College basketball fans across the country are descending on four regional locations this weekend, hoping their team has what it takes to make it to the Final Four in Dallas, which brought back memories of our trip to Houston for the 2011 NCAA Final Four and the life lessons learned amidst disappointment.

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE FINAL FOUR (PART 1)

Proverbs 10:1-14; 31-32
The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut out.
—Proverbs 10: 31

Becca, Allison, Jillian, and I drove thirteen hours to Houston to watch our beloved Kentucky Wildcats in the 2011 Final Four. Unfortunately, the Wildcats lost to UConn by one point, 56–55, in the semifinal game at Reliant Park before a record Final Four crowd of more than 75,000 fans.

Our pre-game excitement and anticipation was suddenly replaced by the disappointment of missing the championship game. Our plans and hopes were derailed. Instead of enjoying the sights and sounds of Houston and waiting eagerly for the Monday night showdown, I tried unsuccessfully to unload our four Monday night tickets at the NCAA fan to fan ticket window. We took the long walk back to our car in an outer parking lot.

Now we searched for a good meal to soothe the misery of seeing our team lose a game in which they had shot the ball poorly. I had not eaten since the beginning of the Butler–VCU game five hours ago, and I was very thirsty. I should have gotten something to eat between games, I lamented.

We waited seemingly forever in traffic to get back to the interstate that would take us to our downtown hotel eight miles away. As we sat at a red light near our hotel, a loud siren unexpectedly pierced the air. A policeman on a motorcycle whizzed by my door. He drove into the middle of the intersection and cordoned a path for an oncoming vehicle.

The light turned green, and I was faced with a decision. Do I go, or do I stay? A driver behind me blasted a very loud horn! No suggestions were forthcoming from inside the car. Backseat drivers, where is your help when I need it most? I dashed into the intersection and turned left. I sensed that I was in harm’s way as a second policeman on a motorcycle sped by me escorting the vehicle.

Nervously, I jammed the gas pedal to avoid the motorcycles and whatever was on my bumper. I veered quickly into a small parking lot to the right and breathed a big sigh of relief. Whew, that was close! I glanced to my left and saw a big blue bus…with “Kentucky Basketball” on the front fender. It was the UK team bus on the way to the Hilton Hotel! We drove almost 800 miles to Houston, only to be totally disappointed when UK lost, and we almost got run over by the team bus!

After struggling to find a restaurant, we finally gave up and pulled into a McDonald’s drive-thru. That is when my ugliness burst out. Having made curt replies in the car ever since I left the NCAA ticket booth, I was tired of driving in a city where I didn’t know my way around. I was irritable, angry, frustrated, hungry, and thirsty.

Trying to relay four separate orders to an employee who was having trouble following me, I abruptly said, “Just forget it,” and childishly drove away. Deservedly, I got the full brunt of it in the car from the other three famished family members. My ugliness had erupted, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed.

“Let’s just go inside and place our orders,” I said. But the restaurant was locked, and only the drive-thru was open! Sheepishly, I went through the drive-thru for the second time, and Jillian did a great job of summarizing our orders. We ate our lukewarm burgers and fries in our hotel room as we replayed the shortcomings of the game.

Prayer: Father God, I had no excuse for acting so ugly. I thank you for your forgiveness which you gave me after I made a fool of myself in front of my family, the drive-thru attendant, and you. Thank you for all of the times you forgive me when I don’t deserve it. In the name of Jesus who died for me, amen.

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE FINAL FOUR (PART 2)

Proverbs 19:17, Acts 20:35

When you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord. And He pays wonderful interest on your loan!
—Proverbs 19:17 (TLB)

Early Sunday morning after UK’s disappointing loss the previous night, I walked to the team hotels to unload the tickets, but I had no luck. No one wanted uppers (upper level tickets), and the people with uppers were trying to buy lowers (lower level tickets). I called two work associates in Houston to see if they could use the tickets, but they weren’t home.

Becca came up with a wonderful idea to give the tickets to Houston policemen or firemen. Before taking Allison to the airport to catch her flight, we headed for the nearest precinct about ten minutes from the hotel.

