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A word from Wendell Berry’s “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” for this morning. It’s never hit home more than now. And he puts it better than I ever could.

“Any observer would have to say that Christianity is fashionable at present in the United States. This might be a good thing, except that the observer, observing more closely, would have to conclude that to the extent that Christianity is fashionable, it is loosely fashionable. It seems to have remarkably little to do with the things that Jesus Christ actually taught.

Especially among Christians in positions of great wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and of keeping Jesus’s commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian’.”

I love you, and I am sorry.

-da

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The Night of the Unspeakable

There is a climax to every story. There is rising action and a resolution, but it is the climax that keeps you from putting the book down.

For some, this is a moment of great joy. It is cutting down nets and donning rings of silver.

For others, this is a moment of immense pain. It is one less banner in the rafters and a bullet hole sent straight through the heart of destiny.

For the North Carolina men’s basketball community, the night of April 4th, 2016, is a climax they will never forget, no matter how hard they try.

They will remember the hope of a Tar Heel five-point lead at halftime, the despair as Villanova ran away in the second-half and the elation following the Marcus Paige 3-pointer.

It was an evening that everyone in Tar Heel nation had marked on the calendar since the first tip of the basketball in November. It was an evening where legends roamed the hardwood. It was an evening where the boys in Carolina Blue could become immortal.

It was the night of the unspeakable.

***

Jeff Jones sat on the front steps of the University United Methodist Church minutes after Michael Jordan and the UNC basketball team won the 1982 NCAA Championship.

He rushed to Franklin Street, but as blue paint was flung and claustrophobia sunk in, he found himself watching the thousands of students from the elevated church steps.

“I remember being in the middle of the crowd,” Jones said. “The feeling of euphoria was pretty awesome.”

Jones was a freshman at UNC, then, and had been a Tar Heel fanatic since his childhood. Thirty-four years after that March evening when he sat on the church steps, he can still tell you every detail about the day Jordan shook his hand. It was an English 42 recitation, Film Criticism, in a tiny room in Hamilton Hall. Jordan walked in, sat beside him, turned and smiled, “Hi, I’m Michael.”

He remembers the minute details of Carolina basketball. A Walter Davis bandaged hand after the 1977 ACC Championship. A James Worthy missed free throw in 1982. A sleepless night after a season-ending loss to Georgia in 1983. The pain, the joy, they are all still fresh in his mind.

Jones, 53 years old, now, remembers watching the 2016 game from his home just as easily as when he cheered the Tar Heels on from Carmichael Arena.

“I kept thinking this is it — it’s over with,” Jones said, recounting the moment when Villanova held a six-point lead with less than two minutes to play.

But then Marcus Paige hit “The Shot” to tie the game. Falling to the floor, on one foot, almost posing for the camera, the fate of the season hung in the air, in the shape of an orange sphere.

“I’ve seen so many of those Carolina games where we made amazing comebacks,” Jones said. “But that’s one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen.”

***

Pat James sat center court, three rows back, with his fingers glued to his keyboard when Villanova inbounded the ball with 4.7 seconds left.

After Paige’s shot, he rested for a moment, taking it all in, but then looked right back at his screen.

“When Marcus hit the shot, first it’s kind of hard not to take in the spectacle of it,” James said. “I don’t think anyone could predict what happened next.”

As the sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel and a senior at UNC, the intersection of work and fandom was never more evident. He had two tweets prepared for the DTH’s sports account: one, if the Tar Heels lost, the other if the game went to overtime.

“As soon as Ryan Arcidiacono passed the ball to (Villanova forward Kris) Jenkins, I was already editing the losing tweet,” James said. “I knew it was going in.”

Swish.

“I hit send, I stood up, they celebrate, and I’m watching it all happen as I’m packing my bag,” he said. “I wanted to get out as quick as I could, but I also didn’t care to watch it, as well, from a fan stand point.”

James was the first one out of the media section, hurtling toward the locker room. He pre-wrote part of his story, but after that ending, a blank canvas awaited him as he walked in a room of heartbroken men.

“I had to go over and shake (UNC sports information director Steve) Kirschner’s hand to tell him thank you,” James said, “And in that corner on the left side is Hubert Davis with his hands in his face and there’s Roy [Williams] shaking his head.”

As a senior, covering the last basketball game of his career as the sports editor, the gravity of the moment began to sink in. Sure, he would cover a few baseball games, and yes, he would edit plenty more stories — but this was it. This was what the whole year had built up to. Now he must write.

