Linsanity, “Hero Ball,” and Why Christians Can’t Play it

Happy March Madness season, everyone.  Let there be compulsive score-checking for all.  I have Baylor losing to UNC in the final (What can I say?  I’m partial to Baptists).

In the recent issue of ESPN the Magazine, Henry Abbott wrote a devastating critique of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and what Abbott called “hero ball.”  Hero ball is essentially the basketball tactic of giving the ball repeatedly to your superstar, having them go one-on-one like a bull after a toreador, and hoping that they singlehandedly win the game.

Here’s what Abbott said of “hero ball”:

Perhaps you’ve heard of hero ball. Maybe not. That would hardly be a surprise, as its practitioners like to pretend it doesn’t exist. But even though hero ball looks suspiciously like basketball — it’s played on the same court and uses the same rims, same ball and at least some of the same players — it differs from basketball in one key respect: The goal of hero ball is not necessarily to outscore your opponent. The goal of hero ball is, instead, appeasing egos, saving coaching jobs, kowtowing to talking heads and mollifying idiot owners sitting on the floor. If hero ball is tangentially about winning basketball games, it’s about winning them only through the least efficient, most predictable means of doing so.

Here’s the whole piece.  It is a stem winder.

As you might have picked up from last week’s post on the waning of Linsanity, I hate hero ball.  I played on teams that practiced this sort of thing, and it stunk.  Basketball is best played as a game of moving and interweaving parts, not as an exercise in ego.  The coverage of the quitting of Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni makes clear that he was very much butting up against hero ball; Carmelo wanted to be the Kobe-like center of all things and resisted the motion offense that worked so incredibly well when he was sidelined with an injury (see ESPN and the NYT).  This debacle of a season belongs mostly to Carmelo.  It stinks.

You definitely need a major playmaker if you want to win a title.  It’s no bad thing to have a leader on a team.  But that leader must constantly check his ego to make sure that others are invested in the greater goal and are able to use their own strengths for the team’s betterment.  Godly confidence is good and right; a crucial part of it, though, is humility.  You’re confident enough in God and his work in you that you are humble.  The Christian leader is perhaps most different from the worldly leader in that, as one saved by the God who became man, he is tenaciously humble, always looking to encourage others, always sacrificing so others can shine.  To use sports language, he “makes everyone around him better,” not worse.

If Christian leadership succumbs to a form of so-called “hero ball,” it is no better than the world, and it seems to suggest that the gospel does not transform.  It says, in other words, that God lies.

Sports are not ultimately important, and sometimes we too eagerly act as if they are a perfect template for spiritual matters.  That said, while Christian pastors and leaders must very clearly lead, and lead with strength and boldness, they must never play “hero ball.”  Our hero, Jesus Christ, did not come to be exalted, but to suffer (Matthew 20:28).  Because of his humility, he will be exalted.

So it is with you and me.  Seek your own glory–you will be made low.  Seek God’s glory in humility–you will be exalted.  The irony is thick, and it tastes delicious.

  • Derek

    I think we have a pretty good idea what God thinks about “hero ball”, particularly in the context of a NT church:

    For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.Romans 12:3-6

  • David Wickiser

    I appreciate this post so much. I was talking to my boss today about the NCAA tournament (and I admit, I don’t really follow sports, I just watch) and how I love watching college basketball. Growing up playing the sport, and being a huge Jordan and Co. Bulls fan then a Robinson and Family Spurs fan, then playing in high school, college basketball is just good to watch (because they actually play the team sport known as basketball). And that is the same reason I can’t stand to watch much pro-ball, but loved the Lin-sanity when ‘Melo was injured. Hero-ball just loses games and alienates the fans that want more than a highlight real during a game.

  • owenstrachan

    Well said, Derek. I quite agree, David. Good thoughts.

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  • Job

    Owen Strachan:

    Sorry, but I have to whistle you for a “double technical” on this one. First, Henry Abbott’s piece only made a single reference to Carmelo Anthony – a mention of his wanting to take the game-winning shot – so claiming that it was “a devastating critique of Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony” (when it was actually nearly all about Bryant) is misleading at best. Michael Jordan figured far more prominently in Abbott’s piece than did Anthony.

    As far as Mike D’Antoni goes, you are overlooking two critical facts. 1. He runs a motion-based offense because it favors point guards, and he himself is a former point guard. This is similar to how Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier created pass-oriented football programs (and often gleefully neglected the running game and defense to the detriment of their teams!) because their own frustrations as QBs in the Southeastern Conference, where the philosophy centered around “running the football and playing defense.” So rather than valiantly “butting up against hero ball”, D’Antoni merely prefers for “guys like him” to be the hero, and adheres to this philosophy of his whether it is actually in the best interests of the team or not. And that brings us to 2. His track record, which includes a career winning percentage of barely .500 over 10 seasons and a particularly dreadful tenure with the Knicks where he only once reached 33 wins in 4 tries. That makes the claim “this debacle of a season belongs mostly to Carmelo” – when D’Antoni’s failures with the Knicks long preceded Anthony joining his team late last season – as much a misrepresentation as your claims concerning Abbott’s column.

