Leading the League in Assists

Michael Metzger

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.


Morning Mike Check


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  1. Couldn’t agree more Mike. Haven’t heard TGIF expressed that way before! Very hip! Any team sport the lead up work is vital in getting a score on the board. With so much of the church caught up in the false secular/sacred divide this is the unenviable result.

  2. Can you help me understand the distinction and connection between “institutions of practice” such as marriage and “institutions of capital” such as corporations or universities?

    The first seems to be the end (the practice of biblical marriage) and the second seems to be the means by which the practice is established in the culture (universities promoting or laws upholding a biblical view of marriage).

    Is there a map of culture that overlays which institutions of capital (the means) best establish the institutions of practice (the ends)?

    Or, are all institutions of capital equal in establishing any/all institutions of practice (biblical living, also known as shalom as you have so thoroughly and wonderfully defined). G

  3. Very good, Mike. Thanks.

    I have seen this before in your articles, but I do not understand it very well. Can you help me?

    “Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem inside the frame that created it.”

  4. Tim: Einstein recognized we operate inside assumptions, or frames for reality. These frames – just like a picture frame – inform the way we think and act. Inside these frames, there is a logical consistency. But if the frame is wrong, problems result. Einstein said you could not solve a problem using the same set of assumption that created the problem in the first place.

  5. Gerard: I’m not sure how you see different types of institutions. I am afraid your distinction between means and ends doesn’t hold (or at the very least it doesn’t make sense to me). By definition, an institution is reality defining and boundary forming. For example, when marriage was seen as an institution, it defined marriage as a heterosexual, monogamous, and permanent union. Fewer and fewer folks consider marriage an institution today (it’s more a choice rather than a covenant), so fewer and fewer folks feel it has any binding effects in how they form their unions.

  6. Musing on institutions as ‘means’ or ‘ends’ – shouldn’t every institution be a means rather than an end in itself? So marriage is the means to the deepest possible human intimacy, and to procreation and the nurturing of successive generations; government is the means to the just administration and protection of people in society. Surely any institution as an ‘end’ would necessarily be, or become, an idol? Until, that is, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.

  7. Thanks to both Julian and Mike.

    I should have asked for a definition of an Instituion. I remember an article where JP Morgan was referred to as an institution and another where marriage is also. Both fit Mike’s definition and negates the idea of means and ends.

    To test my understanding of an institution, NFL is the institution that defines reality of what life is like on a Sunday.

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