And how can you do that, in a moment like this? How is it possible to put the emotions, the memories, the power of that game, into words?

“All day, you’re thinking about it,” James said. “Eventually you’re going to have to put your fingers on the keyboard and pound this thing out.”

“While hopefully I’ll get to cover some big stuff down the road, what could possibly get bigger than this?”

***

Marcus Paige sat in the back of the locker room, Gatorade towel draped around his sweating neck, with dozens of microphones in his face.

The point guard had surely spent many nights dreaming about that moment. The moment where he could hit a shot, acrobatic and beautiful, that would give his team a chance to win at the most crucial moment of the game, with his back firmly against the wall.

And he did.

Yet, here he sits, with tears in his eyes.

“That was supposed to be our moment,” Paige said. “I’m going to see it, and it’s going to hurt every time.”

He would never make another 3-pointer, as a Tar Heel. He would never run down the court calling a play, as a Tar Heel. He would never sprint out of the tunnel to a roaring crowd in the Dean Smith Center wearing no. 5, as a Tar Heel.

“It’s hard,” Paige said, “because at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.”

For four years, Paige worked every day for the chance to sit in that locker room and take questions from reporters. It’s what motivated him. The awards were great, the kind words were fine, the regular season wins were important. But a national championship — that’s what kept Paige up at night.

He couldn’t help but look back at his time in Carolina Blue. The wins and the losses and the laughs and the tears. His jersey would be in the rafters in the Smith Center with dozens of others, but was that enough?

“You had to get to this level to be considered and to be remembered,” Paige said.

“There’s not a whole lot of guys that have done better than us if you think about it. It’s hard to say now because we were so close to being at the top of the mountain.”

Look down, Marcus. Look how far you climbed.

***

Julianne Strickland sat in the back of a black Nissan Sentra somewhere on a highway in Texas at 3:00 a.m., when someone finally brought it up.

What was it? Maybe it was Paige’s shot. Maybe it was the wrong shade of blue confetti pouring over them as the buzzer sounded. Maybe it was the aching feet from standing in the April, Texas heat. Until that moment, there was silence. Yes, a passing comment about getting gas or stopping to use the restroom, but not a word about the game.

Strickland dared the silence, “I thought we had it won.”

The sophomore and four other friends made the 21-hour trek to Houston to see the Final Four and National Championship games. They took turns driving, slept at a friend’s house at Rice University, and were the first people in line at 8:00 a.m. for the national championship.

“When I bought my tickets I had no clue how I was going to get there or where I would stay,” Strickland said, “But I just trusted that everything would work out.”

Back in the car, her head leaned against the rear window, with a Brice Johnson jersey on, the memories rushed back. From the second row of NRG Stadium, she witnessed one of the greatest endings in the history of the illustrious game of basketball.

“It went from one of the greatest moment of our lives to the worst,” she said.

But there’s no regret for Strickland. She would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What is a five-page paper, what is a good night’s sleep, what is a hundred bucks, to memories made?

“It’s like loving family members — no matter how many times you get upset or disappointed with them, they’re still your family,” Strickland said. “Yeah, my heart felt like it was ripped in two, but I can’t stop loving this team.”

“I will always cheer for those players because they make it feel like I’m part of their family.”

-da

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In the past year, I have stood in dozens of locker rooms, from holding back tears in Houston after a national championship loss to holding back laughs in Charlotte when Cam Newton waltzed around singing tunes. I have spent a summer in the nation’s capital working for a sports agency, from holding back screams when Larry Bird was on the phone to holding back screams (again) in DC traffic. I have moved into a house (goodbye dorms), I have seen my favorite bands, I have read too many books, and I have loved every minute.

And you’ve been there for it all. A year ago on this day I bought davidrallenjr.com, and I never imagined the stories I would be able to tell.

I have mourned Grantland, reminsiced about granddaddy, celebrated my beautiful parents, and cried about the Braves (happens more often than you think).

I have written poetry, discussed my favorite lyrics, remembered those who inspired me, and remembered my Father, who died for me.

I have loved my dogs, my siblings, my friends (and our home), my church , and yes, I told you what words mean the most to me.

And you have listened. Somehow, 8,981 of you have read one of these stories. And for that I am forever thankful.

