No one will ever make a Hollywood movie about my sports career, which probably looks more like most people’s experience than anything we would find on the big screen.
Movies make it seem like you only learn something after an initial defeat or challenge that is eventually overcome by winning a championship. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never won a championship. My years of high school cross country coincided with my school’s only four-year championship lacuna. Even my cheering doesn’t seem to work; my football-crazed alma mater’s last N.C.A.A. championship was won around the time I was potty-trained.
Like millions of others around the world, I was recently glued to my TV set for seven straight games of the N.B.A. finals, watching two teams about as evenly matched as possible. As the back-and-forth series continued, it was hard not to feel like both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs deserved to win. In the end, however, only one team enjoyed a champagne shower; the other was awarded a somber flight back to Texas.
Before this year started, many expected a different team to hoist the championship trophy. The stars aligned yet again for the Los Angeles Lakers; they assembled four future hall of famers to form a seeming juggernaut. Instead, however, they turned out to be more of a naught, much to the disappointment of Kobe Bryant and much to the pleasure of those of us who cheer for any team playing against the Lakers.
Bryant has said that a year without a championship is “a wasted year of my life,” so he presumably felt that this was a “wasted” year for himself and any player outside of South Florida.
Even if it did not result in a championship, however, “wasted” fails to describe how the Spurs captivated the sports world. Their tremendous effort beautifully demonstrated the potential of the human spirit, even if they—like most of us—were not number one.
Though we might not receive a trophy for it, we can actually learn a lot from partial, personal success in sports or in life, which gives much hope for those of us whose only assist recorded during an N.B.A. game is handing off the remote to a couchmate.
During my junior year of high school, I finished fourth in my main track event in a district meet, thereby just failing to qualify for the state meet. My deep disappointment fed the fire to work harder for the next year, when I finished third and thus met my goal of qualifying for state.
Though I was satisfied, Hollywood doesn’t make movies about people who finish third in an obscure event at a regional meet in a forgotten state. According to the standards of Kobe Bryant, it was yet another wasted season. Still, I learned more from that experience of working to achieve a personal goal than I did from calculus that year, at least in terms of knowledge that I have actually retained.
The coach who consoled me after finishing fourth ingrained in our heads the phrase “nothing but my best.” Because of the genetic lottery (and, admittedly, far less time spent in the weight room), I am seven inches shorter and about 100 pounds less buff than LeBron James, the star of the Miami Heat. Though I had childhood dreams of playing in the N.B.A., it soon became apparent that the closest I would ever come would be watching from the upper deck.
My best looks like a complete waste when compared to LeBron James; my best today on the court or the track is also not as quick as it was 10 years ago.
Thankfully, however, we have a God who works with partial successes and even epic failures, a God who doesn’t care if we got fourth or third or 403rd. Unlike the N.B.A. players in their late 30’s who probably don’t have another chance at a championship, we have tomorrow; we have another day to learn from our mistakes and try to do better, whether in sports, relationships or work.
Of course, I want the teams in which I have irrationally invested far too much emotional energy to win championships and am heart-broken whenever they lose. That being said, I’m perfectly fine with joining the 99.9 percent of humanity who are not the best at something, as long as I give my best.
For a few people, like LeBron James, who was voted the best basketball player on the planet for the fourth time this year, his best really is the best. For the rest of us, my best is only my best, but God is O.K. with that.