When Kawhi Leonard decided to join the Los Angeles Clippers late Friday night, he capped off what ESPN’s Zach Lowe dubbed “the wildest week ever in the NBA.” In so doing, he spurned the formation of the next Super Team with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers to instead team up with MVP candidate Paul George for their in-city rivals.
He also fundamentally altered the course of the league for the foreseeable future.
Gone are the days of a single team slated to dominate the season from start to finish (at least for this year). In its place, we find a state of parity that hasn’t been seen for quite some time. As a result, basketball fans around the country are rejoicing at what’s shaping up to be a very entertaining season.
Or, at least that’s what you might expect.
The reality is that while many fans are genuinely excited about the chance to see a greater level of competition across the months to come, that excitement is tempered for most by the outlook for their favorite team.
And whether you care about basketball or not, there’s an important cultural truth to be learned from that fact.
The perils of high expectations
As most fans assess their team’s status for the coming year, they are likely to fall into one of three groups: contenders, pretenders, and attenders.
The first group, the contenders, consists of those select few who saw their team sign the necessary players to vault into championship contention.
If you are a fan of one of the Los Angeles teams, you fit in this group. It’s not just the teams that signed a superstar who find themselves in a better spot, however. Fans of the Jazz, Pacers, and a few others that made relatively low-key signings by comparison still have to feel good about their team’s chances this season.
On occasion, that perspective will end up being correct.
When Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors in 2016, for example, their expectations of multiple championships and utter dominance proved to be well founded. That’s not usually how it works, though. LeBron James has had three memorable forays into free agency yet failed to win a championship during his first season with any of them. That their teams dramatically improved will do little to sway the feelings of discontent if the coming season does not end with a raised trophy.
In the same way, many people in our culture see the world around them through the lens of unrealistic expectations and immediate returns. Whether it’s a promotion at work, a new relationship, or any number of positive events in our lives, God calls us to embrace the joy of the moment without making that joy the foundation of our happiness.
As Christians, we should be uniquely capable of navigating that temptation as God calls us to keep our focus on him rather than the world around us. We can rejoice in the victories of this life without being consumed by them because we know a far greater reality awaits us in heaven.
Don’t be James Dolan
The second group, the pretenders, into which a good number of NBA patrons likely find themselves today is that of teams who have had a disappointing start to the new league year.
Perhaps no fanbase better epitomizes this fate than Knicks fans. They watched two of the players they felt almost entitled to sign choose instead to join the crosstown rival Nets. In so doing, owner James Dolan sealed his fate as one of the most hated men in the city after essentially promising that his team would sign superstars this summer.
Dolan was convinced that the allure of New York would be sufficient to mask the corrosive atmosphere he’s created around the team and cause stars to overlook the fact that the Knicks have the worst record of any team in the league since the turn of the century.
Lest we judge too quickly, though, how often do we make a similar mistake in our lives?
It can be easy to see the world around us solely through the prism of our own perspective. After all, life often looks better that way. As a result, we tend to only read people who agree with us, listen to those who share our opinions, and have little grace for those who think differently.
Yet, there is always a larger and more nuanced story that goes into the actions and perspectives that affect our lives. And while it takes more work to understand that larger context and place ourselves within it, it’s worth it in the end.
The alternative is to spend our days overreacting and making the world much smaller than it actually is. Such an approach will place a hard cap on the degree to which we can make a positive impact for the kingdom.
Don’t settle for mediocrity
The final group, the attenders, is the one into which the majority of NBA fans find themselves today.
Their teams may have made improvements, but perhaps not enough to seriously entertain thoughts of a championship this season. Rather, they seek contentment in progress and pin their hopes on a brighter future, even if that future may seem several years away.
In some ways, this is the healthiest approach for fandom. People in this group are not likely to get too high or low as they go through the season. Rather, they will follow their team with a sense of ambivalence that allows them to enjoy the games without living or dying with the outcome.
The reality, however, is that such an approach is not sustainable.
Go too long without the thrill of postseason victories (and the corresponding agony of defeat) and it’s likely that fans will start to find other ways to use their time and resources. The same is true in other areas of life as well.
Joy is worth the price of pain and, on some level, I believe that truth is ingrained in every person. We can drown it out over time to the point that it becomes little more than a whisper in the corner of our souls, but we can never truly make it go away. There will always be something in us that longs for more.
God intends to use us to awaken that desire for something greater in the lives of those we meet. Yet, we cannot awaken in someone else that which isn’t alive in us. Go too long accepting the mediocrity of life as sufficient and you will find it far more difficult to help others embrace the abundance of a life dedicated to Christ.
Embrace the change
Most of us are likely to move between these three camps as we go through life.
There may be one in which we feel most at home, but our circumstances will never let us take up permanent residence in any of them. As a result, it’s important that we understand how God works and moves in each circumstance so that we can make the most of wherever life has us at a given moment.
One of the most important things we can offer the culture around us is stability in the midst of the inevitable and inescapable chaos of this life. That steadiness is best found in the ability to embrace the change around us with the kind of grace and poise only God can provide.
In an ever-changing and chaotic world, God has called us to be agents of peace and stability. We can help those around us find it in the Lord, but only if we’ve learned to embrace it in our own lives first.