I do not know what my life will be like on November 1st, in 2017, but I will do my very best to ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8), and I’ve got a funny feeling we’ll all be just fine.

-DA

Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

-Wendell Berry

The Prodigal Team

Mark Wohlers threw it. Marquis Grissom caught it. The Atlanta Braves won it. The year, 1995.

It took the Braves six games to defeat the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series. The demons — a pair of losses to the Twins in 1991 and the Blue Jays in 1992 — were squashed and tossed in the corners of the champagne stained locker room, the moment Fred McGriff commenced the dog pile on Javy Lopez. The Atlanta Braves were World Champions.

I’d like to think I kicked in my mother’s stomach that night.

While she watched from a two-bedroom home in Shelby, North Carolina, my dad was just down the road, broadcasting a high school football game on the radio. In between breaths, he leaned over trying to catch a peek of his Braves on the television strategically placed in the booth.

When the baseball landed in Grissom’s glove and Fulton County Stadium went delirious in uproar, my dad couldn’t help but let out a yelp on air — I’d like to think he wished I was with him that night.

***

I was born in March of 1996, just five months after that October celebration. As I was being passed around from one relative to the next, the Braves were at Spring Training and had been dubbed “the team of the 90s.”

It couldn’t be a better time to be born into Braves fandom. In that decade Atlanta went to five World Series’, boasted three hall of fame pitchers and drafted a franchise player in Chipper Jones.

So as soon as I could walk, I was reaching for a baseball and dragging a glove everywhere. My dad would back the car out of the garage, and I would throw the ball against the wall for hours.

I was playing for the Braves, you see. I was the star pitcher, the clutch hitter and the revered manager. I was the Most Valuable Player. I was the baseball card every kid dreamed of unwrapping from the pack.

My parents had to haul me in from outside every night. They would bathe me in my Braves colored bathroom, tuck me in under my Braves bedspread, and help me say my prayers, all under a Chipper Jones poster.

My first pilgrimage to Atlanta came in the summer of 2002 with my dad and granddad. It was an out-of-body experience. Chipper was feet away from me. Marcus Giles signed my book “Best Wishes, David!” Atlanta’s stadium, Turner Field, was so much bigger than my garage.

I still have the ticket stub. First base line. Row 7. Seat 5. Section 119. God, is this what Heaven is like?

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***

This isn’t a story solely about games and numbers, but they have to be included. The arc doesn’t make sense — the narrative is incomplete — without understanding the agony.

The Braves weren’t a bad team. And that’s the thing. They were great. They were promising. They were fun to watch. They won at least 88 games for 11 years in a row. They have been to two World Series since I’ve been alive. But they just couldn’t win them. And that — that is worse than anything else.

The first playoff game I ever went to was on October 7, 2002, for the final meeting of the Braves-Giants Divisional Series. Dad and I piled in his 1996 Honda Accord and drove 211 miles in brutal interstate traffic to Turner Field. My excitement was unparalleled. Christmas morning joy couldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath.

At least that’s what it felt like when I took my seat for the first pitch. Because after the Giants won 3-1 behind a Barry Bonds home run to win the series, it was like Christmas morning with lumps of coal under the tree.

But the nightmares didn’t end there.

There was 2004, when the Braves blew a 2-1 divisional series lead at home to the Astros. There was 2005, when the Braves played the Astros again in the divisional series and took the final game to 18 innings, but lost on a walk off home run. There was 2010 when Atlanta second baseman Brooks Conrad made two errors in the bottom of the ninth in what felt like a sealed game against the Giants. The horror stories continued to pile. There were playoff losses to the Dodgers and Cardinals in heartbreaking fashion, too. There were trades, free agent signings, management changes, and everything in between. It was simple: the Braves couldn’t finish. But dad and I couldn’t seem to stop caring.

***

For me, life as a Braves fan revolved around three things: My dad, Chipper Jones and losing when it counted.

I was only a Braves fan because of my dad. I didn’t choose the Braves, I was born, bred and baptized as a Braves fan. It was dad who drove while I slept on the way to Atlanta. It was dad who threw ball with me in the backyard every night. It was dad who taught me to appreciate the sport, the team and even the misery.

 

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If dad made me a Braves fan, Chipper Jones kept me a Braves fan. I played third base not because I wanted to, but because Chipper did. I put a wad of sunflower seeds in my mouth when I stepped to the plate because Chipper did. I tried to be a switch hitter because Chipper was.

