Faith at the Final Four? Two ways to tell 'miraculous' story of Michigan's Austin Hatch

Faith at the Final Four? Two ways to tell 'miraculous' story of Michigan's Austin Hatch

The University of Michigan has made it to the NCAA men's Final Four, which means the odds are good that fans will have another chance to about the stunning life story of Austin Hatch.

Again. With good cause.

Trust me, his story of suffering, loss and courage is almost unbelievable.

Watch this ESPN mini-documentary and you'll hear that the events of his life represent a journey of "biblical proportions." The fact that this young man is alive is one thing. That he is living a fairly normal life, including a bit of basketball, makes him a "walking miracle."

The question, of course, is whether the news coverage will mention the role that faith -- Christian, as opposed to generic -- has played in Hatch's life.

To grasp the context, here is the overture of a typical story, care of The Toledo Blade:

Overcome it.
It’s a simple phrase and one that every sports team worldwide could use as a rallying cry. Athletics is the ultimate endurance test. Adversity is always lurking and how one responds often reveals what the end result will be.
For Michigan’s Austin Hatch, overcome it, which is stitched in maize and blue on the back of his shirt, carries an entirely different meaning.
The story’s been told countless times. Hatch, who starred as a freshman and sophomore at Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, has survived two plane crashes. The first in 2003 claimed the lives of his mother, Julie; brother, Ian; and sister, Lindsay. Hatch lost his father, Stephen, and stepmother, Kimberly in the second crash -- and nearly his own life.

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ESPN probes Jeremy Lin's 'inner life,' while paying little or no attention to his soul

ESPN probes Jeremy Lin's 'inner life,' while paying little or no attention to his soul

I think it's time for a short break from the Indiana wars, at least for a day. So what do you remember about "Linsanity"?

I am referring, of course, to those crazy weeks in 2012 when an unheralded point guard from Harvard University took over professional basketball, which is the kind of thing that can happen when you start playing out of your mind in Madison Square Garden wearing a Knicks jersey.

Jeremy Lin also received attention here at GetReligion because of the role that his Christian faith played in his life. Two headlines capture the tone  -- Sarah Pulliam Bailey's "Jeremy Lin, the Knick's Tim Tebow?" and a piece that I wrote, looking ahead, called "So, is Jeremy Lin a good fit in New York City?" One quote from the New York Times coverage says it all:

If Lin’s storybook week captured the imagination of New York City and the wider sports world, it hit the community of Christian Asian-Americans like a lightning bolt.

You get the picture. The world is not full of over-achieving evangelical Christians from Harvard who are also Asian-Americans and play point guard in New York City. So what happened? First he was traded to a city where, to be blunt about it, he was not as unusual -- playing for the Houston Rockets. But then he was shipped to one of the darkest black holes in the current NBA universe, the rebuilding with little to build with Los Angeles Lakers.

This brings us to the current ESPN: The Magazine feature on Lin, that ran under the massive double-decker headline: "Isolation Play -- It isn't Kobe's taunts or humiliating viral videos that have made this the toughest year of Jeremy Lin's life. It's the feeling that, as hard as he tries, he just doesn't fit in."

So while examining this young man's dark night of the soul, want to guess which part of the Lin story ESPN all but ignored?

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Fine Sports Illustrated salute to Dean Smith, yet haunted by one ghostly error

Fine Sports Illustrated salute to Dean Smith, yet haunted by one ghostly error

What we need here is a sports metaphor that will help me make a larger point about an amazing feature story that ran recently in Sports Illustrated, a tribute to the late, great University of North Carolina hoops coach Dean Smith.

This long and detailed piece story ran under the headline, "Hail and Farewell." The subhead provided the sad context: "Five years ago, amid his sad decline, the coach's former players and assistants found a way to say to him what he had always told them: Thank you."

I would love to link to this feature and share some of the finer points in it, in large part because both of my parents experienced dementia, of one form or another, in the last years of their lives. This SI story does a very sensitive job of dealing with the emotions involved in relating to loved ones caught in that bittersweet stage of life.

I would like to link to the piece, but I can't -- because it is behind a firewall, as is often the case with the best SI material (as opposed to swimsuit issue outtakes). I hope to add such a link in the future.

Anyway, my goal here is to praise this article, while also noting a really strange error at the end, during the crucial final passage. What I need here is a metaphor that links sports and religion to help readers understand the nature of this strange error.

Let's try this one, which uses a sports reference in a religion story, as opposed to this SI piece in which there is a timely religion reference in a sports story.

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Sports Illustrated surfs past an interesting fact in its Sportsman 'legacy' salute to Magic Johnson

Sports Illustrated surfs past an interesting fact in its Sportsman 'legacy' salute to Magic Johnson

I don't know about you, but every now and then I get into conversations (often on commuter trains, in my case) with other sports fans in which someone will ask, "So who are your top three sports heroes?" Well, that's pretty easy for me because -- as an old guy -- mine have been carved in stone for quite some time.

No. 1? That's the greatest professional basketball player ever -- Bill "How many rings do you have?" Russell. How does a Baptist preacher's kid in Texas end up as a fanatic fan of the greatest Boston Celtic of all time? His original autobiography was at the local library.

