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How stories help make sense of sports and life, part 2

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Stories Sports & Life logo (Credit: Mark Cook)

Stories help us make sense of life. They always have, and even though we’re living in the 140-character, Twitter-dominated world, they always will. While we may swim in an ocean of sound-bytes and bullet-points and clamor for summaries and distillations of information, we are still most influenced by the stories we hear and tell. Last week I wrote some initial thoughts about how stories help us make sense of sports and life, and focused on how we like to categorize players with all-manner of narrative labels.

This week I want to take things a bit further and explore the categories we use to label teams. One reason we like to label both players and teams is that it helps them stand out in our memories when we’re looking back. Even over just a 5-7 year span of time, if you are a fan of multiple sports, there are hundreds of teams and players that cycle through your memory. It’s hard to differentiate them from the blurry mass if you don’t have categories to help provide context. So with that said, here are some of the common team labels we use in sports:

The Cinderella: One of our favorite labels, and close relative of the “Underdog”, that classic label that transcends sports and applies to every sphere of life. The 1998 Valparaiso Crusaders are the quintessential Cinderella team. That year, led by Bryce Drew, the Crusaders waltzed through the Big Dance all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, providing one of the most dramatic upsets of all time when Drew swished home an improbable three-pointer as the buzzer sounded to give Valpo the 70-69 win over the #4 seeded Ole Miss Rebels. The key difference between a Cinderella team and an “Underdog” is that a Cinderella team is one that makes an improbable run over multiple high-stakes games, rather than just one match-up. Last year’s Kansas City Royals squad also nicely fits the Cinderella category.

The Overhyped Team: These teams are the ones that we love to hate (unless they’re our team!). They are the Goliath in the David and Goliath matchup. The problem, though, is that they are only the Goliath on paper, and only really feared in the pre-season. Remember the 2013 Lakers squad that traded for Dwight Howard, teaming him up with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol? That team was supposed to cruise through the Western Conference on its way to a showdown with LeBron James’ Heat in the Finals. Injuries and conflicting personalities ultimately derailed them, though. In every sport, the overhyped team is usually the one that “won the offseason” by making the big free agency splashes. They win the battle, but not the war, and usually fizzle out in a dramatic (and usually entertaining!) fashion.

The Offensive Juggernaut: Ah yes, we all love to be entertained when it comes to watching sports. Only the diehards love to watch defensive matchups. We love our homeruns, and our fast-break and spread offenses. The mid-90s Colorado Rockies were the epitome of the Offensive Juggernaut. Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Vinny Castilla, Larry Walker and Ellis Burks combined to strike terror into the hearts of opposing pitchers, with the deadly combination of power bats and a video-game like home ballpark that launches balls into the stratosphere with its famous high-altitude effect. This year’s Golden State Warriors, led by MVP Stephen Curry, also fall into the Offensive Juggernaut category. On the football side, Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos of recent years and the old Texas Tech “Air Raid” teams of the early aughts typify this offense-first approach.

Defense-First: Like I said, who but the diehards really enjoy the defense-oriented teams? The Seattle Seahawks might fit this category, but with Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch powering a surprisingly lethal offense, I’m going to go with the 2011 “Game of the Century” LSU Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide college football teams to illustrate this moniker. The game was a defensive brawl, with the teams trading field goals and rarely crossing midfield. 29 defensive players (from both teams) that appeared in this game were eventually drafted.

The “Can’t Quite Win it All” Team: What a sad category this is, and what pain the fans of the 90s Buffalo Bills and Utah Jazz must feel as I bring up their teams yearly inability to win a championship. These are the teams that are perennially contending, but never winning it all.

These kinds of narrative labels help us categorize and remember the teams and players who we root for and against, and while they are helpful, they can dangerously slide into mis-categorization if we’re not careful. We are prone to scrutinizing certain aspects more than others, and sometimes we draw false conclusions. Other times, we just lazily label a team or player because it makes it easier to root against them.

The best stories are the ones that have deep characters. We see their flaws as well as their strengths, and grow attached to them because of the way they fight against the evil within them rather than passively accepting its presence.

What is the story your life is telling? What are the significant turning points and events that have shaped you? The two most common responses we have when we begin to look back on our lives are both tremendously detrimental. On the one hand, many of us look back and see the ups and downs and all the crazy twists and turns and sink into a sort of fatalism that believes we won’t really change. On the other hand, many of us take in those same ups and downs, twists and turns, and instead embrace a sort of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” individualism that puts all the burden on living better on you.

Both responses are ruinous for our souls. God is the primary actor in our lives, not us. He both predestines and gives us the ability to choose, and it is a mystery to us humans how that works out. Yes, we must strive to “live a better story”, but the way we do that is by opening ourselves up to a posture of gratitude that allows us to receive God’s blessings rather than trying to do everything on our own.

God does not label us, he loves us. The more we live into his story and find our individual narrative inside his Greater Narrative, the more we will live by grace rather than self-centeredness. The Grand Narrative of Scripture, that God has come to us as Jesus, defeating sin and death through the cross, unshackles us from the tyranny of ourselves. His story is what makes sense of our lives.

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