This article isn’t really about basketball, but we’ll start there.
I am not a Golden State Warriors fan. (Lakers till death. Check the banners please.)
I pity them for blowing a 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. I also find it hard to take seriously so many of these new Warrior “fans." Nice of them to finally show up. Hope they're tightly strapped onto their new wagons. Did I also mention they blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, the first time that’s ever happened in NBA history?
But I’ll be honest. There’s something powerfully attractive about their team culture.
REDEFINING THE GAME
On December 5, 2016, all-star forward Klay Thompson made history when he scored 60 points in just 29 minutes. It’s a truly remarkable feat you can watch here.
But what amazed me more were the genuinely joyous celebrations from his teammates. MVP players like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant were laughing and hopping around like little kids with each basket Thompson made.
If you know anything about basketball, you know it’s a team sport that is branded by individual star power. There’s only one ball and not everyone gets the same amount of shots and opportunities.
This can create a competition within the competition, as opposing teams compete against each other but players intra-team compete among themselves for shots and playtime.
Legendary coach and now-president of basketball operations of the Miami Heat Pat Riley referred to this as the “the disease of more.” People want to win not just at the game of basketball, but also at the “game of life,” where it’s not just about the scoreboard at the end of a game, but the accolades, titles, and net worth at the end of the career.
Yet remarkably, the Warriors are redefining how an NBA team full of star power should operate. They’re doing everything backwards, not just in their style of play, but also in their team culture. It’s not about personal success. They’re for each other. It’s not about who gets the most points. They’re truly about the team win. And we love this idea!
At least in theory right?
It’s interesting how often and quickly Jesus’ disciples got it backwards.
It should’ve been enough that they were invited to play a role in the unfolding storyline of God’s Kingdom. The disciples were after all unimpressive in the eyes of the world. Most of them were blue-collar workers who were privileged to partake in the meteoric ascension of Jesus’ earthly ministry. They got to witness firsthand the “in-breaking” Kingdom as Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom with power, and they had front row seats. They even got to get in the game and shoot, but it wasn’t enough. They competed with each other and jockeyed for position as to who would be “the greatest.”
This jockeying would take place during ministry “road trips,” during which they’d argue for the entire duration as to who was the best (Mark 9:33-36). It took place in private meetings between exclusive disciples and Jesus (Mark 10:35-45). Heck, these private meetings were even initiated by their mothers! You know it’s bad when grown men are throwing their mamas in the fray.
They were all about the personal box score and their net worth. They had “the disease of more.”
The signs of this disease permeate our lives in all sorts of different ways. We feel the tinge of jealousy or envy. We can’t look at someone without playing the comparison game. We secretly hope to tear them down and find delight when they fail.
The problem is that this disease will kill our souls. You can win at the game yet become the most unhappy person in the world.
CATCHING YOUR BREATH
See there’s something about us that views success not according to a standard of principle but in relation to the standards of people. We weigh our personal “wins” in light of the person next to us. Our A looks cheapened next to someone else’s A+ and we can be proud of our C- next to someone else’s F.
This is our grid for success and what leads to our happiness.
But this is problematic and dangerous.
If you choose to play this game, and succeed, you will grow self-absorbed through a puffed up view of yourself. If you play and lose, you will grow self-absorbed through a deflated self esteem. If you’re at the top of the mountain, everyone is competition to squash; if you’re at the bottom of the ditch, it’s because of “the man” up top who you must topple.
God is no longer worshipped as King but as a divine worker for your Kingdom. People are no longer neighbors to be loved but objects to be used for your personal agenda and advancement.
Life becomes a vicious, draining, never-ending cycle of control in which you feel like the best one moment, and then the worst in the next.
I used to wonder how much of people’s unhappiness was rooted in their own lack of success.
Now, I wonder how much of people's unhappiness is actually rooted in their inability to be genuinely happy for someone else’s success, which they feel to dilutes their own success.
But there’s something truly liberating and joyous when we’re able to celebrate the success of another. It releases us from our tiny, toxic prison of “me,” freeing us to take a breath of fresh air. We can now see God and His ways coursing and pulsating through others around us as we pour in our energies for the good of fellow mankind and the glory of God for His world.
I think we deeply long for this kind of “breathing culture” in our realms of life where we can experience shared happiness.
Just my opinion, but this is why I think Kevin Durant left his former team for the Warriors. People responded, “He wanted it to be easy! He abandoned the competition!” Sure, but maybe he chose something greater, he chose a culture of celebration. He choose the idea that “If you succeed, I succeed with you."
I understand why people were upset, but maybe he didn’t want to just win at the game of basketball or the game of life, but instead wanted to experience life as meant to be. He wanted to thrive in a healthy culture, he wanted to be happy, and he wanted to breathe.
And maybe somewhere deep down inside, you long for an environment like that too. An environment where people genuinely root for you and want to see you succeed and vice versa. But maybe it starts with you.
REDEFINING THE WIN
This is a little embarrassing to admit as a pastor, but I want to be better than others around me. I want to be the best preacher, the best mobilizer, the best leader, etc.
Sure, this could be a good thing depending on how you look at it. We ought to be the most sanctified version of ourselves for fruit-bearing. I get that. But I can also see how limiting that view is. Maybe “best” means something even greater. Maybe that means being a decent preacher but one who can really cheer on other preachers, even the ones better than me. Maybe this means I’m a good leader, but even more so, one who can really rally around a great leader.
I’m still in progress. Sometimes, I want to bring my mom into the fray.
But here’s what I do know - my Savior lived for 30 years in obscurity as a non-married, Jewish carpenter, and his explosive three-and-some years of ministry came to what appeared to be a screeching halt as He bled and died at the hands of sinful humanity. And yet, the result was blessing for all the families of the earth in fulfillment of the plans and promises of God.
What I do know is that I’m so thankful Jesus didn’t pay attention to what other preceding “Messiah figures” had done. If He were about one-upping them out of a competitive spirit, the road to the cross would have been one to avoid. And yet, He followed the will of His Father, in perfect communion with God, exemplifying the abundant life we are to live.
What I do know is that every time the disciples were arguing about being the greatest, it always followed on the heels of Jesus having just told them about His death or having taught something along the lines of, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).
This is the upside-down Kingdom culture He left us with.
This is what it means to breathe and this is what it means to succeed, to win.
Let’s win, but as defined by Jesus, because it’s ultimately all about Him.
Pastor Steve Bang Lee is the College Pastor and Teaching Ministry Lead at Living Hope Community Church in Brea, CA. He received his B.A. from Cal Poly Pomona and M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology. Steve also serves on the Board for CCM (Crossroads Campus Ministry).