Reflections on Graduation, Youth Ministry, and Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams is a documentary film from the 1990s that tells the story of two kids from the projects in Chicago who play basketball and hope to use their talents to make it to the NBA and ultimately, change their lives. It is a brilliant and poignant film, and touches on a lot of heavy issues like race, poverty, and drugs, but it also has a bearing on this particular idea.

Near the end of the film, William Gates, one of the two main characters of the film, goes in to talk to his high school basketball coach, Gene Pingatore, at the end of his senior year. Pingatore coached for St. Joseph’s, a private Catholic high school with an expensive tuition, but because William was a basketball phenom as a freshman, he was able to receive a scholarship. William had a good career, but a devastating knee injury prevented him from being the player that everyone expected him to be.

The particular clip I’m talking about starts at the 30.51 mark in the video below, and runs until about 33.05:

As Gates walks out of the coach’s life, Pingatore chuckles and remarks, “Well, another one walks out the door and another one comes in the door. That’s what it’s all about.”

It comes across rather callously: it’s as if the last four years meant nothing to the coach; Gates was just a player on a team, a piece he manipulated for a few years, and now it’s time to use the next piece.*

•   •   •

Last night I went to Farmington High School Graduation to watch five seniors from our church walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.

As a youth minister, I’ve now been with the church here long enough that I have worked with some of our teens for several years—all the way from sixth grade through their senior years. All that time invested into students can stir up a lot of bittersweet feelings—I am proud to see how they have developed and matured and what they have accomplished, and am excited for what they will go on to do. At the same time, I am concerned about the trials and temptations they will face, the decisions they will make, and ultimately, whether or not they will remain faithful. I can’t help but wonder about things that I could have done differently that perhaps would have impacted their spiritual growth in a better way, and I wonder if I could have taught or exemplified a particular point of Christian discipleship more effectively.

Graduation is also a bittersweet time because I know that my relationships with my students (in a sense, I guess they’re not mine anymore) always change when they go off to college. Sometimes we get closer (which is a joy), a lot of times we drift apart somewhat as we don’t spend as much time together, but always there is a change, and I’m not a big fan of change.

To sympathize a bit with Coach Pingatore from the clip above, there are the realities of youth ministry (and coaching)—as kids graduate and move on, other kids do come into the group, and you have to devote efforts and attention to them as well. If spend all of your time focusing on the students who have already left, then you neglect the ones who are still around. But at the same time, I can’t just chuckle about it and laugh it off the way he does. New students come in, but they don’t replace the ones who have left as if they are interchangeable pieces.

As the summer ends and my graduating teens ultimately move on, I watch them from a distance, cheering on their accomplishments and praying for God’s guidance in their lives. But to me, they’re still my kids: I’ve poured too much of myself into them for them to be anything else.

•   •   •

*For the record, Pingatore did not like the way he was portrayed in the film and ended up suing the directors. He might actually be a great guy who invests a ton in his players; it didn’t come across that way in the film.


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