This was originally given on 8/30/19
People always ask me why I love basketball so much. It’s more than watching crazy drunks or amazing passes. In part, it’s having played the game for so many years, I see so much outside the play and appreciate the subtle things happening on the floor. But it is more than that too. It’s about the people and their stories. It’s knowing and having followed many of these players for so many years, often since they were teenagers, and watching them grow and struggle, face setbacks and persevere. I appreciate what is at stake for so many of them, in a game and over the course of a season. So a pass is more than a pass, and a shot is more than a shot. It’s part of a long, ongoing narrative, and in each moment, the outcome – success or failure – is uncertain.
I know what you’re thinking – How can he be talking about basketball? It’s not even football season yet. But for those of us, who follow the game closely, there is an exciting tournament coming up, the FIBA World Cup, which serves as a prelude to next summer’s Olympic games. Teams from around the world are sending their national teams to China to compete for a spot in next year’s Olympics.
Since the Dream Team in 1992, the US National Team has been filled with NBA All-stars, the best players in the world and the United States usually wins easily. But this year, a long list of the best players have dropped out, and the roster has been filled with role players and young players filled with potential. Players are adjusting to new coaches, new roles, and new teammates. Each wants to do what is best in their own eyes, but for the team to have success, the coaching staff must unify them with a common purpose and sense of cohesion.
It’s a fascinating experiment in team building. Scoring is very important in basketball. And the best players are often the ones who are really great at scoring. But the best team can’t just include the best scorers. It needs to be filled with people who complement each other, who excel in different areas and can embrace their role. If you dream of awards and shoe-deals and fame, can you humble yourself and embrace the dirty work?
So far, the results have been mixed. The team recently lost an exhibition game to Australia, breaking a 78 game winning streak.
Perhaps, the greatest example of team building in the history of sports, was the 1980 U.S. Hockey team who achieved the “Miracle on Ice” defeating the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. They beat a seemingly unbeatable team. The Soviet Union had won 5 of the previous 6 gold medals and were filled with professional players, experienced in international play.
The US team, coached by Herb Brooks, was made up of college players or recent college graduates. It should not have been a close game, but Coach Brooks had a vision for how to put his group together. He needed players who would not do what was best in their own eyes, but would work together toward a common goal. In the film, Miracle, based on this team, Coach Brooks says:
All-star teams fail because they rely solely on the individual’s talent. The Soviets win because they take that talent and use it inside a system that’s designed for the betterment of the team. My goal is to beat ‘em at their own game
It’s wisdom that comes straight out this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. In Deuteronomy 12:8, Moses tells the Israelites:
לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּן כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֲנַ֧חְנוּ עֹשִׂ֛ים פֹּ֖ה הַיּ֑וֹם אִ֖ישׁ כָּל־הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָֽיו׃
You shall not act at all as we now act here, every person doing what they think is right in their own eyes
Rabbeinu Bahya, a medieval Spanish commentator explains that:
“This verse refers to the problem of private altars which during the transitional 14 years of conquest and distribution of the land were still permitted as sites from which to present offerings, something which had been forbidden while the people were in the desert, seeing the Tabernacle was right in their midst and there was no need to travel in order to offer sacrifices in it.”
For a time, once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they were free to set up their own altars and offer sacrifices in different high places around Israel. That might have been what was best for each tribe and for each individual. Who wants to travel to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, when you can do it at your friendly, neighborhood altar? But it was not a strategy to build a nation with a common goal and purpose. Allowing each tribe to do as they please, would risk conflict and prioritize individual goals over God’s purpose of creating an am segulah – a chosen people.
For that reason, this week’s Torah portion repeatedly mentions:
הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִבְחַ֜ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
The place that Adonai, your God, will choose.
The place, where the Beit HaMikdash – the Temple would be built – represented the unity and common purpose for the Israelites. To travel there and offer sacrifices meant that some tribes would have to travel further than others, transporting their families, animals, and grains over a longer, more arduous journey. It meant making a sacrifice (to make a sacrifice) for the good of the nation. Which players on this year’s Team USA roster are willing to do the same? For this year’s team to reach its highest potential and fullest expression, each player must find a role and embrace it. Only then will they be able to do what is right in their own eyes, and also what is right for the team.