Playing like a team

SpursLast week, on Father’s Day, Tim Duncan and crew got it done.  For the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, last year’s inglorious and disappointing defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat is now ancient history.

So…having written several posts on Paul’s image in 1 Corinthians 12 of the church as the body of Christ, I can’t resist a basketball metaphor.  After all, Paul liked to use imagery from the Olympic (and Isthmian) Games, so who knows — he might have found some rich material in the NBA.

To me, the matchup between the Spurs and the Heat symbolizes what I both love and hate about professional basketball.  What I love: a well-coached group of players who were drafted and then molded into a unit.  Each brings his own unique talents, but subordinates his ego to the good of the whole.  What I hate: trying to net a championship by bringing together high-priced free agents to dominate the opposition with incredible individual talent.

I’ve said it before: LeBron deserves his props.  He may well be the best baller on the planet right now.  And he single-handedly tried to claw Miami back into the series.  “Follow my lead,” he told his teammates before the game, as the Heat took to the hardwood and dominated the Spurs for the better part of the opening quarter.  The problem was that LeBron’s “lead” was more about setting an example of individual effort than helping his teammates play together.

(During the trophy presentation, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver politely reminded the crowd that the Heat were a championship team, too, almost as if apologizing for the way they were blown out of the series.  Then he said that Miami could therefore “hang their heads high.”  Oops.)

When the Heat jumped to an early and impressive lead in game 5, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called a timeout.  Without yelling or scolding (which he is quite capable of doing), he told his guys, “We’ve gotta do this together.”  And they did.  San Antonio returned to the form that handily won them games 3 and 4, and stuck to the game plan the rest of the way.

The patient and dedicated teamwork of the Spurs on both ends of the floor this year was truly a thing of basketball beauty.

San Antonio’s “Big 3” were reliable as always.  Despite jibes and questions about their age and health, Tim Duncan (38 years old), Tony Parker (32), and Manu Ginobili (almost 37) each turned in solid performances.  But the series was won by the contributions of the role players that the Spurs organization had built around them — especially Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, a soft-spoken and seemingly shy 22-year-old who simply exploded in games 3 through 5 after Coach Popovich encouraged him to let it rip.

The Spurs probably have the most internationally diverse roster of players in the NBA (the Big 3 alone represent the Virgin Islands, France, and Argentina respectively).  But all the players are the same in one crucial respect: they buy completely into the team concept.  They have been taught to look for each other and to not hog the ball.  There is incredible trust and mutual camaraderie.  Heck, they even make hilarious TV commercials together (check this one out, with the Big 3 playing off the quietness of Leonard).  Watching video of these guys together makes you think, This isn’t just a basketball team; it’s a fraternity.

Everyone knows that basketball is supposed to be a quintessentially team game.  The Heat know it.  Miami coach Erik Spoelstra knows it, and told his players to help each other.  But at the end of the day, whatever the talk, it was the Spurs who walked the walk.

Forgive my enthusiasm, but is it too much of a stretch to find lessons for the church here?  Commentators continually remark on the humility of the Spurs, a word you don’t hear much in professional sports.  Watch 13 guys who respect and listen to their coach, because they know his way is the right way, and because they know he loves them, even when they have to endure his discipline.  Watch them encourage each other, and celebrate each other’s success.  Watch them bring different gifts to the same goal, each person giving 110% to the mission.  They work together to make the team better, but also have the wisdom to know when it’s time for them individually to step up and be the one to take the shot.

Congratulations to the Spurs; the championship is well-deserved.  Timmy D, it’s touching to see how much your adorable kids love you.  And I hope you don’t retire just yet.  The next generation of players, including Kawhi, needs your quiet and affectionate big-brother mentorship.

And may we learn to be the church as beautifully as the Spurs play basketball.


Update, 6/24: Duncan announced today that he will return for the final year of his contract with the Spurs.  Ring # 6 anyone?