Basketball Theology: VCU’s Terrifying “Havoc” Defense & the Gospel’s Empowerment

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“I just want our kids training like a pack of wild dogs,” Roose said last month while wearing a “Wild Dog” T-shirt and camouflage cargo shorts.

This, my friends, is why I think the basketball team of Virginia Commonwealth Union might go far (again) in the NCAA tournament. They train like “wild dogs,” and then they full-court press according to coach Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” defense.

Here’s what they did this past offseason to get ready, according to the Wall Street Journal:

In preparation for the still-nascent college-basketball season, VCU endured an off-season workout regimen that was as exhausting as it was extreme. The players turned tires, tossed kegs and used a parking deck near their home court as a treadmill. They lugged 60-pound bags not far from the site where Patrick Henry demanded either liberty or death.

They turned an August tour of Rome into their version of “The Amazing Race,” complete with sprints up the Spanish Steps. In Lake Como, the glitzy Italian town where George Clooney owns a villa, they somehow managed to find a ropes course.

After returning home, VCU coach Shaka Smart even had an ex-Navy SEAL put the team—coaches included—through a five-day September boot camp listed on the team’s calendar as Hell Week. The military-style sessions included games of tug of war, swims in the James River and plunges through a raft filled with ice water.

Read the whole Wall Street Journal piece.

I really like VCU and its style. In a day when college basketball teams are perfecting the art of the 48-point, 31% shooting victory, VCU plays all-out. But here’s the weird thing: they’re not crazy or undisciplined. They play with what you could call “frenetic discipline.” It’s beautiful to watch, even if it’s discomfiting.

If you’re intrigued by what you hear about Smart here, check out this really fun profile of him and fellow young guru Brad Stevens. These two coaches are both talented, and they have both chosen to stay at their “mid-major” program despite offers from much larger schools. Smart is energetic, lively, focused, and very smart. I like that he gets a great deal from his players without breaking them down. Many of college basketball’s elite coaches seem to genuinely enjoy chewing out players and making a fuss. Smart is intense, but he seems to build up, not tear down, his athletes.

I’m sorely tempted to draw a parallel between Smart/his coaching and ministry/the Christian life. (Basketball connection to theology in 3…2…1…) We can’t expect to thrive spiritually if we don’t possess “gospel discipline,” our own version of “frenetic discipline.” We have two problems in this area of theology today: 1) we think discipline equals legalism, and 2) we expect God to zap us and make us holy. Frankly speaking, this is nonsense. In reality, we are profoundly empowered by the gospel of grace in order to be disciplined in holiness (read 1 Timothy 4:7 if you don’t believe me). That’s what the gospel does. It doesn’t save us to sit on the couch and expect mystical transformation.

It saves us to unleash us in feats of holiness and acts of world-defying devotion.

Smart’s team is not populated by the five-star recruits of the kind that announce their college choice on splashy ESPN segments. They are most often quiet, humble, and lesser-known. The best coaches can take hidden talent and bring it to the surface. How does Smart begin to activate this potential? He trains his players incredibly hard; if they don’t train hard, make no mistake, they have no chance of running “havoc,” because they won’t possess superior conditioning. As Smart trains them in this way, he builds them up. He ends up showing them that they are capable of far more than they would have thought.

Then he unleashes them to pressure the other team.

It strikes me, with my mind that constantly churns out basketball analogies, that this is how we are to go after God’s glory. Savor God’s empowering grace. Train hard. Know we are loved and made strong. Pray to be unleashed.

This kind of mindset doesn’t just produce a formidable basketball defense. It produces Christians all over the world who make the demons tremble, and who invade enemy territory to be salt and light in a fallen world.

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(Note: I’ll be exploring this theological theme in my forthcoming book, Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, late 2013). I’ll soon have a cover to show you and more info if you’re interested.


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