The best thing about the approach of spring is the start of the baseball season. The worst thing about it is the end of the basketball season. I didn’t realize how sad this would be until last Saturday, when I stood in a locker room and watched an athlete bawl his eyes out because his high school career was over. To put this in context, I should mention that I have been helping coach the boys basketball team at City Center Academy (CCA) this season.

It was sad to see the season come to an end, even though we ended up with a losing record. There will be no more van trips to road games. No more foul trouble. No more bad calls. No more gut-wrenching losses. No more three-on-two, two-on-one drills. No more practice-ending sprints. No more three-pointers. And no more victories won on last-second shots. The season is over.

Though sad, the end of the season is a good time to reflect on the lessons we have learned. Basketball is a microcosm of life. The basketball court is a good place to learn important life lessons, including spiritual lessons.

This year the team learned the truth of something I am forever telling my children: “Work first, then play.” This is one of the implications of what God says in his Word: There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven (Eccles. 3:1). Both work and play have their proper times, provided they come in the proper order.

Some of the guys on the team wanted to play without doing all their schoolwork. As a result, one of our biggest problems was maintaining a full squad. We started the season with fifteen players. At the end of the first marking period I asked the head coach if we had lost anyone because of low grades. “Let me put it this way,” he said, “it would be easier to tell you who we’ve got left!”

The curriculum at CCA is intended to prepare high school students for college. Athletes have to maintain at least a “C” average to remain eligible for sports. That is no way to run a winning basketball program, I can assure you, but it is a terrific way to teach self-discipline. There is a time for play, but it comes after all required work has been well done.

Another thing we learned this season was the importance of listening to the coach. Some of our freshmen were playing organized basketball for the first time. They needed instruction in the fundamentals. Stay between your man and the basket. Don’t pick up your dribble. Look at the basket while you are shooting. And so forth. Players who listen to the coach—as nearly all our players do—make progress every week. Players who don’t listen drive their coaches to distraction.

Sometimes it is hard to hear the coach, like during the fourth quarter of a close game in front of a noisy crowd. When there are two defenders on you and the entire student body is cheering, it is hard to think straight, let alone listen. But the smart players always have one ear tuned to the bench.

One way to teach players to listen for the coach’s voice is not to use a whistle during practice. I learned this from the example of Mike Kryzsewski, who coaches basketball at Duke University. Coach K, as he is called, wants his players to learn how to recognize his voice as soon as he shouts an instruction.

It occurs to me that this is good counsel for the Christian life. Jesus says, “the sheep listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… His sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:3-4). If we are God’s sheep then we recognize his voice. But we need to learn how to listen for it so we can follow him. That is not always easy to do, especially when so many other things clamor for our attention: work, family, ministry, pleasure. Unless we are listening for it, we may not hear the Shepherd’s voice at all.

A third thing I learned this season is the value of a servant’s heart. Anyone who has ever played on a team before knows that not everyone gets to be the star. In fact, some players do not even get to start (unless most of the team is academically ineligible!). However, every player is an important part of the team.

Being a team-player includes helping your teammates any way you can. Sometimes that means filling the water bottles and collecting the basketballs. This season I learned how hard it is to sell aspiring young athletes on the importance of humble service. Like most things of value, servant’s hearts are in short supply.

They do exist, however. One of our freshmen showed us a glimpse of one on a road trip early in the season. Unfortunately, one of our key players forgot his jersey, so he was ineligible to play. When the freshman realized how this would hurt the team, he went to the head coach and volunteered to give up his jersey for his teammate.

What would you have done if you had been the coach? On the one hand, learning to take the right equipment is a basic life skill. For most jobs it is necessary to wear the right uniform to work every day. What better way to learn that lesson than to spend one whole basketball game in street clothes?

On the other hand, giving up a jersey was a terrific example of team play. More than that, it was a perfect example of the servant heart of Jesus Christ. It was like a parable of what Jesus did on the cross when he took our sin upon his own back. Now he offers to clothe us in his perfect righteousness. Of all the things I learned this basketball season, that was the best lesson of all.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org