The Blacktop

Team AO,

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.  ~Graham Greene

This time of year often reminds me of my childhood as it does for many Americans. Growing up can be somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, and it is strange how some images and memories seems to fade away while others are burned into our psyche for life.  Many of us can trace our psychological make up back to some event that occurred in our childhood.  We tell the story over and over to anyone who will listen.  Many people choose to use traumatic childhood events or environments as excuses, while others choose to use such events as a springboard toward achievement.  It’s upon this canvas that I wish to paint a picture of my most influential environment as a child.  The blacktop! The blacktop taught lessons that the soft safe secure playgrounds of today have long-lost.  No more skinned knees and elbows, no more hard falls from the monkey bars, and no more bullies! On the blacktop, there were no over-protective mothers, of over enthusiastic fathers. A child had to learn to either stand up and fight or flee to the safety of the sidelines.

Dr. J (Julius Irving  if you are younger than 30) was the boyhood hero of the day, and basketball became the blacktop game of choice. We played several variations of the game, but one game in particular was almost a rite of passage for those that dared enter the blacktop. The official basketball game was called Elimination, but in the hood, we called it “limmo” for short. Basketball in my neighborhood was almost like mortal combat, and “limmo” separated the men from the boys.  The high schoolers (we called them old heads)  would use “limmo” as a toughness/skills filter before the serious competition began.  By the time I reached middle school, I had summoned up enough courage to try my hand in the brutality. The rules of the game were simple.  You could get away with anything that you were tough enough to take in return. There would be a series of elimination levels based upon points…

  • Elimination 1: A player is eliminated if they have not scored 2 points by the time any player had accumulated 10 points.
  • Elimination 2: A player is eliminated if they have not scored 10 points by the time any player had accumulated 21 points.
  • Elimination 3: A player is eliminated if they have not scored 21 points by the time any player had accumulated 27 points.
  • The winner is the last man standing on the blacktop at any level or the first to reach 32 points.

Everyone was invited to join the game, the blacktop is no respecter of persons.  The game itself had no fouls, no teams, no favorites, it was every man for himself. It was in a sense free-enterprise… Some kids were bigger, smarter, taller, and stronger, but everyone had the right to compete!

In every game there would be a large group of kids that I will call the Fensters. Fensters would sit idly on the fence and commentate on those few brave souls that dared to actually compete.  They would offer advice ALL the time, and often they would mock the kids at each elimination.  I learned early on that those that sit by and watch the game were often too cowardly to actually play the game, therefore their opinions, jokes, ideas, and advice were of no significance.  Fensters never win, and on the blacktop they we relegated to the sideline where those that couldn’t wished the they could.

Another group of kids I like to call the Wincers.  Wincers would join the game and pretend to compete, but as soon as it got tough, they would wince and start crying all over the blacktop.  They would cry foul, and mumble all the way to the sideline as they were eliminated.  Early on in my blacktop career, I would find myself eliminated with a big group of Wincers, and I noticed that Wincers never grew any closer to winning.  They would more often than not join the ranks of the Fensters, therefore never gaining any blacktop respect.

A third group of kids that I will call the Spinsters would show up at the blacktop often.  These were the few kids with the new tennis shoes, private lessons, the new leather ball, and an ever-growing fan base.  Spinsters looked the part of a blacktop all-star, but secretly they were as weak as water.  Anytime they were on the verge of elimination or if anyone touched them a little too aggressively they would quit,  or threaten to call their mom, and take their ball home. The sad thing about Spinsters, is that they often had the talent to survive elimination and win, but their lack of heart always seemed to sabotage their results. I had little to no respect for the Spinsters because they had every advantage and no appreciation of their advantages.