No. 2? I was in Texas, so Roger Staubach has to be near the top. And I've been a golfer since childhood, so then you have Jack Nicklaus. Right? Feel free to put your top three in the comments pages.

Anyway, I started with this overture because Earvin "Magic" Johnson is near the top of my top 10 and, honestly, I have him No. 2 on my hoops list. Yes, above Michael Jordan and Oscar Robinson may top Jordan, as well. I tend to favor guys who made every man on their teams better.

So I know quite a bit about Magic and his story. I've read most of the major long-reads and watched most of the documentaries. I know that he lived a very, very wild life that fueled all kinds of rumors when the HIV bomb hit. Where were you when you heard that news? I was in a parking lot at Denver Seminary, trying to find tissues in my car.

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Why it's no surprise the LA Clippers have a Jewish owner

A long, long time ago — pre-Internet for me — I wrote an “On Religion” column about Rabbi Robert Alper, who was billing himself in the early 1990s as the nation’s only rabbi who was “doing stand-up comedy — intentionally.” You can’t talk to a funny rabbi without digging into a question that, for some people, remains somewhat touchy: Why do Jews dominate the landscape of American humor? Some of the possible answers to that question are, in fact, fine examples of the kinds of jokes that Jews can tell about each other, while those same jokes would be offensive and out of bounds if told by the goyim.

I have thought of that complicated equation several times during recent weeks while — as a hoops fan — watching the tidal wave of mainstream media coverage of the complicated personal and professional affairs of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Several GetReligion readers have sent me notes asking, either directly or indirectly, when this blog was going to ask why more journalists were not exploring the fact that Sterling is, to one degree or another, Jewish.

This raises another question: To what degree is Sterling a secular, cultural, Jew as opposed to being a person who is actively practicing some form of the Jewish faith? Ask that question and others come tumbling along in its wake: Does it matter whether or not he is Jew (secular or religious)? Why is that relevant to his life as a businessman? Why connect that question with his muddy past on matters of business, sports and race?

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Getting faith into SI story of patient D-League hoops star

Once again, I realize that the world of GetReligion readers seems to contain a stunningly low percentage of sports fans, especially in comparison with the American public as a whole. Nevertheless, I follow sports quite closely and I have always been fascinated by the unusually high percentage of sports stories that include faith angles. Most of the time — take the whole Baltimore Sun ignoring Ravens religion-angles thrend — my GetReligion posts on sports have been rather negative. You know the kind of story I’m talking about. A sports star plays the God card or offers a highly specific comment about the role of faith in his or her life and a journalists never looks into the details or offers any context for these words.

The negative tone is so common, in fact, that people drop me notes from time to time wanting to know if anyone covering sports ever gets one of these stories right. Well, remember that amazing Sports Illustrated story about the great UCLA hoops patriarch John Wooden and the challenge he faced, and met, learning to embrace the great center Lew Alcindor as he made his pilgrimage into Islam and became Kareem Abdul Jabbar?

Well, now a member of the SI staff — one Lee Jenkins — has provided another wonderful example of getting the faith-angle right. This time around, we’re talking about a back-of-the-book feature about a player who is just as obscure as Jabbar is famous. The man’s name is Ron Howard of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Mad Ants franchise in the NBA’s Development League and he recently broke the career scoring record for a player in this minor-league circuit.

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No ghosts in this SI look at Wooden, Alcindor/Abdul Jabbar

Week after week, month after month, year after year, I write GetReligion posts in which I fault mainstream sportswriters for looking the other way when they encounter religious facts and themes related to the lives of amateur and professional athletes. Some reporters ignore or radically downplay the religious elements in the lives of important athletes and coaches (hello, Ravens-beat editors at The Baltimore Sun). Then there are journalists who allow athletes to flash the God-card in the language of a story, but then never follow up on those faith claims (hello Michael Vick) when it comes to digging out the facts (follow the money, follow the hours on the clock) about their lives in the real world. Where’s the basic journalism?

Often, after the publication of one of these God-and-sports posts, I hear from people who say that I am constantly pointing out the bad, without showing positive examples of coverage that gets the faith element of one of these stories right, combining religious symbolism, facts, etc., into one A-plus package.

Well, here’s one. The other day Sports Illustrated offered a long-read drawn from the biography of UCLA hoops legend John Wooden (“Wooden: A Coach’s Life“) written by veteran reporter Seth Davis. This particular chunk of the book was summed up in the headline, “The Wizard and the Giant.”

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Brittany Griner: ESPN gets close to key question

Truth be told, I still think that the question I asked a few weeks ago remains one of the most interesting questions one can ask about that big story that keeps unfolding down in Waco: “So, how did Brittney Griner end up at Baylor?”

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Jack Taylor's 138-point game and the Gospel of Matthew

Even though I’m not a big basketball fan, I’ve had a lot of fun with this story about Grinnell College’s Jack Taylor shattering the NCAA record books by scoring 138 points in a single game. The whole team beat Faith Baptist Bible 179-104. Faith Baptist Bible’s David Larson went an impressive 34 for 44 shots to score 70 points, too! Imagine scoring that many points and being a footnote to the story.

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