Late last year, one of my boys asked me, “Dad, Karl Malone and John Stockton are still playing for the Jazz, right?”

That was all I needed to hear. I had clearly failed my sons. And I knew just what I needed to do to make this right: 

Take my boys to an NBA game. 

Halfway through their first Utah Jazz game, up in the “cheap seats” just underneath the level where extra oxygen would be required, my youngest boy finally figured out who the Jazz were and made his own decision to root for them, rather than the Timberwolves (which he and his brothers all agreed had a “cooler mascot”).

To complete my restitution, I signed up for the one-month streaming package that would give my boys a glimpse of the final weeks of this year’s NBA playoffs.  

And I will confess, it’s been really nice to take a family entertainment break from “Wild Kratts.” In recent weeks, one last-second Boston Celtics win left my boys as stunned as the Miami Heat fans. And when the LA Lakers got swept by a seemingly unstoppable Denver Nuggets team, my second son was in tears.  Cue one of those “losing builds character” talks that is so important for every child to hear.

“Oh, come on, Sam — LeBron already has four rings. Let’s cheer for someone else to have the chance!” 

Now, the older boys are rooting for Denver in the finals, while the younger ones — who just can’t bear to conform with their big brothers — are gunning for Miami. We’re a house divided.  

But at least it’s just for fun. I’m still grateful I was a missionary in Brazil both times Michael Jordan knocked off the Jazz in the finals. The palpable grief came through letters for weeks afterwards; it was like a mushroom cloud hanging over the state.  

Are we really just wasting our time as fans? My family’s experience says not.

The blessing of sport

In one animated conversation about a controversial NBA call at an earlier family gathering, my brothers turned to my wife and asked, “What do you think, Monique?” Put on the spot, she didn’t have time to conceal her true feelings: “I think it matters … not at all.” 

We laughed out loud. Partly, because she was clearly right. But even my wise spouse was missing something significant: the blessings of sport, on so many levels. 

At an age when some of our teenage friends were getting into trouble, for instance, my brother and I were too obsessed with Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and honing our skills to finally beat Dad in pick-up ball, to pay any attention to Madonna and AC/DC.

And now as a father of four energetic boys, I’ve been learning how nice it is to have a healthy outlet for their overflowing energy — which can be channeled away from aggression against each other into healthy competition. 

Anthropologists have discussed for years how sports provides an alternative to war, acting as something of a safety valve wherein men and women can pound into each other, then shake hands afterwards. 

The birth of a beautiful game

It was exactly this kind of a needed outlet that inspired James Naismith’s invention in 1891. After witnessing restless YMCA students bored with marching and calisthenics, he knew something else was needed to “burn off the energy” during winter months when they couldn’t be outside playing football. 

According to one official history, Naismith drew inspiration from “rugby (passing), English rugby (the jump ball), lacrosse (use of a goal), [and] soccer (the shape and size of the ball). ”This new game needed to be “interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.”

When the school janitor was unsuccessful finding two 18-inch square boxes to use as goals, he providentially brought back two peach baskets instead. After the first attempt led to a “free-for all in the middle of the gym floor” with several injuries, Naismith made up some new rules that would “provide plenty of exercise, yet without the roughness” of these other sports that would “threaten bruises and broken bones if played in a confined space.”

Basketball was born. With the peach baskets nailed to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony (which happened to be 10 feet high), two people were assigned to remove the ball from the basket for the first couple of years, until someone got tired of that and decided to cut out the bottom.  

Hail to these early pioneers! How else would I be able to mesmerize my boys with “Michael Jordan’s Top 60 Plays” or the “NBA’s Most Dramatic Endings of All Time?”

Sportsmanship and a mental break

After LeBron James’ sweep in the recent playoffs, I played for my boys a clip of his post-game interview where this defeated champion literally tipped his hat to give credit to the team that just beat him.  

“See, that’s what I mean when we talk about being a good sport, guys. Let’s keep working on that.” 

Examples are important for us all. And as soon as my sons see a great play in an NBA game, they like to run outside and try it themselves. Joining them to play family ball is one of my favorite moments of the week.  

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As for the adults, I’ll give my wife credit for this: Grown-ups need something to talk about every once in a while that doesn’t matter — and doesn’t involve the weight of the world so many of us often feel on our shoulders. 

My co-workers and I have enjoyed regular analyses of the latest game, knowing full well that, as my wife said, it “matters not at all.” And with my boys, I have fun debating important questions like: “Is Steph Curry a better shooter than Michael Jordan?”

Fidelity and family

But my favorite conversation of late came from an article on Denver center Nikola Jokić, who has a habit of pointing toward his hand as he walks off the court at the end of each game. 

Commentators had assumed he was pointing at the ring finger that will likely wear championship hardware soon. But the two-time MVP champion quickly corrected the record, revealing the gesture was meant for his toddler, Ognjena, in reference to one of her favorite songs.

“It’s just a song that we sing,” Jokic said during an interview. “It’s not a big deal, but she likes it, and I just want to have some connection with her.”

In another gesture, Jokic ties his wedding ring into the laces of one of his shoes. As the Denver big man explained before the NBA finals began, “I have something more at home that is more important than basketball.” 

It’s especially sweet to see evidence of fidelity among people who have plenty of opportunities to lay that aside. Stephen Curry calls his wife Ayesha his “one and only” —writing on their anniversary that “you are the key to everything that I do.” Although they’ve had their ups and downs, he later added, “We keep growing and loving each other.”  

Asked why she had stayed more private than other celebrity spouses, LeBron James’ wife, Savannah, recently explained, “That time, to be honest, was spent pouring into my boys. I just really wanted to enjoy being a mom and supporting my husband.”

‘Anything lovely and praiseworthy’

I still haven’t convinced my wife to sit down and watch a game. And I can sympathize with her hesitancy, since sports can definitely take over and become a quasi-religion in people’s lives. 

As someone who barely sneaks in a few games a year — and the 10-minute World Series highlights each fall — I can’t fathom how any parent could find the time to become that absorbed.

But in an age when many Americans are giving up on all institutions, I say let’s not give up on sports, too. And as a believer who seeks after a wide range of “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy,” I’ve come to see that there are some Nuggets we can all still enjoy in the joyous game of basketball. (Go Denver!)

While Jazz fans keep hoping for better days, let’s have some fun this week celebrating with our Rocky Mountain neighbors. 

Jacob Hess is the former editor of Public Square Magazine and writes at Publish Peace on Substack. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, he also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”