By Bob Hiller –
For decades now the Los Angeles Lakers have been one of, if not the, premier franchise in the NBA. With their storied history of winning, they have been the toast of Los Angeles. Games are a virtual red carpet of celebrity fans that come to see and be seen; to quote Father John Misty, the games are full “people pretending they don’t see the actress and the actress wishing that they would.” The Lakers front office has had a glorious history of signing the biggest free-agents and putting together a consistent contender. Great history, great off-court night life, great organization: who wouldn’t want to play for the Lakers?
Well, apparently a lot of players don’t want to. Something is amiss in Los Angeles these days. Over the last two years, they have had a very difficult time signing big name free agents. The team is a shadow of what it once was on the court. Off the court players aren’t much more than TMZ fodder. And, given that most of the big names are millennials, they could care less about the Lakers’ legacy. They want to win now. So, what is wrong? Two words, one dude: Kobe Bryant.
At least, that is what is being argued by many in the NBA media. According to Henry Abbot at ESPN the Magazine, marquis players don’t want anything to do with the ol’ (self-glossed) Black Mamba. He’s “forced” the team to pay him a big contract which prevents them from enticing other players to consider LA. But, even if they had the money, no one wants to play with Kobe. Because, you see, you don’t play with Kobe, you play for Kobe. The ball stops with him. He dictates the game. He doesn’t share the limelight. He gets the glory.
That’s, at least, the story Abbot’s article spins with a lot of unnamed sources. And though I do believe Kobe is not the easiest guy to work with, I wonder if this unwillingness to go to LA is entirely his fault. NBA players are not really known for their tiny egos; so having to play second fiddle to (arguably) one of the ten best of all time doesn’t appeal to them. Players want to be praised and pampered, congratulated and celebrated. They have worked hard to get where they are and now they want to bask in the glory. Kobe doesn’t give a rip about that. He wants to win and will force others to do it as well. He is going to push everyone on the team to work as hard as he does, even if it means talking back to prima-donnas and pushing people beyond their levels of comfort. He is going to push and fight to win. And he won’t kiss any butt to do it.
Which is why I think it is kind of pathetic that no one will play with Kobe. This is one of the best we’ve ever seen! As hard and difficult as he may be to work with, he will force his teammates to grow, to become better in pressure situations, to be mentally stronger both on and off the court. He will break guys down, only so that they can grow stronger in the rebuilding process. But, alas, we live in a time where people who challenge us are viewed as problems to be avoided, not opportunities to grow. Perhaps the reason people won’t play in LA is not just Kobe, but the fear of being exposed as inferior to Kobe. Selfish pride doesn’t want to admit room for growth. Why let Kobe put you through the ringer when you can get paid just as well someplace else and receive more attention? Why do something hard when you could take the easy route?Why go and learn from someone who is greater than you are, even if he is going to make your life more difficult?
Because it builds character, that’s why. Because it helps you hone your craft, that’s why. Because it will make you a stronger person, that’s why. Because personal glory earned on the cheap is a joke, that’s why.
This past week at our weekly pastoral gathering, where we talk shop and translate texts, the good Reverend Koch began talking about how difficult some of his professors at seminary were. We all began to swap stories of how there were professors who just completely wrecked us (mostly Old Testament professors). However, their’s were the most enriching classes we had. The tougher the prof, the better the class. We are better pastors because those men didn’t pamper us to make us feel good about ourselves, but pushed us to be better servants of the Lord’s church. I miss seminary where I was surrounded by theologians, both professors and students, who were way out of my league when it comes to all things pastoral. We even had some Kobe Bryant types who I would have liked to avoid. Yet it was from them that I learned more about what it takes to be a good theologian for the sake of the church. Some guys pushed me beyond my limits, but that only forced me to work harder.
A number of years ago a team of young men wrote a book called Do Hard Things in which they challenged teenagers to aim for achievements beyond what is expected. Working hard would build character and resolve. (Full disclosure, I haven’t read the whole book, just the premise…I like what I’ve seen thus far.) This is not mere advice to excite lethargic teenagers, but a beautiful way of life. Key to such living, I think, is being surrounded by men and women who will stand up to you, challenge you, and not pander to your desire for a cushy life. As one wise pastor told me, “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.”
We live in a culture that lacks character because it refuses to listen to wisdom. We refuse to be foolish so that we might hear the wise. We won’t allow people to tell us we’re wrong, and for this we suffer. We all get trophies for participation, but we all know glory on the cheap is a joke. The Proverbs put it eloquently, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” (12:1) Don’t be stupid. Play with Kobe.