The last group of kids trying to earn their way onto the blacktop I will call the Ministers.  There are call Ministers, mainly because it rhymes with the other names! Every balcktop kid started praying when the Ministers showed up.  Ministers would fight for every rebound. Cover every player any time they touched the ball.  Ministers would scratch, claw, push, and pull to avoid elimination.  And on those occasions when they would get eliminated they would go to the sideline and practice their dribbling.  They would stay until dark trying to play one more game.  The Ministers would study the old heads and attack any weaknesses, all the while improving on their strengths.  Ministers learned to ignore the Fensters, Wincers, and Spinsters. They were too busy trying to win to take note of cowards, whiners, and quitters.  Over time Ministers learned to scratch those 2 points by any means necessary, and make it through the first elimination. Some games they made it to the 10 point mark and were the only ones left playing with the old heads.  The Ministers learned that at the higher levels of  “limmo”, there is way less competition.  Eventually the Ministers would win a game and earn the old heads respect, and their blacktop stripes.

The blacktop game of elimination is not any different from you and I trying to build a Leadership Community.  We too will encounter the Fensters that idly sit by and commentate on the way things should be, while never working to become an agent of change.  We will inevitably encounter a few Wincers that seemingly start the path of personal development, but their excuses often drown out their will to compete and grow. The Spinsters are often the loudest critics of your personal leadership journey… they have all of the privilege, and not enough heart to show up and serve other people.  All leaders are Ministers! Our enemies start praying when we wake up in the morning.  Everyone knows that the Ministers are going to win eventually, because they refuse to quit.  Do more and get better is their battle cry, and over time the victory will be theirs.

The sweet thing about the blacktop is that is a level playing field.  The blacktop was created for competition, and its rules are simple.  Everyone is welcome, but only a few can earn the stripes of a champion.  Everyday the competition begins anew, and new players join the ranks of those in competition.  We here on the TEAM have the advantage of working together, forging alliances, and competing with friends that we love and respect, but at some point it is going to be on the individual to fight for their position on TEAM leadership.  The blacktop is calling…Are you up for the challenge?


  1. I love how relatable this story is! I am absolutely up for the challenge! I too will have my bumps, bruises and scrapes to let everyone know that I’m still in the fight! Thank you Raymond for being such a great leader and man of faith!

  2. Raymond that is an awesome story thank you for sharing it. It is an great example of what a lot of us probably go through. I feel as though I am going through all the steps of this game slowly making improvements as I move forward. Thanks to you and the rest of the TEAM of PPF for all of your patience. Trust me I have a lot to learn. Peggy Combs.

  3. Wow! This article is excellent Raymond! It will be no surprise when you & Tina reach policy counsel and beyond! I am moved to tears (not that it should be a surprise to anyone…lol) however I’m so glad to be on the blacktop with every leader of AO because everytime I show up at the blacktop (open meetings, seminars, & majors) I know I’m in the game with winners, encouragers, and great examples of Ministers! I too will earn the stripes of a champion and my rightful position on TEAM through being disciplined and consistent! Raymond you obviously have your mind on the right track and I know the numbers for PC are sure to follow. Thanks for leading & living intentionally for excellence!

  4. Bravo again Mr. Abernathy! Excellent post!

    Tina Abernathy reporting for Black Top assignment with a goal of Minister only! All other positions are of no interest to me because if Great is available, then my children’s future’s are worth the fight.


  5. Raymond, this may be one of your best posts. As a child, I was probably bouncing from Fenster to Spinster, depending on the day. As I’ve gained age and wisdom, The inner “Minister” has emerged. I found my purpose. I may get knocked down, but I’ll get up again and again and again.

  6. As we are living intentionally for excellence, we cannot help but to find ourselves on “The Blacktop”. When we STP, EORO, Go-getter, practice long term vision, delayed gratification and the power of compounding we become ministers along the life journey. “Way to Go” to all the Ministers on Team Life who are brave enough to get on the Blacktop!

  7. Big dawg growing up a inner city youth (the projects) i oh so well know what the game of elimination (limmo) is like and i have to say i once started out as a fenster too afraid to compete with all of the BIGGER guys (i only weighed 70lbs soaking wet lol) and didnt want to end up in someones ER,but there was always that urge inside that screamed you are a MINISTER!! and on that hot stl summer day of i would say 1972 i took the court and became a MINISTER!! and oh did that feel good sorta like when we show someone the Life im on the court saying who’s up Next?! the challenge is on Team A/OJ1 walk a mile see a mile WOOF

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