June has become one of my favorite months of the year. I have the month off because I am a teacher, affording me ample time to spend with my family, and for about two weeks I get to enjoy what can be one of the most entertaining sporting events of the year (I admit there have been some dull ones over the years) – the NBA finals.
My family is from Boston so I possess a natural affinity for Boston’s sports teams, though growing up in the 80s I always rooted for the Lakers just to be on the opposite side as my dad. My support for the Celtics this year, though, goes deeper than my geographical roots. I admire this year’s squad greatly because they embody the virtues of teamwork.
The remarkable unity and togetherness of their team was on display this past Thursday in Game 4. The Celtics were behind by a couple of points going into the final quarter. As is customary, the bench players started the quarter on the court so that the starters could finish the game rested. Typically, the reserves will play 3-4 minutes before being replaced by the starters, but the Boston bench, scoring on 9 straight possessions and smothering the Lakers starters on defense, took the lead and increased it to 9 points. So Coach Doc Rivers made the unusual move of leaving them in the game until about 3 minutes left to play. One might suppose that this decision irked the starters who were waiting eagerly to get back in the game to finish off the Lakers, but Rivers said afterward that they were urging him to keep them in, enthusiastically cheering on their lesser known comrades from the sidelines.
For those of you who do not follow NBA basketball, the Celtics are uniquely blessed to have three future hall of famers – Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce – on the same team in addition to one of the best point guards in the league – Rajon Rondo. The team’s emotional leader Garnett is said to have disdain for all the media talk of the “Big Three” or more recently the “Big Four” instead promoting the idea of the “Big 15,” preaching incessantly to his teammates the necessity of all the players to the team’s success. As a result of this mindset, the typical class divisions between the “stars” and “scrubs” that characterize many sports teams has essentially been erased. This is evidenced in the freedom of the starters to sincerely rejoice in the success of the bench and share the glory of victory. Coach Rivers puts it this way:
“This is a good team. I don’t think guys really care [about staying on the bench the last quarter], and that’s what makes us — that’s why we’re here. It really is. Hell, Rondo and all of them, they were begging me to keep guys in, [saying] ‘Don’t take them out! Don’t take them out!’ It was great. That was the loudest I’ve seen our bench, and it was our starters cheering from the bench. I thought it was terrific.”
A remarkable statistic about this Celtics team is that over the last 17 playoff games not a single player has led the team in scoring in consecutive games. Every night a different player steps up and has a big night. No one on the team is averaging more than 20 points a game in the playoffs – it is rare for a Finals winner not to have a dominant superstar. The Celtics lose as a team and win as a team.
These qualities give this team a peculiar greatness that reminds me of what Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of true greatness. Two of his disciples – James and John – approach Jesus with a request that He reserve the seats to the left and right of his throne for themselves (they believed He had come to establish a mighty kingdom on earth). This move riles the anger and jealously of the other disciples who were likewise seeking positions of greatness in the kingdom they believed was coming. Jesus’ response turns their (and our) categories of greatness upside-down:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
There is a real irony here in that the path to greatness is not realized by seeking our own greatness but by humbling ourselves and serving the good of others. The justification for this approach to living is that Jesus himself – the King of kings and Lord of lords – did not exalt himself but served us by giving his life as a payment, a ransom, for our sins.
Of course the Celtics do not live this ideal perfectly nor are they completely free from the impulse to self-glorification. But there is something special about a collection of some of the best players in the NBA, who will likely be immortalized in basketball history, reveling in the success of players like Glen Davis and Nate Robinson who will soon be forgotten. In this way the 2010 Celtics do what sports should do – inspire us to virtues that we should all pursue.