Leaving it all on the floor

So…may I be permitted a basketball metaphor? It’s been a while, so I figure I’m overdue.

The NBA season is now officially over. I admire the way the league has responded to the unexpected difficulties and trauma of this unusual year. The players have been united in advocating for social justice. And you have to hand it to the think tank people who came up with the idea of the “Bubble” — a protected facility where teams could compete without fear of infection.

Nobody knew, of course, just how the Bubble would affect the course of the playoffs. It eliminated home-court advantage, but the techies still managed to create a virtual “crowd” (think of the video screens on America’s Got Talent and you’ve got the basic idea) that cheered the teams on (at one point you could see Shaquille O’Neal “sitting” courtside next to Barack Obama, while another seat might be occupied by someone’s golden retriever…).

But the real story, I think, is that The Butler (Almost) Did It.

Even with all the uncertainty and newness of the Bubble, people still had their predictions and narratives about who would come out on top. There were those who predicted the Los Angeles Lakers would win the West; most everyone else picked the Los Angeles Clippers instead. Unsurprisingly, the Lakers won the whole shooting match, taking home the team’s 17th championship trophy. Surprisingly, however, the Clippers exited early, setting off quite a bit of soul-searching in the organization.

The real surprise, however, was in the Eastern Conference. For the first time in the history of the league, the #5 seed (out of 8) conquered the conference and went to the Finals: the Miami Heat, led by veteran Jimmy Butler (fondly and humorously known as “Jimmy Buckets”).

Again, the predictions: the Lakers, behind the star power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and with the help of seasoned veterans like Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo, would mop the floor with Miami, a team struggling with injuries, and which boasted up-and-coming young players but no real superstar talent.

Truth be told, games 1 and 6 fit that narrative, and at the end of the sixth game, the Lakers did indeed hoist the trophy. But there were four games in between that changed the narrative.

Miami played a scrappy and tough game behind Butler’s leadership, who on occasion was nothing short of brilliant. Even on his less brilliant nights, though, there was no questioning his competitive heart. In basketball lingo, he “left it all out there on the floor,” giving everything he had and then some.

So, what, you might ask, does this have to do with my Sunday posts on hope?

Glad you asked.

First, let’s not forget that the contest plays out against the background of all the challenges of 2020, as I’ve already suggested.

Second, Butler and the Heat didn’t change the narrative of who would win. They changed the narrative of who would compete.

This is the way of hope. You may face overwhelming odds. Public opinion may be against you. Nobody thinks you have a chance. And in the end, in the strict sense, you go home as “losers.”

But that’s not the story people are telling about Miami.

Ultimately, they didn’t win, but they exceeded all expectations. They fought through injury and pain. They showed up to play, and played with heart for the full 48 minutes. Even rookies and youngsters had to step up, and learned to play on the biggest stage the game has to offer.

If they stick together as a team, if they continue to play with the same courage and heart, their future is bright indeed.

And that’s just the game of basketball, which may or may not be something we’ll get to play in resurrection bodies. (I vote yes.)

So what shall we say about those who claim to follow not a basketball mortal, but the God of the universe? Who are chasing not a trophy but a crown?

There are some contests we won’t win. Period. But that doesn’t excuse us from leaving it all out there on the floor. Because that’s the story of hope and courage we want people to be able to tell.