games?” It’s getting prickly again.
“I’ll be praying for Miami in game seven.”
“I’ll be praying for Miami in game seven.”
So, the end of the NBA season is growing near. Miami is up 3-1. One more win and they clinch the championship. Lose now, and they head back to OKC for game six, and if it were up to the guy, game seven.
The guy’s been texting me all afternoon, trying to psych me out. “Durant will go for 40!” “OKC hasn’t lost four in a row since April 2009.” And on and on.
Let me say, I understand wanting a game seven. If you’re a basketball fan, you just don’t want the season to end.
But the Heat’s not going back to the deafening screams of Oklahoma City fans. Not on my watch. And not on my son’s.
Benj, his arsenal is in place. He’s well-armed for the battle to come: Teffillin in one hand, a siddur in the other, the couch is covered with a Chumash and the five volumes of the Metsuda Chumash with Rashi. And he’s wearing his Miami Heat kippah made in Israel.
I text a picture of this to the guy with two words: “Dream On.”
Miami is doing well, but the energy is changing, Oklahoma has a wicked run.
The guy texts, “You better tell Benj to get busy!”
And I do. “Benj! Are you on the team or not??”
A look of intensity comes over my son’s face like I’ve never seen. He was davening so hard, I swear, I thought the Messiah was going to show up at our front door.
In that second, OKC missed a wide open lay up.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it myself,” the guy texts.
And from then on, it was like an open miracle. I’m not kidding.
My son who usually plays the position of power forward is now in the position of power pray-er.
And Miami begins a barrage of three pointers never before seen in a finals game. The Miami greats – LeBron, D Dwade, CB – they play like champions. But so do the rest of the team, the rookie nails down back to back threes, one player from the bench, Mike Miller, scores 23 points in 23 minutes. Up until now, the games have come down to three or four points. Miami is up 20.
Benj shows no mercy. He does not stop davening. He’s on full Jew octane for the entire game.
I lock eyes with Dorel and he knows what I’m thinking. Dorel says, “I’m not davening for the Heat but I’m not davening against them either.” Well, that’s a relief!
I want to be clear, there’s no idol worship going on here. Benj is praying to God. The teffillin and the Bibles, the siddurs – it’s Benj’s way of saying to God: “I’m on your team, please be on my team.”
The buzzer sounds: 120-106 Miami. The game, the championship, The Heat.
The guy calls. “You know, The Heat played great but Benj won that game. Really, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. The owner of the team should hire him.”
But he doesn’t need to because Benj is on the team. And it sounds to me, so is the guy. Game on.