Waiting for Chitwood

The 1954 Milan Indians: “the real Hoosiers”

The 1954 Milan Indians: “the real Hoosiers”

Throughout the winter, the Downtown Brooklyn YWCA at the corner of 3rd Avenue and Atlantic hosts a weekly basketball league. It should not be surprising that this is a religious league; the YWCA is the oldest international women’s organization in the world, and the “C” has always stood for Christian. The league’s 30-year-old Executive Director Clint Holder, a soft-spoken, earnest, bear of a man, considers “Christian Life Basketball” — CLB — a ministry whose “ultimate purpose is to take the Cross of Jesus Christ to the basketball courts of America and the world.” Most of the players in the league are young African-American Christians, mainly evangelicals, who are used to street-ball, and while the league makes Christian ministry its public mission, getting young men off the street also seems partly the point.

Since its organization in the mid-‘90s, most of the teams in Holder’s CLB have names like Judah, Free Will, The Conquerors, and The Missionaries. This season, however, one team called themselves “Waiting for Chitwood” — a nod to the best, if most reluctant player in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” which Holder admits he’s never seen.

Chitwood was an assortment of over-educated, highly secularized white guys, the gentrifiers of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Clinton Hill. Their captain, theater director Andrew Grosso, described them this way: “Our team is a bunch of Jews, me (a fallen Catholic living in common-law sin with a Jew), a half Catholic-half Jew agnostic reporter, and one pretty religious Catholic guy that I haven’t actually met, but I’m assured has a pretty good outside shot.” They all had some experience on their public-high-school teams, or played a little intramural ball at their liberal-arts colleges, and were now heading to the local Y to test their mettle in a New York league with refs, glass backboards, and dead spots in the hardwood floors. Early on, someone suggested their play-calling would best be done in Yiddish.

They played their first game on a bitter Tuesday night in mid-January, minus their 6’4” red-headed, Jewish center, away for a bachelor party in the Poconos. A few days before the game, Grosso sent an e-mail to prepare his team. After detailing the schedule, game times, fees, and mentioning a friendly pub across the street, then giving an exhaustive list of train lines that converged at the Atlantic Ave. subway station, Grosso finally explained the role Jesus would play in the league, so far as he could tell, having attended a pre-season captain’s meeting.

“So… this brings me to Jesus. It was explained that everyone is welcome and no one is going to try to convert us. The Christian part seems basically to mean 1) no fighting, 2) no doo rags [sic], and 3) drug dealers aren’t permitted to coach teams (which seemed to be met with a great deal of approval by the other captains at the meeting). Also there’s no swearing. Apparently, this means no swearing at others. I.e., if you mess up a lay-up (scratch that, I refuse to type that sentence, it’s bad karma) if you miss a dunk and happen to mutter, ‘Aww, shit!’ in frustration, then it’s my understanding that you are asked not to do so again.  However, if you miss said dunk and I yell ‘You stupid fucking assface moron, get your shitrod neck out of your colon,’ then I’d be kicked out immediately. The only other religious aspect is that we have to hold hands silently and listen to the opening and closing blessings. It’s not that bad and pretty quick and painless.”

Chitwood marched onto the court in gym-clothes and loosened up with a shoot-around and some lay-up drills. Their opponents, Holder’s own Archangels, came out in full uniforms, and had obviously not just played together before, but had practiced; they had even made up a play book with pro-level hand signals to direct the offense. They would run “thumbs down” over and over and over.

As promised, there was the blessing before the game, led by the thickset minister-cum-coach, with both teams holding hands at center court, heads bowed, the Christian players repeating, muttering, the CLB’s principles of unity, prayer, love, discipline, respect, teamwork and sportsmanship, “all this in the name of Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God.” They offered thanks for the Lord’s bringing them safely in from out of the cold. They promised the Lord and each other brotherhood and some “Christ-like fun.”

“Yes Jesus!”

During the game, Grosso only once encountered a little trash-talk: “I got #10,” said Grosso; Archangel #10 said in reply, “Yeah, you try to have me.” In a moment, #10 realized that this trash-talk, as tame as it was, was not very Christ-like, and apologized to Grosso, patting him on the back as they together loped down the court. The hot-hand Catholic missed from outside. When a Chitwood hit the hardwood chasing a loose ball, an Archangel helped him up like the Good Samaritan. At the final buzzer the teams gathered again at center court for prayer, thanking Jesus for not for a win, but just another good game. Amen.


Grosso’s team retired to the friendly pub after the game, nursing a 27-point opening-season loss with tap beers and pepperoni pizza. They sat around recapping the game. Despite a series of missed lay-ups, and the realization that the Catholic on the team was going to have an off night once in a while, no one had called anyone an assface moron.

“What about the prayer?” asked their Jewish-Catholic agnostic reporter, as they all bundled up, bracing themselves for the wintry blast off the East River. “I think at the end one of our guys said ‘Amen’ real loud.”

Amen: I believe. Yes, God. Yes.

And one of Chitwood’s fallen Catholics (who will soon enough be living in common-law sin with his quasi-Catholic girlfriend) sheepishly raised his hand saying, Yes.

He gulped down his Brooklyn Lager, patted Grosso on the back, and said, “Next week, boys, I believe, next week. Just wait. We need our center.”

Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine. He is also is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury 2007).