Thursday, April 7, 2016

Villanova’s Buzzer-Beater: A Place for Fundamentals and Coaching in Preparing the Play-Maker

Marcus Paige...and the game is tied!
Villanova’s Buzzer-Beater
This past Monday night, in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, the University of North Carolina trailed 74-71 until their guard Marcus Paige seemed to hang in mid-air, between two Villanova players, and hit an improbable, off-balance, double-clutch three-pointer to tie the game at 74 points apiece with 4.7 seconds remaining. It looked for a moment like we would be treated to five minutes of free basketball. But then, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins inbounded the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono (ARCH-ee-dee-AH-cuh-no) who drove up the court, drew two UNC defenders, and dished the ball back to Jenkins. For many children too young to practice Christian Laettner’s top-of-the-key turnaround jumper, it will be Jenkins’ shot and celebration that they will emulate as their game-winner, too. And so, it could be said, Jenkins’ shot not only brought such memorable recognition to himself, but it brought the 2016 National Championship to Villanova University, head coach Jay Wright, and the rest of his entire team.

It could be said that way, but before examining that perspective a little more closely, let me ask you a few questions about your own aspirations. Have you ever fantasized about being in the right place at the right time, able to do the right thing in order to make a heroic difference? Maybe your imaginary moment of fame brings you to home plate in the bottom of the ninth, trailing by a run with two outs and one on base, when you crush the pitch, sending it soaring into the stands. It could be, instead, that you see yourself valiantly responding to cries for help, diving into a flooded stream to pull a child to safety. Perhaps your aim is nothing more than finding the gallantry necessary to step outside your comfort-zone, approach an obviously distraught friend, and be willing to hear their full, honest answer when you ask, “Would it help to talk about it?”

No, not that Christian's heroics. Other Christians' heroics!
Christian Heroics
Knowing as many Christians as I have over the past three decades, there is one particular fantasy I have heard repeatedly. We picture ourselves actually engaging in conversation with a close friend, family member, coworker, or classmate. They comment on our relationship with Jesus Christ, and as the conversation continues we are privileged to hear their gratifying question, “How then shall I be saved?” Fortunately for many, this remains a fantasy. I say “fortunately” because most would find themselves utterly unprepared, not knowing what to say if that moment were to arise. (If you think you’re not one of those unprepared to answer your friend’s request to meet Jesus, then simply take the next few minutes to explain the gospel out loud. Okay? So, how did you do? Clear, concise, and compelling? Or complicated, confused, and incomplete?) Therefore, many Christians never need worry about answering such questions, because just having that conversation is too unlikely.

What if our heroic make-believe moment, though, required something less than a gospel presentation? What if the situation in which you see yourself allowed you to remain silent, to not even engage in conversation about something so “personal and private” as your own relationship with Jesus Christ? What if that moment in which you envision yourself rising to the occasion involved nothing more than simply saying no to temptation, and avoiding your favorite sin…just once? What if your ambitions only scale the heights of self-discipline so far as to actually leave the comfort of your bed, get showered and dressed, grab your Bible, and make it to church this Sunday? Does the bar still need lowered? Are you still only dreaming of one day picking up that Bible, opening it to a favorite passage, and praying about what the Holy Spirit says to you through God’s word?

Kris Jenkins - with the ball Arcidiacono just
passed him, during the play that
Jay Wright designed...etc.
Opportunity Meets Preparation
During the post-game interviews with victorious Villanova’s players this past Monday night, one reporter admitted their confusion about those final 4.7 seconds. There was a sense, according to the reporter, in which the game-winning shot was a result of a set play, orchestrated to produce the result it did. But there were also parts of what Jenkins and Arcidiacono had described that made it sound as though they were improvising on the spot. The two young men gave a reasonable-enough explanation, but not so much so that it prevented coach Jay Wright from being asked the same question just minutes later. In just a few brief sentences, Wright explained clearly and concisely what every coach seeks to do for his players (and what I believe many pastors seek to do for those they serve).

I remember there being three levels to Wright’s answer about that final shot. First, he explained that there were actually three end-of-game plays that his team had prepared. There was a play to run if there were more than twelve seconds left, another to run if there were between five and twelve seconds, and a third to run if there were less than five seconds. Therefore, the five young men on the court had only to look at the clock (4.7 seconds) to know which play they were going to run. The second part of Coach Wright’s answer, though, addressed the very point where the reporter had earlier found some confusion. In running the “under-five-second” play, it was still necessary to discern what the opposing team’s players were doing (double-teaming Arcidiacono, as it happened), and then make a decision about who would be open and available to take the final shot of the game. Jenkins, running to the right and doing so fast enough to get into Arcidiacono’s peripheral vision, was then tasked with the third element—making the shot—in what turned out to be a successful end to the game, the tournament, the season, and Jenkins’ career as a Villanova Wildcat.

More Than Meets the Eye
As above, then, “it could be said” that what CBS will forever label as one of their “One Shining Moment” moments, put Jenkins’ shot in an forever-unfading spotlight. Too, that shot, “it could be said,” brought Villanova their first National Championship since 1985, brought head coach Jay Wright to greater prominence (and potential job-changes), and so much more. But before we ascribe all that to the game’s final eight-tenths of one second (as the ball traveled to and through the basket) there needs to be a more careful, if concise, exploration of that “moment.”

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright
Jenkins’ shot resulted from Arcidiacono’s decision. Arcidiacono’s decision was enabled by Wright’s play. Wright’s play was determined by the Wildcats’ circumstance. That circumstance had been rehearsed and the play had been practiced, and Jenkins’ preparation had included many such shots alone with a ball and a hoop throughout his young life. So, when the ball ended up in Jenkins’ hands Monday night, yes—the spotlight was, indeed, on him. But the endless drills, the foundational fundamentals, and the routine repetition of what to do when the opportunity presented itself, these elements on the part of a dozen young men, a coaching staff, an athletic department, a university, an athletic association, and a culture that values and supports the pursuit of excellence in sports, and probably dozens of other ingredients went into what many will remember as being the singular action of one individual player in that one shining moment.

The Opportunities Awaiting You

For every child who drives toward the hoop in their driveway, or sets their feet at the playground foul-line, or looks around to be sure they’re alone in the gym before saying to themselves, “to Jenkins…for the championship!” may there be at least one more of us who imagine ourselves heroically asking, answering, and acting on the question, “What would Jesus have me do today?” But let us also commit to fulfilling our own one-shining-moment, and passionately pursue the endless drills of the foundational fundamentals. May we remember that what may seem like only a routine repetition of the spiritual disciplines of scripture study, worship and prayer, fellowship and service, and the other habits of holiness, is the indispensable prerequisite to even being on the court during those critical moments. 

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