5 Things the Church Can Learn From the Spurs

Yes, I am. I’m talking about the Spurs on my blog. And yes, it’s because I love them and because I’m still overjoyed that they won Sunday night. But it’s also because their win showcases so much of why I love them. And in those qualities the Church can find a good number of things worth emulating. The San Antonio Spurs are a top-notch organization, a well-run organism, and they have plenty to teach us about what it means to be church. I’ll limit myself to 5, because boy is that number sweet about now. :)

5. A culture of flexibility, adaptation and change. I’ve been watching the Spurs since they drafted David Robinson in 1987. Since Pop took over as head coach in 1996-97, the Spurs have shown a stunning ability to adapt around their players, their opponents, and the changing landscape of the NBA. Pop doesn’t ever sit on his laurels and do things again just because they worked the first time. He’s always looking at his system with a critical eye, scanning for inefficiencies, looking for opportunities to capitalize on the best gifts of the players. He’s a master at designing ways to allow his players to grow and to shine.

What if the Church, instead of maligning the rapidly changing culture, considered it a playground? What if we stopped complaining and instead started experimenting, adapting, finding things that work and easily letting go of things that didn’t? What if your church created a culture that restructured around the actual people who participate strongly from year to year? At Journey, we often say that we are who shows up. If a bunch of artists are showing up, that’s what defines us. If a bunch of theological nerds infiltrate, you’ll see that reflected. We are different not only year to year but gathering to gathering based on who decides to show up and speak up. Contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t create instability. It creates an environment that feels energized, and authentic. Are our churches reflecting the people in the pews, or the people who were in the pews 5, 10, 20 years ago?

4. Humble Commitment to the Team. The Spurs are a living example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sunday’s Finals championship game is a perfect example of that, actually. A couple of the Spurs’ go-to players had off nights; Parker was cold for almost 3 quarters before he warmed up in the 4th, Danny Green didn’t sink a single three. Earlier on in the series, Leonard stumbled through two entire games. No matter. The bench is deep, and the team is known for centering not on one superstar but on a full-court-press cast of contributors. When Parker was cold, Patty Mills stepped up in a big way. Green missed threes but Leonard and Ginobli swished left and right.

But here’s what’s so beautiful about that: everyone celebrates a basket, no matter who gets the credit for the shot or the assist. The Spurs work well as a team because they honestly don’t care about who gets the credit. You have the shot? You take it. You don’t? You pass it. It’s that simple. You don’t believe me? Take a look at the salary roster. The big guys on the team have consistently taken pay cuts and gotten less than they could command as a star of another franchise because they make financial room for a whole team of good players. They literally put their money where their mouth is.

A few years ago, Pop had a quote written on the walls leading to the Spurs locker room. He had it written in every language spoken by the diverse cast of players. And this is what it says: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two and I know it was not that blow that did it but all that had gone before.”

I honestly think much of America is sick of seeing Christians who are vying for the spotlight, for headlines, for credit. Pastors with their faces on billboards, churches that do good but spend more time and money on the advertising to tell people about it… There’s a better way. The Spurs’ radical commitment to the common vision and success of the team sounds a lot to me like what it means to be humbly and faithfully committed to the good news. No matter who gets the credit. No matter whether someone notices or not. Just because you believe in it. Just because you care about it. Just because you’re committed. We do the work, day after day, even when we don’t see results, because none of us know when the Realm of God is going to break open.

3. A shared ethos that is absolutely counter-cultural.  Call it the Spurs Way, a doggedly consistent adherence to a way of being together that is shared by everyone from owner to bench player. The Spurs are known for creating a stable culture, one that literally shapes the players and coaches who come there. There is a way to be a San Antonio Spur, and it has very clear expectations about how one is to act, live, and interact. And it is, in a million different ways, counter-cultural to the vast majority of lived reality in the NBA. They do not do hype. They do not do flash. They do not boast. When’s the last time you heard about a Spurs player in People magazine? Heck, even Tony Parker’s marriage and divorce to Eva Longoria was pretty quiet.

The Spurs do things differently. They get panned for it, often. Sure, there are rare moments (like this week) when it becomes obvious that they command a lot of respect in this league, but most of the time, they are just doing what they do, in the background, unnoticed. For years they did this in the face of a sometimes nasty David Stern, who belittled them three ways to Sunday for being boring, for not driving up ratings, for being so guarded and unflashy about their wins. Stern hated it, but it’s what I love most about them, really. They do the work, and they let the work speak for itself. If that isn’t the heart of a truly Christian ethic–being motivated by what’s right, by what you are convicted to do, and not by popularity or hype or paydays–then I don’t know what is.

And do you know what’s awesome? This shared ethos does not in any way limit individuality. All of those players grow, but they grow in a particular direction. They don’t become worse versions of themselves. They become better players, better people, but still uniquely themselves. Sunday night it seemed all the commentators mentioned what a globally diverse team the Spurs are- the most diverse in NBA history. There is so much diversity- culturally, in personality style, in basketball style- and yet, this ethos is still mutually held by all.