    Your preference for motion-based offenses is merely that: your own. It is merely one of several philosophies that produces winning teams and championships in the NBA, and it is certainly not a theological issue. Those who favor guard-based offenses have always criticized forwards and centers as “selfish”, “ball stoppers”, “black holes” etc. and called their often half-court based offenses “boring.” Again, going back to football, it is similar to those who make the same claims about the running/defensive oriented style favored by the SEC when they prefer more passing and scoring. I have yet to see anyone make a theological case for this preference, though it is possible that not a few pastors in the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 regions that have suffered at the hands of the current SEC hegemony have tried. (I do know that more secular interests – including ESPN – have attempted to advance the notion that the SEC style of play generally features lesser gifted coaches and less intelligent players. Which takes the curious position that better coached teams with smarter players are somehow less likely to win championships.)

    Back to the Knicks: here is the reality, both in general and regarding Carmelo Anthony (and Jeremy Lin, which is the true motivation for this piece, and likely your interest in the Knicks in the first place). The Knicks best and most experienced players are their big men: Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire, Anthony, and J.R. Smith. Their guards (Lin, Landry Fields, Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert) are by comparison – and in general – a collection of inexperienced and pedestrian players (to be kind), so much so that the Knicks are forced to have their forwards play minutes at guard. This means that no matter what merits that a guard based system may have – theological or otherwise – it is a recipe for failure with the Knicks, especially against superior teams, and particularly against teams with the quality veteran talent at guard that the Knicks lack. Meanwhile, a system that favors the Knicks’ frontcourt players – who are superior in both talent and experience – is the one that will yield better results, particularly against superior opposition.

    As far as the Lin and Anthony in particular, first let it be known that Lin has publicly stated his preference for the D’Antoni system precisely because that system maximizes his own role. In other words, Anthony is not alone: Lin wants to be a “hero” too. It merely happens that for a point guard, being a hero means passing AND scoring, as opposed to merely scoring like Anthony (a “true small forward” who lacks the guardlike versatility of others at his position like Scottie Pippen, LeBron James and pre-injury Grant Hill). Second, Anthony is the big star with the big contract. Taking the Knicks to the playoffs and championships are on his shoulders, and if they fail, he gets the blame. So, the pressure, the positive and negative aspects of the spotlight, are on him. Lin, by contrast, has no such expectations or pressure, and will remain and international hero merely by staying in the starting lineup whether the team wins or loses. Thus, it would be foolish of Anthony to accept a situation where his own success or failure rides on the ability of Jeremy Lin to get him the basketball. If Lin fails to effectively run the team and the Knicks lose as a result Anthony gets the blame, not Lin. Were Lin a more veteran player with above average talent and skill, it would be acceptable for Anthony to play under those conditions, because he would have a reasonable basis for expecting the team to succeed with Lin leading it, and further Lin would be held more accountable for his own shortcomings. But for Anthony to accept being in a situation where ultimately he will be blamed for Lin’s shortcomings? Now put Magic Johnson on that team, and it is Carmelo Anthony’s fault if he is unwilling to accept being James Worthy. But blaming Anthony for not willing to entrust his career to a fellow who was sleeping on his brother’s couch mere weeks ago is blaming Anthony for making the same decisions with his career and affairs that we would make ourselves if we were in his situation.

    As you attempted to make this into a “Christian leadership lesson” let me offer my own: Christian leaders should not elevate people into positions of responsibility before they have proven themselves to be capable. Consider the qualifications for a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:1-7: it includes “one who rules his own house well … for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” and “not a novice.” D’Antoni failed to heed this logic when he tried to have an inexperienced unknown – and one with real flaws in his game at that – lead a group of more accomplished veterans, and refused to adapt his approach to reflect the makeup of the roster. (Instead, he attempted to trade Anthony for all-star point guard Deron Williams, which would have resulted in Lin going to the bench for good! The move was not approved by Knicks management.)

    And the question must be asked: would having Lin lead the Knicks seem like such a good idea were Lin a black player from an obscure predominantly black college like Norfolk State (the one that just upset Missouri in the NCAA tournament) rather than a “model minority” Asian from Harvard? To transition this to another arena: would we expect a Fortune 500 firm to similarly hand Lin a spot on their board of directors? No, such a firm would hire Lin for their executive development program or other entry level position.

    When Lin becomes a better, more experienced and more proven player, his role on the team will increase, as Knicks coaches and players will be more comfortable in putting more of the responsibility for their professional fates in his hands. That will not only mean more ball movement and fewer isolations for Carmelo Anthony, but the Knicks operating as any organization – whether sports team or Christian ministry – should. One of the things ignored and cast aside by the “relevance” movement in evangelical Christianity – and yes this does include some of the “Young, Restless and Reformed” – is that there is a reason why church leaders in the New Testament were often called elders. Consider that while pondering the fact that when Charles Woodson took over for Mike D’Antoni, one of his first points of emphasis was for Lin and the other younger players to learn from the older ones.