Leveraging Rivalries to Help Build Community

Dear readers,

Today, I’m excited to introduce Josh Lappin, who has written us an excellent guest post. The driving metaphor here is about basketball, but even though I don’t follow sports, I still thoroughly enjoyed this piece. And if you’re a sports fan, you’ll really love it! Josh is an 8th grade English teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, and he is the owner of Summer Blazers TutoringHis full bio appears at the end of the article.


Chris Loper

Leveraging Rivalries to Help Build Community

by Josh Lappin

In school, I often remind students, “Be your best selves.”  This is easy for me to say because I am an adult with perspective.  I have seen my best self, and I’ve seen my worst self.  I know the difference, and I know what I need to do to become better.  I think it is much harder for our students to understand this concept.

As we approach the start of the school year, I keep wondering, “How are we going to ask students to be their best during a pandemic with remote learning most likely still a large part of the equation?” The answer remains the same: I know that building community and relationships through creative teaching is still the best bet.  In a strange way, I am excited for this as it allows me the opportunity to go into what I sometimes call, “Sales Mode.” In Sales Mode, I remind myself that there is a balance between the art and science of teaching. Knowledge of content remains vital, but during remote learning, the scale is tipped towards the importance of my teaching delivery. In other words, I have to “sell it.” I have to make something worth watching on the screen – something worth “tuning in to” in order to avoid having students tune out.

So, I started to think about what people are currently watching on screens. I considered the four realms: news, weather, arts, and sports.

  1. The News: Upon watching the news, I am immediately reminded of the importance of implementing racial justice in everything I teach. However, after remembering this vital element of my job, it did not take long for me to realize that nobody, regardless of political position, wants teachers to model learning after the way most news is reported on TV.
  2. The Weather: I have always been impressed with people who choose meteorology as a profession. I find that these people are typically very kind, and they devote their careers to delivering the clearest information possible. We can learn a lot about patience and tolerance from those who report the weather, as they tend to receive the most scrutiny when it comes to predicting what is often unpredictable. These are important qualities, but they are qualities that most good teachers already possess and leverage.
  3. The Arts: Movie theaters are closed, and production companies are just starting to reopen. Most people are watching reruns and diving deep into streaming options. People seem excited to watch TV series that they never wanted to watch before. This does not resonate with me. (Maybe this is why I’m reading so many books nowadays.)
  4. Finally, there is Sports: At first glance, sports today is discouraging. Empty stadiums seem to take more out of the experience than I thought. The broadcasts are quieter. It is strange. But then I saw the ratings. I was not the only one watching. Men’s sports? The Thursday night “Opening Day” game on ESPN was the most-watched regular-season MLB game since 2011. Women’s sports? The NWSL Challenge Cup Final between the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash had over 600,000 viewers – its best broadcast ever.

Sports, as a product to watch on a screen, is not just surviving the pandemic – it is thriving. It remains to be seen if we as a country can maintain a virus-free environment for the athletes, but if sports are on TV, we are watching! So, I need to take a step back and ask myself why I and so many other Americans are eager to stare at the screen and watch sports even with empty stadiums and unique restrictions. Whatever it is that sports are providing, I want it in my remote classroom this fall. I want good ratings too!

It is somewhat important to note that I am a New England sports fan. We know a thing or two about championships. The prospect of winning draws us all into watching sports. My Celtics are starting their season. I am excited, I will be watching, and I want them to win! However, if I’m being honest, the prospect of winning is actually not what is drawing me to screens broadcasting vacant stadiums, and I believe that millions of Americans would agree with me. There are many reasons to watch sports, but most of all, it is the players. It is the human element. It is the rivalry!

Consider this reality that I must face: Lebron and the Lakers will be playing basketball on TV soon, and as a dedicated, life-long Celtics fan, I could not be happier. I crave watching the rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers. There is something in my nature that requires this rivalry. Winning is exciting, but watching New England sports teams is much, much better when the LA Lakers, New York Jets, New York Yankees, and Montreal Canadians are relevant, competing with my teams and forming new narratives. For the sake of historical perspective on the subject, we should consider the best sports rivalry of all time.

The World Series in 2018 was between Boston and Los Angeles. Obviously, I watched it because the Red Sox were playing. Truth be told, my favorite part of the World Series that year was the FOX network’s pre-game opening video before Game 5. Viewers were treated to a short film featuring Los Angeles Lakers legend (and LA Dodgers owner), Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Boston Celtics legend, Larry Bird. The two rivals engaged in playful, friendly banter, promoting the splendor of the Boston – LA rivalry. Their relationship seemed the perfect introduction to this world series, and their story offers us important insight on – believe it or not – a few human elements that help build community in the remote classroom.

