How do you deal with sad things like missed opportunities or things you regret in your past? I have some incidents from twenty years ago that periodically come up in my dreams. I wake up filled with sadness, but since we can’t undo what happened in the past, how do you learn to live with it?
A great question. I’ve had several kinds of regrets that used to plague me periodically in my dreams. Some, like things I did wrong or that hurt someone, I have learned to go back to the people involved and make what amends I can. (E.g. I paid off a debt I “forgot,” and told people I had hurt that I’ve realized what I had done and how they must have felt, and asked their forgiveness.) Other things I have just had to confess to God or a spiritual counselor and ask God to help me use the painful situation to show sensitivity toward others, and to take the time to love and help people I meet who come to me.
But sometimes there are totally unexpected opportunities to find healing one could never have caused or predicted. For example, recently I had an unexpected opportunity to possibly find healing for a painful situation that occurred while I was in college at Oklahoma University sixty-four years ago. Last spring I got a letter from the new basketball coach at O.U., Lon Kruger. Lon and the athletic department were going to institute a weekend celebration to which all living players who had ever lettered in basketball would be invited to come back to O.U. for a celebration get-together. Among other things there was to be an exhibition game, and the letter said that anyone who wanted to play in that game would receive a complimentary game uniform.
First let’s go back to when I was in the ninth grade. I saw my first basketball game and became fascinated. I told the coach I would do anything he told me to do if he would give me a chance. And he did. I worked diligently, developed some skills and became a starter on the Tulsa Central High School basketball team that was undefeated during the regular season.
Later, after World War II was over and I got out of the Navy in the summer of 1946, I enrolled at Oklahoma University. My high school coach must have given me a very good recommendation because I got a basketball scholarship job.
When I got to the campus I learned that twenty-seven returning veterans showed up to play that year, young men who had lettered in basketball in college, mostly at O.U., and then had been in the service during the years of the Second World War. Nine had been All-Conference and two players had been All-American (Gerald Tucker and Allie Paine). Coach Bruce Drake was building the most talented team in O.U. history to that point, a team that got to the national finals game in the spring of 1947 against Holy Cross with Bob Cousey, et al.
My freshman year was a fabulous experience. I told Bruce Drake the same thing I had told my high school coach: “I will do whatever it takes to make the team.” I realized that I was going up against the best players in America every day in practice. But I worked very hard and in my sophomore year began to travel with and play on the team.
Then during the Christmas holidays, I told the coach that I could not go to the New Orleans invitational basketball tournament because my brother, Earle, was killed the year before and my parents were going to be alone at Christmas. He understood, and O.U. still had a great deal of available talent from the previous year.
But during that Christmas break I went with some friends to a party in Enid, OK, about sixty miles away. The car was going 90 mph down a highway that had the dirt washed away from the concrete slab. The right tires slipped off the edge of the slab and the driver tried to whip the car back on the road. The car flipped into the air and rolled 270 yards down a hill. I broke my neck and they didn’t know if I’d be paralyzed or even live.
I remember praying—not knowing what was going to happen, and I turned my future over to God.
I went through a long rehab and after a lot of hard and uncomfortable work (and a lot of the grace of God through a great spinal surgeon) I recovered much of the use of my body, but not enough that I was cleared to play again. Bruce Drake saw that I lettered in basketball in 1947-48 year.
I tried hanging around at practice, but felt like a leech, since I had nothing to offer. Finally I couldn’t enjoy going to the games, so I quietly withdrew from O.U. basketball and began to build a new life. But something started happening then that I never told anyone but my wife until recently. I would have a dream that I was playing basketball at O.U. again. And I’d wake up from the dream and cry like a little boy. That started in 1948 and happened periodically for years.
So when I got that letter from coach Kruger I first just thought it might really be fun to “go back home to O.U.” and meet some of the players I’d heard about. Then a thought hit me. I called coach Kruger and asked him if he had a good sense of humor. He chuckled and then I said, “I’m a letterman, and I’d like to get a uniform and be a part of that game.”
He said, “Fine. We’d love to have you do that.”
I said, “The problem is, I’m 84 years old. I can still shoot the ball a little and I’d like to warm up with the team. But—if someone tries to put me in the game, I’ll put out a contract on them.”
He laughed and said, “Fill out the form. We’d love to have you.”
The thought that had hit me (as a man with a degree in Psychological Counseling) was that if I signed up, suited up, and showed up on the court for that game, it might lay to rest that ache in my gut that caused the dreams about having to quit playing basketball.
So I got a new pair of basketball shoes and began to practice handling a basketball and shooting close in shots so I wouldn’t fall down or otherwise shame myself.
When Andrea and I got to the hotel in Norman, we discovered that this was a lot bigger deal than we had planned on. At the banquet the night before the game, I realized that we were sitting in the midst of a bunch of All-Americans, retired NBA players and other really outstanding players from the past forty or fifty years. Some of them still played in the NBA or on European teams overseas. And there were two outstanding coaches who had been named “Coach of the Year” during their time at O.U. Also I discovered that the exhibition game had been advertised, the public invited, and was going to be in the O.U. game facility where the varsity games were played.
When the two teams (Red and Cream) were ready to go onto the court, I trotted out and was introduced on the Cream Team, “84-year old Keith Miller from the class of 1947-48.” I tried to jog onto the court as if I were a younger man (of 60 or 70). And somehow the sight of an 84 year old man with a white beard in an O.U. basketball uniform must have triggered something inside that crowd, because although I couldn’t hear it, Andrea told me that the crowd’s response was very positive and big.
Both teams ran the warm-up drills and shot a few baskets. When I’d hit one a student section on our end of the court would cheer, and when I’d miss, they’d go “awwww,” sadly.
And then the game was on. It proved to be very rough and competitive. It ended in a tie and the Cream Team won in overtime. Every five minutes a new five players would be substituted. Three times coach Sampson tried to send me in. Although the game was so rough the first injury was a torn quadriceps tendon, there was no letup. But still, the third time coach pointed at me to go in, I almost did! You talk about insanity—I couldn’t even keep up running the length of the court. But the thought crossed my mind, “Maybe I’ll get lucky!”
After the game the audience brought the prepared autograph pages out onto the court and kids and grownups alike came for autographs. Since I was the oldest person, my name was listed first. So I looked in the eyes of and encouraged a lot of little boys who were star struck by the whole experience—but no one more than the 84-year-old in an O.U. uniform who was burying the pain of his past, and being born into a new life as a “real player” in a life filled with gratitude to God.
Thank you, Lord, that it’s not over until it’s over. You stay with us all the way with your loving and healing presence. Help me to be aware that many people have painful circumstances and unmet dreams from the past that you can fulfill in their hearts. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all.”
– Matthew 4:24, The Message
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”
Ancient Greek Physician, referred to as the Father of Western Medicine