For a Church that is constantly trying to figure out how to live counter-culturally, I am so thankful for their example. The NBA is not an easy place to swim upstream, and they do it well, consistently. We can too, you know. We can be individually who we are, uniquely ourselves, and still be committed to the counter-cultural work of the gospel. We may not always get headlines for it, but if we do it well enough and long enough, the respect will be there.

2. A culture of community and a commitment to mentorship. Because there’s such an emphasis on the team, the goal of the Spurs franchise is to raise up as many great players (and coaches) as possible. The Spurs don’t do competition. They do mentorship. Rigorous, methodical, persistent mentorship. And mentorship requires sacrifice. When Duncan joined the team, Robinson knew he had to step back and let the new young guy do the heavy lifting. He could have been territorial as the Face of the Spurs, as the heart of the franchise, as someone who was clinging to the end of his run as San Antonio’s leading man, but instead he took Tim under his wings, taught him everything he knew, and gave him every opportunity to shine. Robinson’s stats lowered dramatically that year, but he got a Championship.  This Sunday when Kawhi Leonard was given the MVP award, I saw the same scenario play out all over again. The team rallied around the 22 year old like giddy school kids, mussing his hair and grinning profusely. Nobody felt one-upped by the young rising star. They felt proud. Duncan said in an interview that he was just honored to be playing with someone like Leonard right now. Take a second to think about how awesome that is, and how rare. But not exactly surprising: Duncan was simply paying forward the same kind of praise Robinson and Pop had given him at a young age. And it’s not just Duncan- the whole team operates that way, like a mutual mentorship camp. For the Spurs, a rising tide lifts all boats.

This community focus and mentorship isn’t only on display in the glory hours, though. Last year, after the-game-which-shall-not-be-named, Pop gathered up all the troops. He invited the players and coaches, AND their spouses and families to have dinner together. That night, after they suffered a heart-wrenching loss, they gathered around the table and broke bread together. Because they are a family, and they stick together in good times and in bad. There was no sulking alone that night. Nobody retreated into their egos, or nursed thoughts of blaming and shaming teammates. There was shared sadness, a space to grieve alongside one another, a physical reminder that they are in this together, for better or worse, and that this will not be the end of the story.

That sounds like what church is meant to be, doesn’t it?

What if your church could cultivate that kind of collaborative, mentoring participation? How can you make space for newcomers to shine, for new skills to be practiced, for gifts to be utilized? The Church talks a lot about raising up leaders, about mentoring and discipleship, but few of us display the kind of thoroughness and consistency the Spurs have been displaying for nearly 20 years. Their commitment to raising up new players and leaders is why they have been a force in the NBA for so long. We could learn from their focus and their long-range visioning.

1. A centered leader. Gregg Popovitch is a singularly excellent leader. There are many things that make him extraordinary. He knows who he is and he’s secure in it. He doesn’t look for outside praise, nor does he need it. He is known for his short answers, his constant refusal to talk a lot about himself or his franchise or his method. He does the work and that’s all he needs. I think part of the reason this works for him is that basketball does not run his life. He’s a known foodie. He stays up on current events. He reads. He has a full life, off the court. He doesn’t need basketball to fulfill everything for him because it’s not the only thing he has going. (How many pastors can say the same?!) He seems to be someone who knows how to appreciate the small things in life, and he cultivates that sense of gratitude in his organization. He enjoys the game, is committed to the discipline and work. He has said in interviews that he loves his players, and it’s clear he means it. He invests in them, deeply. He loves when they call him on the phone, ask him for advice. Plenty of times I’ve read that he invites David Robinson to come and be part of things, to this day. (Did you see the Admiral on the court after the win?!) He has deep and meaningful relationships with people. But he doesn’t expect them to fill his tank, either. Maybe that’s why he can enjoy them so much.

Most of all, he leads by example, and he leads from the back. When everyone was storming the court on Sunday night, the camera was panning around, trying to find Pop. He was on the bench, head in hands, taking a moment. On stage when they got the trophy, he was still in the back, smiling, watching his players relish the win. He didn’t go up front one time.  He doesn’t need the credit. He knows his job: he builds leaders, and he helps them succeed, and when they do so, he gives them every ounce of credit for the work they did to get there. I know Pop gets ribbed a lot for being short on praise, but I actually don’t think that’s true as we think it is behind closed doors. The guy is nowhere near effusive, but he is persistent in giving credit. He holds the bar high because he fully expects those guys to reach it. And they do.

Whenever Pop retires, it won’t be a big sendoff. He doesn’t need it to be after another championship win. He may leave as quietly as he came. But his mark will be unforgettable.

Pastors could learn so much from Pop about casting a vision, creating a culture, mentoring leaders, having high expectations of their people, fostering deep relationships, and having the kind of centered, balanced life that provides a fantastic example for others to follow.

 

We’d do well to learn from the long-running excellence of the Spurs, strange as that may sound. I’m convinced our churches can be places of innovation, collaboration, mentorship and commitment. I don’t think Pop will mind if we steal a thing or two from his playbook.

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