On a warm September day in 1985, just outside of French Lick, Indiana, Boston Celtics shooting forward Larry Bird stood in a gas station servicing his motorcycle. He had completed his morning exercises and was still wearing his workout clothes. The scene surrounding him was that of a quiet morning in a Midwestern town until three large black limousines drove by.

“Well, they’re here,” Larry said out-loud to nobody.

Inside one of the limousines, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson looked out the window.

“Maybe,” Magic said to another passenger, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Larry quickly paid the gas attendant and followed the caravan to its destination: his own home. As they pulled into the driveway, Larry paused and again spoke to himself.

“Why did I say ‘yes’ to this?”

These two basketball stars had agreed to film a television commercial for Converse sneakers. It was to be only thirty seconds long but would be the first of its kind, bringing together two professional athletes to promote one product. These were not just any athletes; they were the two biggest rivals in all of sports, each representing so much more than themselves: Boston versus Los Angeles. East Coast versus West Coast. Grit versus finesse.

The story of these two legends is brilliantly retold in the collaborative autobiography, When the Game was Ours, written by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson with the assistance of the talented sportswriter Jackie MacMullan. Many consider their rivalry to have been the greatest in the history of professional sports, and most believe it started in the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball championship game. However, their relationship began one year prior as teammates on a college all-star team.  For two weeks, Magic and Larry shared remarkable chemistry on the court. They each utilized a dazzling passing game, and Larry’s shooting skills complemented Magic’s ability to run. Yet, they were not exactly gracious to each other. They did not establish a friendship. There was never a reason for the two young stars to dislike each other, but they both realized a hard truth: Each was previously convinced that he was the most competitive and hardest working player in college basketball. Neither believed they would ever meet someone like themselves until they eventually met each other.

Thus, the rivalry was born. In their first meeting as opponents, Magic’s Michigan State team defeated Larry’s Indiana State team for the NCAA championship. Fans were eager to see them compete at the professional level, and it was only fitting that they were drafted by historic rivals: the Celtics and the Lakers.

Success came quickly. Magic’s Lakers won the NBA Championship in 1980, and again in 1982. Larry’s Celtics won the 1981 NBA Championship. Each year, the Celtics and Lakers competed only twice during the regular season, but in 1984, Larry and Magic at long last met in the NBA Finals. They had only played against each other nine times, and finally they met in what would become a legendary seven-game series. While each game was physical, emotional, and evenly scored, Larry and the Celtics won the seventh and deciding game on the coveted parquet floor of the Boston Garden. The following year, the Celtics and Lakers met again in the Finals, and it was the Lakers winning in six games, becoming the only visiting team to win an NBA championship in Boston. As of the summer of 1985, a better storyline could not have been written.

This brings us back to the three limousines and the motorcycle. Since Larry and Magic had first met, the two men had only engaged in small talk, working hard to avoid each other. When being interviewed by the media, each pretended to ignore the success of the other. However, both Larry and Magic felt the same way: They were enemies. They didn’t want to be friends. They were not gracious. They didn’t hate each other, but they didn’t like each other either. They both preferred it that way. They spent their free time finding ways to beat one another. This, they believed, made them better players, and more than anything else, each wanted to be the best. Even their coaches believed that their lack of communication was for their own good.

But they were all wrong.

If Larry and Magic did not care to create a gracious, respectful friendship, why was Larry inviting Magic to his house to shoot a commercial? Why did Magic accept the invitation? They had competed for seven years, yet they knew so little about each other. This was about to change.

Larry got off the motorcycle, and Magic stepped out of the limo. Would they continue the small talk, shoot the commercial, and leave quietly? Or was it possible that they would do the unthinkable? Fraternize with the enemy, the opponent, the rival?

On that summer day in 1985, Larry and Magic made the right decision. The bitter rivals began their meeting by moving to a quiet room where they spoke at length. Each talked about growing up in the Midwest, poor, in crowded homes. They both had paper routes and dreamed of saving enough money to buy new sneakers. Now, they would create a TV commercial for those very sneakers. Emerging from the house an hour later, the film crew was surprised to see them laughing, engaged in pleasant conversation. The commercial was recorded, it became popular, and within their rivalry there was now the gracious, respectful friendship that they used to fear.

Did it hurt their performances on the court? Not at all.  In fact, their performances flourished. The following year, Larry won his third Most Valuable Player award and the Celtics raised another championship banner. Eventually, Magic won three league MVPs, and the Lakers added two more championships.