And as for the losing, that was just part of the game. It was always just a series of tumultuous events that left me in tears every season, but it was nothing that would stop me from finding a new team. That wasn’t an option.

So in 2012 when Chipper decided he was going to retire, my dad, brother and a few of my friends made the trip to Atlanta to see our hero play in person, once more.

After $20 worth of hot dogs and sodas that September evening, the Braves found themselves down four runs going into the bottom of the ninth. Again, it felt as if the four-hour drive to Atlanta was for naught. But a rally emerged.

I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a Reed Johnson base hit. Then a pair of walks to Paul Janish and Michael Bourn. Yes, then a lucky error by the Philadelphia defense. And all of a sudden two runs scored and Chipper had a chance to win the game with one swing of the bat.

Of course, you know the story. I wouldn’t be telling the story if he struck out. Chipper hit the ball a mile into the right field bleachers. I don’t know if it ever landed, to be honest. It may still be in orbit.

Dad was on the ground in a matter of seconds. He was rolling down the steps, losing his glasses and his sanity. I did the opposite, collapsing into my seat, praying to God I wasn’t dreaming. And after collecting ourselves, we hugged. We hugged for what felt like an eternity. I cried, because we won. And Chipper hit it. CHIPPER HIT IT. We won. Really, WE WON.

The Braves could have lost every game for 16 years, and in that moment it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing mattered. It was just a normal, unimportant, regular season game. Just one of 162 they played that season. But to us, it was the game. It was the game I would tell my children about one day to remind them there is hope as a Braves fan.

High school graduation could come knocking. College could come knocking. The real world could come knocking. And eventually I would have to answer. Eventually, the little boy snoring in the sleeping bag, sprawled out in the back of the car on the way to Atlanta would have to sprout from his Braves colored room for something bigger. And we both knew that.

So we hugged, cried, and never wanted to leave Turner Field.

The Braves won. And not another damned thing mattered.

Because tonight, we were together.

David Ray Allen Jr.

 

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Community

“And let us consider how we may spur one another together on toward love and good deeds. ” Hebrews 10:24

“This is how we know what love is: that He laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down ours for our brothers and sisters.” 1 John 3:16

It’s weird, when you’re young, you are born into a community, without much choice. You have your family, and quickly in school, you meet friends. By the time you can mutter through the alphabet and have memorized your multiplication tables, you are set in your ways. There’s the immediate family and the best buds, and sure, things change over the next ten years, but often, your community stays the same. And that’s how it was for me.

So when college comes, no matter how prepared you are to make the move and flock from the comfort zone of home, you are forced to find new community. To find new family. To find new friends. To find the place that makes you want to wrap up in a warm blanket and fall asleep and never wake up because never, ever, have you been in a better place, with better people.

For some reason, it took me awhile to find my home in Chapel Hill. Which seems so unlikely and scary. I was raised in the church. I spent countless hours at my church on Sunday’s and Wednesday’s and all the time in between. So when I left for college, there was no question that I would look for a new church home, but it didn’t happen right away. And that was God’s will.

I thought I could do it myself. Don’t call it millennial or transcendentalist, call it what it is: pride. I wrestled and yanked. I had questions and needed answers, and didn’t always get them. I thought I was smarter and bigger than the church, in a lot of ways. I had a hole and wanted it to be fixed, but without having to put in any effort. I had pain. A little bit of a self-esteem issue, a lot of sorrow about losing my granddady, a critical heart that always reached for the speck in another’s eyes, before looking at my own.

And those days of freshman year and into sophomore year of questioning and growth without community are what have made my home at Chapel Hill Bible Church even sweeter. It’s what I needed, in some ways. To go on my own and find myself in a lot of ways and then be welcomed by the Body of Christ. And in this case, a new Body of Christ. One with dozens of people my age, who all fight the same things I do, and one with great leaders and role models of faith. It’s not that my home church didn’t have those things, because they did. It’s just that distance makes the heart go fonder, as they say. And after a year of trying to walk with the Lord by myself, home at the Bible Church was like nothing I had ever felt. In many ways, it’s been the biggest blessing of my time in Chapel Hill.

It’s not always words from peers or swing dancing on the beach. It’s not even their smiles or their hugs.

It’s just that once more I’m surrounded by people who seek God everyday — every minute— and they love me for who I am.

And I promise you, I could sleep in that warm blanket forever and ever.