Lebron James, the premiere player in professional basketball, and arguably the most dominant, influential professional athlete in recent memory, after signing a contract with the LA Lakers, has again changed teams, for the fourth time in his 15-year career. That kind of superstar movement was unthinkable when I was growing up.
In the days of Jordan, Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, there existed faces so iconic of the franchise that the idea that they would either grow disenfranchised with their team or that the hometown would want to part ways with “their guy” never seemed like a possibility.
But the NBA and professional sports have changed. More accurately, life has changed. In the 21st century, being unnecessarily tethered, i.e. a lack of options, is considered nearly criminal. I mean, we all DESERVE to be able to pursue the deepest desires of our hearts, right? (Or something somewhat narcissistic, humanistic, and individualistic like that.)
Irrespective of what we say, few of us have any higher pursuits than our own personal comfort, pleasure, and happiness. Gone is duty, or loyalty, or fidelity. Why wouldn’t a professional athlete bounce to a different location if that team offered a marginally better chance at winning a championship? For that matter, why would I stay with a company that doesn’t offer me max salary, max corporate trajectory, max days off, and the chance to win immediately? Why would I stay with a wife who, three children later, can’t physically compete with that girl at the office 8 years younger? Why would I stay with a small, quaint church that is full of people whose lives look even more messed up than mine? Why would I stay with a God who isn’t delivering the goods on demand? What’s the point? Isn’t there a different team that will help me feel like a winner now?
In all of the articles and talk radio shows I’ve run across over the past few days discussing Lebron’s move, one thing that struck me is that not a single person (well, maybe a few homers in Cleveland) question Lebron’s decision to move to Los Angeles from a loyalty perspective. Some question it from a basketball perspective – whether or not it improves his odds of winning a championship. But virtually no commentators question the validity of him switching teams – i.e. whether or not a player has some sort of obligation to a fanbase that has embraced them warmly. No one questions this because we all know what it’s like to make decisions by effortlessly pushing the options through the filter of “Is this best FOR ME? Is this what I WANT?”
I’m really not sure even Lebron James is going to shift the balance of power in the NBA with his move. But he is exposing something sad about the state of this generation.
The following are a few related lessons about humanity Lebron has taught us:
1) Choices are Demonstrating the Worst in Us
In 1982 Buckminster Fuller coined something called the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, as the world has splintered into more specialized fields, it’s increasingly difficult to measure, but on average, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to an IBM report several years ago, universal internet availability will eventually cause the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.
Too much information, too fast, means life is uncontrollably unpredictable. This fact leaves us feeling vulnerable. So humans today generally possesses a well-developed tentativeness. We’re afraid to make commitments, because we know we could never possibly have all the facts necessary to make the best decision.
This, to some extent anyways, explains the contemporary changing of college majors, careers, and spouses,…as well as professional athletes changing teams continuously. “How can I ever know if a choice is in MY best interest? Well, I guess I’d better try that option over there.”
When humans are given options, go figure, they opt. Furthermore, when we feel threatened or insecure, we’re more inclined to opt that much more selfishly. The availability and accessibility of options themselves don’t make us wicked, but they expose what’s deep inside.
So we’ve created a world with literally thousands of options at the coffee shop, fine-tuned to my personal taste buds, and then we perceive it as injustice if we don’t get things exactly the way we want in the rest of the coffee shop of life. Modern humans are remarkably disloyal, precisely because we’ve given ourselves the option to be “unfaithful” without deep consequence.
Dear Christian, the world is NOT your oyster. You and all the world’s oysters were redeemed by Jesus. Consequently every decision you make does not need to be run through the “Does this make me happy?” filter, but though the “Does this glorify the God who owns me?” filter.
Please notice that none of this, by the way, means that opting for something different is always wrong. Sometimes it’s totally necessary and right. But selfishness is always wrong no matter how it works out. And for sinful creatures, options can multiply temptations. The fallen nature hates patience, perseverance, and faithfulness and will always be tempted to opt out.
2) We Now Know Money is Not Enough
Shockingly, the Lebron James signing is arguably not the biggest story coming out of NBA free agency this summer. Rather, that would be the story of perennial All-Star Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins joining the Golden State Warriors on a 1-year, $5.3 million contract, which conforms to the NBA’s salary cap rules to create competitive parity in the league. The Warriors have won the NBA championship 3 of the last 4 years and were already primed to win several more over the next few seasons. The addition of Cousins, who is considered by many to be perhaps one of the best dozen or so players in the league, seems unfair to many who follow the NBA.
The head-scratching question to most is, “Why would Cousins sign such a small deal?”
Now, $5 million dollars is more money than many of us may ever see, but I want you to keep in mind that he apparently turned down an offer from his home team (New Orleans Pelicans) for $40 million over 2 years. When the NBA devised the current salary cap, rest assured they never dreamed superstars would consider playing for minimal contracts.
Some have suggested that perhaps Cousins took a smaller one-year contract thinking if he can perform well next season, he can prove he’s fully recovered from his injury last season, at which point he can command a higher offer. But that makes little sense, because his numbers are likely to be lower this coming year playing on such a talented team, where he’s not the go-to guy. It has to be something different.
And that difference very well could be the difference other veteran players accepted when they joined the Golden State Warriors – that they would make less money, play less, and receive less acclaim, but would be part of a proven winner. We already knew that once people hit $75,000 in annual income, they feel no significant shift in happiness with increases. But what Cousins’ signing, and Lebron’s bouncing around suggests is that money, in fact, doesn’t buy satisfaction. Humans want much more.
Which leads me to my final point…
3) We Long To Be Part of Something Powerfully Bigger Than Us
As selfish and me-first as fallen human nature is, due to the fact that we have an innate sense that we were created for something more than ourselves, we know deep down, ironically, that our greatest happiness cannot be found in our supremacy. There’s a bigger superstar than me, and there’s a team of “us” that we long for. Our only fear is the ego of a true superstar. Disproportionately talented humans almost invariably use their gifts for selfish gain, which hurts others.
And that’s one of the many reasons why the gospel of Jesus is so remarkable. The Apostle Paul writes:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
The teaching here is that a single building block is terribly unimpressive, because it was never meant to sit there alone. In fact, if it does remain alone, it accomplishes nothing – it can’t stand on its own, it can’t offer shelter, it benefits no one. Once fitted together on a firm foundation, guided by a perfect cornerstone, however, each building block becomes relevant by accomplishing what they were cut out to be.
Jesus, our cornerstone, is a superstar who doesn’t hog the spotlight, but who walks into darkness, alone, so that you can have the light. He won’t leave you for a better opportunity. In fact, he nailed himself to you. And now he invites you to be part of his team. Because of his resurrection, all who believe are guaranteed to end up on the winning side of history.
At some point you become tired of trying to make something of yourself, and the idea of simply being part of the winning team sounds wonderful. That’s what we were made for.
The talented players on the Golden State Warriors’ bench, who could all likely start on other teams, seem to understand this. But part of the essence of being a Christian is to really get this concept. “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30) Whatever gift we’re given, whatever role we play, we’d humbly carry it out because we’re just overjoyed that our brother would invite us to be part of his eternally winning team, no matter how difficult this season of life.
Only when we lose ourselves in Him and in his Church will we find the selves we were cut out to be.