In 1992, with both athletes approaching retirement, Larry and Magic were given an incredible opportunity. They would finish their careers together as teammates, this time as members of the United States Olympic basketball team. As predicted, the team won all of its games, most by a large margin. Yet the loudest cheers were heard on plays when Magic threw a no-look pass to an open Larry who made his signature jump shot.

It is doubtful that there will be another rivalry quite like Larry and Magic, but we can continue to learn from their experience. Their basketball story began as teammates, and they ended it as teammates. They created a rivalry driven not by hatred, but by respect. We all face competition and we develop rivalries – in sports and in life. Rivalries are relationships, but they do not need to be negative, rude, or without manners. A rivalry can be about building community. This is what happened with Larry and Magic, this is what I am seeing in sports on the screen today, and this is what we need to do when we go back to school in September.

How can we use this as inspiration in building the best possible remote learning experience?  Remote learning cannot be viewed as “distant” learning. We need to feel connected and close. Larry and Magic were always “together” even as they were 3,000 miles away on opposite sides of the country. (One could make the argument that their rivalry was a form of remote learning.) We can do something similar. We can incorporate and leverage respectful rivalries in our classroom and into our building of community. Whether it is group work or individual, formative or summative, traditional or innovative, we need to recognize what works: Competition can be about assembling positive relationships.

A key element will be group projects, ensuring that partners switch on a regular basis so that it is not the same students always achieving at the highest level. (I can also utilize “teacher discretion” when highlighting the work of certain students. This isn’t Olympic judging…) Projects will be shared and celebrated. This past spring, my teaching was at its best when my colleagues advised me on creative ways to pair students together constructively, exploring the meaning of the literature and building their own knowledge base.

When we read Romeo and Juliet, our first assessment was completed in teams. Students worked together to transform a scene from Act I into a digital comic book using the website bookcreator.com. I allowed students to “cast” modern-day celebrities as Shakespearian characters. (Tom Brady was an obvious Romeo.  Kanye was perfect as Mercutio. Pam from The Office was a nice choice for Juliet.) It gave me great pleasure to distribute high marks on almost every project, but going forward, high marks and group work will not be enough if I want students to feel as if they are building something special.

This fall, I will follow similar projects with the creation of a real Instagram account for my classroom and posting the top work. I have already decided that there will be a constructive project incorporated into our studies of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I have a good feeling that, even though the story takes place in the 1940s, there will be a need for the headmaster of the Devon School to create a mock Twitter account. I’m looking forward to reading the Tweets that my students create. There may even be a Zoom meeting among the faculty of Devon with students playing the parts of teachers and administrators. Of course, the best creations will be featured on our class’s Instagram page, and perhaps a winner will get a shout-out on our learning management platform.

As a teacher, I never will implement a culture of winners and losers into a classroom environment.  Everybody should win in school. Athletes are always cognizant of winning and losing, and that’s fine. However, Larry and Magic are both winners, and we can take this mindset and translate it into a pedagogical approach. Instead of being distant from each other, we can instead choose to know more about the people who have driven us to become our best selves. Our competition is not “the enemy” whom we dislike – the competition is made up of our friends, our colleagues, and our classmates, and they make us better.

The 1992 Olympic gold medal game was the last time they shared the court together, but not the last time they worked together. Larry and Magic have remained friends all these years, and they frequently find reasons to connect. Remember the video before Game 5 of the World Series? Consider both the admiration and banter in their dialogue:

Representing Los Angeles, Magic says, “I love you, Larry. I wish you good luck. And you know I really mean it. Even though I don’t.”

Representing Boston, Larry responds, “Love you too, Magic, and you’re going to need a lot of luck, especially when you’re down 3-to-1.”

Imagine how different this moment would have felt if these two rivals did not allow their relationship to evolve. Imagine the Larry and Magic story without the respect. Imagine the sports community without their model of gracious friendship. Larry and Magic are the gold standard, and we can use their story this fall. Let us leverage rivalry, just like the sports industry does, and let us use our screens to build successful communities filled with versions of our best selves.

Josh Lappin is the owner of Summer Blazers Tutoring. In addition, he is an 8th grade English teacher at Dexter Southfield School in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has taught combinations of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students for over 20 years in both co-ed and single-gender classrooms. Josh received his BA from Hobart College and his M.Ed. from Boston College. Outside of teaching, he coaches cross country, drives a school bus, and teaches adults how to drive a school bus. Josh’s hobbies include running, golf, attending the activities of his two children, fantasy football, and rooting for Boston sports teams. Josh lives in Dedham, Massachusetts.

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