Watching reruns isn’t necessarily a waste of time.
For a while it appeared NBATV would be stuck with reruns. But then the NBA struck a deal. The season gets underway December 25th. Until then, NBATV will show reruns. That’s not necessarily a waste of time. You can catch John Stockton, the all-time NBA assist leader. His body of work pictures a role the church once performed very well.
John Stockton was one of the last NBA players to wear those ridiculous short shorts. Opponents however didn’t ridicule his play. For 18 years he led the Utah Jazz. Stockton fed Karl Malone and together dismantled the opposition with their patented pick-and-roll offense. Malone twice won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. He is considered today to be one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history, yet Malone attributes most of his success to Stockton’s assists.
Stockton retired in 2003 with 15,806 assists, the all-time NBA assist leader. His legacy lives on to this day. If you visit Salt Lake City, go to the intersection of Stockton and Malone (yes, those are the street names). You’ll see EnergySolutions Arena, where the Utah Jazz plays these days. Outside the arena there is a statue of Karl Malone next to a statue of teammate John Stockton. Stockton is still feeding passes to Malone.
In basketball, assist leaders exhibit three skills. They have the ability to see the entire court. Second, they know the individual skills that each teammate brings to the game. Third, they set up scorers with pinpoint passes. A pass is not an assist unless it directly leads to a score. Assist leaders serve others; they rarely score the most points in a game. They gain greater satisfaction from helping teammates succeed than scoring a bunch of points. These skills are why assist leaders generally establish the culture of a team. Stockton’s Jazz were known as ponderously pick-and-roll. Magic Johnson’s Lakers were lightning-fast Showtime. Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were known for lock-down defense.
For centuries the church led the league in assists. It established much of the culture of Western Europe, for example. The church saw the entire court due to its expansive theology. This established the modern university’s liberal—broad—arts curriculum. The church also knew the players, or human nature, due to its anthropology. It said education requires a telos—end—if students are to make wise use of technologies—means. The church gained these insights because of its practices, its ecclesiology. Like a basketball team, the church ran practices developing habits necessary for assisting others.
Some would say the church is hardly in the game anymore. Look at modern education. What would it take for Harvard Business School to look to the church for an assist in understanding the telos—purpose—for business? Look at our TGIF world—Twitter-Google-iPhone-Facebook. What would it take for Google or Facebook to credit the church for an assist in understanding how technologies work best? “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1854. “They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
The church could provide assistance, but it has to first get back in the game. Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem inside the frame that created it. What if the church reframed its role as leading the league in assists? It would require a faith that sees the entire court, knows the players, and sets up institutions so that they flourish. This metaphor would also require coaching, or mentors. Dallas Willard comes to mind.
In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Willard writes that many of today’s gospel messages don’t help the church see the entire court. They only help us manage our sin problem (Willard calls them “gospel of sin management”). The church can’t manage the game if it can’t see the entire court. A second mentor is James K. A. Smith. In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, he writes that much of today’s church does not understand human nature—it doesn’t know the players. Smith correctly notes that human nature operates by desire. The church too often operates by directive. Smith argues for particular kinds of practices—church services—that make assisting others second nature.
When Jack Nicklaus won the 1965 Masters with a record-breaking score of 271, Bobby Jones, the Masters’ patron saint, remarked, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” You might not be familiar with the church as an assist leader. I don’t recommend watching the NBA today. It’s become an artillery exercise, where players rain three-point shots from long distance. Assists are archaic. You might instead read some of the histories of the church that show how it once led the league in assists. Start with Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom. Or you might find that Willard and Smith provide some coaching. At the very least, turn on NBATV and catch a few reruns of John Stockton. You’ll be reminded of why an assist is a thing of beauty.