After a wrong turn, we found ourselves in front of the massive Second Baptist Church of Houston. I asked the policeman directing traffic where the nearest fire station was, and he said he didn’t know. Inwardly I smirked, “One of Houston’s finest doesn’t know where the nearest fire station is?” My attitude still needed plenty of work.

I pulled into a small shopping center parking lot as Becca searched for the fire station location on her mobile phone. In an adjacent smaller parking lot sat a security attendant in a golf cart. Becca explained our predicament to him. He was extremely helpful and explained that the fire station was about a mile away on our left.

Becca thanked him, and the following observations came from one of the girls in the back seat. “He was really nice. Why don’t we offer him tickets?” We all agreed. I parked the car and walked to his golf cart.

He was a gentleman in his late fifties, but the years had taken their toll on him. I explained how we were in town for the Final Four, how our team had lost, and that we were headed back to Atlanta. When I asked him if he would like to have two tickets to the final game, he instantly beamed and gushed, “I can’t believe it! Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I’m going to call my mama and tell her about this. I came down here after Hurricane Katrina. Bless you. Bless you!” He chatted about how he had watched the games the previous evening, how he enjoyed watching the Kentucky team, and that he was now pulling for Butler. Right answer, I thought, since UK had lost to UConn.

As this wonderful man spoke, I literally felt God flip my attitude upside down. A warm glow engulfed me like a wave from his sincere and enthusiastic appreciation and gratitude. Suddenly, the bitterness of the past twelve hours melted. With his reference to Hurricane Katrina, it is reasonable to assume that the gentleman had come from the New Orleans area. Quite possibly he was one of the thousands of people who were moved by bus from NOLA to Houston. For him to want to call his mother about a couple of basketball tickets, perhaps it had been a monumental struggle for him ever since he had arrived in Houston in 2005. Perhaps he no longer envisioned opportunities such as attending the first NCAA championship game in Houston since the early 1970s.

When I described his response to Becca, Allison, and Jillian, they were all delighted that we had given him the tickets. As I backed out of the parking spot, the gentleman drove his golf cart over and stepped out.

As Becca rolled down the window, he said, “I appreciate these tickets so much. I will tell everybody that I know how I got them, and I will be thinking of you all of the time that I am at the game!” Later, I was so pleased that he came over because my entire family received a similar blessing that I had received. I thought, That fellow has got be a UK fan for life now.

Becca is superb at directions, but we took a wrong turn that morning. I believe God arranged for our “impromptu” meeting to happen. Perhaps he saw a humble and gracious servant who needed a lift. God also saw the individual “needs” in our car. He saw me in need of an attitude adjustment as I thought about the upcoming thirteen-and-a-half-hour drive. He saw Becca talking about unfair writers and bad calls, including Josh Harrellson’s second foul. That was the one that I disagreed with so demonstratively that I almost fell in the lap of the fan in front of me. Jillian was dreading Monday morning when she would return to her shorthanded office to face potential fire drills instead of cheering for UK at the national championship game. Allison was anxious about her return to class at Emory University because one of her group projects was not going smoothly. God rearranged everybody’s perspective through this wonderful gentleman, a person who had so much less materially but was so rich in spirit.

From the New Testament teachings of Paul, Jesus taught his disciples that it is indeed more blessed to give than receive (Acts 20:35). From the Old Testament, Proverbs 19:17 (TLB) states, “When you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord. And he pays wonderful interest on your loan!” We made a small effort to help some people. But God repaid us in a way that will keep on giving. Whenever we think of Houston and our first Final Four as a family, it will be about how we traded our tickets for the lifelong memory of a grateful saint. I look forward to seeing my friend from Houston in heaven and asking him how he liked the game.

Prayer: Dear Lord, I can’t wait to meet that wonderful saint from Houston in heaven. You melted my anger and frustration through a simple encounter with a person who has enjoyed far fewer privileges and has gone through many more struggles than me. Thank you for the gratitude check. In Jesus’s name, amen.

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