Good News for Teenagers: Humility and Grace in the NBA Playoffs

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We live in the time of both social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Whether we see it or not, our teenagers are inundated with news both local and international. At Rooted, we wanted to give youth workers and parents a way to frame the headlines for teenagers within the gospel narrative – that amidst both tragedy and joy, we have an abiding hope in Jesus. It’s important to talk to your teenagers about the news, but even more important to talk about what the Good News says about the news! Here’s The (Good) News for Teenagers.

What happened: At a time when much of the news seems to revolve around powerful people behaving badly, the NBA Finals series between the Phoenix Suns and the (ultimately victorious) Milwaukee Bucks offered a glimpse into the lives of men of Christian character. Amid the frequent press conferences and the pressure cooker of a championship run, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Monty Williams testified to priorities greater than basketball.

Why it matters and how to talk about it:

Many consider Giannis Antetokounmpo the hardest working player in the NBA. Known affectionately as “Giannis,” or “the Greek Freak,” the 26-year-old star has rapidly become one of the most decorated players in NBA history. He’s a ferocious competitor, but his work ethic flows out of deep joy: Giannis loves playing basketball.

Giannis has long been open about his faith. When he was awarded the 2019 MVP, he tearfully thanked God for giving him talent, saying, “everything I do, I do it for him. I am extremely blessed.” After Game Four of the finals, a reporter asked Giannis how he managed to keep his ego in check in the face of so much success. His response is worth watching with your teenagers. Without quoting Scripture directly, Giannis suggests that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

Then Giannis turns to humility: “When you focus on your past, that’s your ego. When you focus on your future, that’s your pride. When you focus on the present, that’s humility.” Rather than using past success to feed future swagger, Giannis says that staying humble is staying in the moment. Humility is “going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level… that’s a skill I have tried to… master.”

Giannis’ approach provides a guide for talking about what it means to “Humble your[self] before the Lord” (James 4:10), especially with kids who have enjoyed a lot of achievement or winning. The talent and success God gives us is pure gift, no cause for inflated ego (James 1:17), and boasting about the future is pointless, because every moment is in God’s hands anyway (James 4:13-17). Humility works hard in the moment, all for the glory of God, and leaves the results to him (Colossians 3:17). Giannis demonstrates the work of humility in terms teenagers will understand.

Monty Williams, head coach of the Phoenix Suns, came up on the losing side of the Finals, but he has suffered far worse. In 2016 his wife died, and Williams was left to raise five children as a single dad. And that’s exactly where he found solace and stability during the chaos of coaching in the playoffs: he relaxed at home, “goofing around” his children and dogs. When a reporter asked him how he spent his downtime, Williams joked that he must work for boring.com, but then his tone turned serious, and he spoke of doing devotions with his kids at night. They read from the Bible, and then they “talk about the Lord and his impact on [their] lives and what he’s done for us.”

Most kids look up to their father, but the Williams kids have a 6-foot 8-inch former NBA player dad who finds more joy in being real with his family than in his high profile career. He spoke of being vulnerable with his children about the ups and downs of the NBA playoffs:

It’s been really cool to talk to my children about the stresses and fears, and all the stuff that I’ve gone through the last two months. Because they look at me as big as I am, you know, in a certain way, and I think it’s cool, especially with my boys, to teach them it’s OK to be fearful, but not let those fears stop you. The conversations with my kids the last few weeks have been really really cool, so that’s probably the most enjoyable thing I do that allows me to get away from this a little bit.

He leads his team with the same integrity, born of his faith in Jesus: “… the essence of my coaching is to serve. As a believer in Christ, that’s what I’m here for.” Monty Williams understands that his call as a coach means that he serves his players, and in his call as a father, he serves his family.

It’s no surprise that the two men connected after the Finals ended. Immediately following their win, the Bucks celebrated in their locker room. But Giannis sensed that Williams wanted to congratulate his opponents, and so he stopped the party for a moment and invited Williams into the locker room to address the Bucks. Williams’ heartfelt remarks were met with a round of applause from the NBA champs (and he was later criticized by a few reporters who did not understand his tremendous sportsmanship).

Two followers of Christ, humbly demonstrating grace in victory and grace in defeat.

The Good News for teenagers, and for us, is that our lives are not primarily about ourselves. Win or lose, we get to glorify the God who creates us, saves us, and loves us. In Christ, we have nothing to prove, and we don’t have to achieve athletic (or any other) greatness in order to be dearly loved. If our teenagers are graced with success in the eyes of the world, they don’t have to be ruined by pride. When they suffer the sting of defeat, they are not destroyed by it. There is a path of humility and service, opened up for them by following Christ.

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