Lessons from the NBA Finals

NBAFinals2011Champions-DallasMavericks

The 2011 NBA Finals concluded recently with the Dallas Mavericks’ stunning victory over the Miami Heat.  In addition to enjoying the entire series, something about the nature of the Mavs’ victory caught my attention:

Virtues such as age, experience, loyalty, and teamwork are still potent, even in our youth-oriented, hero-worshipping, self-celebrating culture.

This principle manifested itself in living color during the six games it took the Mavericks to “dethrone” the self-proclaimed champions – the Heat.  LeBron James, the lead man of Miami’s famous threesome (including Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), bragged before the season even began that the Heat would win, and I quote, “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…titles.”

On paper, the three stars should have won their first title this season.  According to today’s success parameters, the Heat possess the necessary ingredients to win always and often: stardom, pizzazz, braggadocio, constant press, and individual talent.  Early predictions had them setting an NBA record for wins in a single season.  How could they not win, given their star-studded lineup?

Enter the Dallas Mavericks, the total antithesis to the Miami Heat.  Old, star-less, boring, and ignored are just some of the contrasts.  When the Heat won Game 1 of the series, the national media all but crowned them as the inevitable champions.  But a best-of-seven series requires four victories, not one.  The Mavericks won four of the next five games and claimed the championship as their own!

How did an old, boring team which lacks an American-style superstar beat the Heat?  They did it through the timeless virtues of age, experience, loyalty, and teamwork.  Anyone who has ever played basketball knows that the point guard is the general on the floor.  He is the speedy ball handler who runs the team on the coach’s behalf.  Jason Kidd plays this role for the Mavericks.  At thirty-eight years old, he is

Jason Kidd, the Mavs' "old" but experienced floor general

no longer speedy and quick, having exhausted himself during the past seventeen seasons in the league.  Most players remember watching Kidd play in the NBA when they were just in junior high school.

Other Mavericks players, including the unstoppable Dirk Nowitzki, are in their thirties (old, by professional sports standards).  In an era which devalues age and celebrates youth, these players are not supposed to shine, but they did.  In an age that worships individual heroes, a team of teammates is not supposed to win, but they did.

An interesting statistic from the NBA Finals reveals the reality of teamwork and the advantages of camaraderie.  Someone counted the number of personal touches among teammates during the six game series; included were pats on the back, slaps on the rear end, spontaneous hugs, and high fives.  Through Game 5, the differential between the Mavericks and the Heat was staggering.  The Mavs teammates made personal contact with each other over two hundred times, verses a little over forty for the Heat.

This stat seems small in significance, but it is large.  People who care about one another demonstrate their affection without thinking about it, and personal touch is one such demonstrator.  The Mavericks players care about each other; they love their team and teammates; they want what is best for each other; they cheer each others’ successes; they put the team ahead of themselves.  I found it refreshing to see these wonderful virtues put on display and rewarded so spectacularly on the national stage.

Today’s prevailing wisdom dictates that individual stars should win.  But the Miami Heat “body language” revealed that overly pampered, overly hyped stars struggle when success does not easily flow their way.  Accustomed to acclaim and victory, they don’t know how to handle failure.  Having never learned the value of drawing on team strength in hard times, they lash out at their teammates.  Ignoring the comfort of personal touch, they shy away from each other.  Instead of discovering that individual victory flows naturally from group effort, they work even harder in down times to effect victory by themselves, or – as in the case of LeBron James on at least a few occasions – they sulk and pout when they can’t manage to shine.

Speaking of James, he famously left his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, because he didn’t believe his teammates could deliver him an NBA championship.  Joining two individual stars – Wade and Bosh – he believed they (notice, not the Miami Heat team) would win “not two, not three, not four…” championships.  They may in time, and there is nothing wrong with switching teams in the complex world of professional sports.  But the manner in which James left, the manner in which he drew the national spotlight to himself, the manner in which he dissed his former team – these things stink of the modern malady of self centered, pampered, over hyped, over indulged, individual stardom.

The unguardable Nowitzki demonstrated loyalty to his team and teammates by re-signing with Dallas

By great contrast, consider the Dallas Mavericks.  Dirk Nowitzki, their best player, was free to shop his services to another team, his contract having expired.  Any NBA franchise would have hungrily sought him out.  Rather than drawing attention to himself, rather than shopping for a situation ripe for handing him a championship, rather than dissing his current teammates, Nowitzki quietly re-signed with the Dallas Mavericks.  Asked why, he referenced the team owner’s undying commitment to him, even during bad times, bad play, and bad losses.  He referenced friendship and commitment to his friends, i.e., teammates.

Other Mavericks players showed the same commitment, revealing the presence of a virtue that is gasping for breath and life in modern America: loyalty.  Loyalty is dying in the wake of our “winner take all,” hero worshipping culture.

Looking into America’s future, I wonder what lies on the horizon.  Having bred a culture which ignores the virtues of age, experience, loyalty, and teamwork, what will the outcome be?  Having celebrated youth over the wisdom of age, where will the inevitable sophomoric decisions land us?  Having crowned leaders and stars merely for being known, as opposed to earning distinction through experience and hard work, where will these leaders lead us?  Having elevated the individual over the whole, how will we sacrifice for the common good?

I am not one who promises only doom and gloom for America’s future.  But as a man caught between our youngest generation (people trained to worship unearned stardom and to celebrate the individual over the whole) and our aging population (celebrators of age, wisdom, loyalty, and experience), I fear that the fundamental shift in America’s cultural virtues will deliver a staggering blow.

As always, the Gospel is America’s answer and only solution.  Politics alone will not change America’s mind.  Better economics will not right the cultural ship.  Education does not guarantee a eureka type solution.  The world chases after these false hopes, ignorantly ignoring that Christ is mankind’s only hope.  The apostle Paul clearly tells us why the unsaved world ignores Christ as the answer: Having rejected God, “They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:21-22).

A man can possess extreme intelligence and earn advanced educational degrees, but so long as he rejects Christ, he will remain “futile” in his thinking.  He will claim to be “wise,” but he remains foolish when it comes to life’s deepest issues.

The 2011 NBA Finals was a small example of the world’s futile thinking verses God’s timeless wisdom.