Americans would be forgiven for not noticing, but Canada is currently experiencing a golden age in the sport of basketball. Or if is not yet a golden age, there are expectations that such a time should soon arrive. Never before have so many Canadian born players played at once in the NBA and though none of them are as of yet particularly accomplished there is a sense that at least some might have the potential. At the top of the list, “Maple Jordan” as some have wistfully called him, the great Canadian hope, is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has the right combination of size and athleticism, along with sufficient skill, to produce a bona fide all star. Indeed he may become an all star, but few players have been so thoroughly questioned, examined, and tested by the analysts for that mysterious quality residing somewhere between the head and the heart, that one thing that makes a good player truly great.
As much or more than any other sport (perhaps even as much as theology), professional basketball loves individual greatness. And greatness in the NBA, for those who meditate most deeply upon it, is about something far more profound than technical skill or natural athleticism. Such rare qualities enter into the moral realms, and it is not uncommon to hear analysts or coaches speak, with disgust or remorse, about players who had the skills but lacked the “character” to really succeed. As in all sports, character is a critical concept that separates the pack; it has a moral status even if it is seldom examined.
In the context of the NBA, character can mean many different things. There are character players, those who know their roles and play energetically and attentively within them. Character, no doubt, can refer to a player’s ability to play within a system and to play in harmony with others. A true character player understands the flow of the game — when to assert themselves, when to back off. But for the great players, there is a loftier kind of character required, a quality that is at once moral in its power but also supersedes conventional understandings of morality. The Jordans, the Lebrons, and the Kobes clearly play by a different set of rules: they seize the limelight; they are relentlessly driven and supremely confident; and within the rules of the game, they are willing to do whatever it takes to win.
For these qualities, and most of all for their proven success, we call them great. Such qualities among the unsuccessful appear far less inspiring.
It is often said to our young people that playing team sports builds character, which implies that they somehow make the participants better people then they would have been otherwise. In a way, this seems obvious: team sports teach teamwork, discipline, and cooperation, among other valuable things. But like many other amateur and professional pursuits in our culture, the world of sports is driven by highly confusing moral notions that are scattered among our young people and passed on from one generation to another. Anyone who has witnessed the anger of a hockey, football, or basketball Dad directed at his son, or anyone who has been tempted to be that Dad, will understand at least a little of what this might mean. Too often character simply means toughness and aggression, and, ultimately, winning, virtues young boys better learn early if they want to succeed.
In some sense, the virtues and character required to succeed at basketball are what they are. Sometimes these qualities may translate to excellence in other areas of life. But which ones? Usually, parallels are drawn to other fields of ambition, which require a mixed bag of abilities and virtues. But success is often the crown of them all, and where there is success, the requisite abilities and virtues, whatever they may be, simply find an open seat in the stands.
Alisdair Macintyre famously argued that morality is not an ahistorical quality that exists independent of our contexts and history. Rather, the virtues are practiced within a concrete practice, which has a history and a development peculiar to its own setting. Basketball counts as a practice, but the NBA is an institution, even though success in basketball has no greater measure than the latter. Accordingly, basketball has its own “internal goods” and rewards, which are available to everyone regardless of ability, whereas the “external goods” are by definition scarce and subject to competition.
It is a helpful distinction, and it is one that is lost on our sport-obsessed culture. On this score, Macintyre issued a sober warning:
Yet notoriously the cultivation of truthfulness, justice and courage will often, the world being what it contingently is, bar us from being rich or famous or powerful. Thus although we may hope that we can achieve the standards of excellence and the internal goods of certain practice by possessing the virtues and become rich, famous and powerful, the virtues are always a potential stumbling block to this comfortable ambition. We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound. (After Virtue, p. 196)
To be sure, such virtuous “simulacra” abound not only within sports but in our world at large. Much has been written about how Christians — committed to their own forms of practice — ought to engage other practices. However, this is not easy when the other practices (and sometimes those of Christians themselves) do not recognize their own particularity. Of course, Macintyre’s larger point was that we live in a world where we cling to the odds and ends of a fragmented moral tradition that, at times, lends the appearance of a moral unity though these appearances are deceptive.
Questions like What would Jesus do if he played in the NBA or if he was a VP with an investment firm? seem almost absurd — despite books written on the topics — because they require that Jesus would have needed the ambition to advance that far. Prosperity preachers, perhaps for this reason, often have a liking for Daniel; he fits the “comfortable ambition” Macintyre spoke of: he had his character and his success too. But every preacher knows that success is a troublesome word. On any given Sunday, there will be people in the pews who span the great spectrum of achievement. We often try not to diminish the genuine career success people experience, without elevating it so much as to diminish others who have not known similar accomplishments. In my own mind, I am often unsure how to formulate the incredible contrasts and inequalities that career success creates within a parish.
The Scriptures, for their part, provide a mixed and varied picture as well. Wealth, honor, and plenty are often seen as rewards for the righteous (e.g. Prov. 10), while Jesus had cautionary words for those who crave success (Luke 14:8), at least success of a certain kind. Wealth and societal honor receive a certain coloring throughout the New Testament that should cause us all to at least pause. The contemporary Christian obsession with leadership, for example, has largely done away with such tensions, and for good reasons: it often feels and appears virtually impossible to live and act in a coherently Christian manner, when our lives are lived out amidst the mesmerizing “simulcra” of a broken, now elusive, moral tradition.
Part of me really hopes that Andrew Wiggins becomes one of the greats, but in so wishing, I recognize that I am playing on the surface of innumerable incoherent moral narratives or practices. Loyalty to my country, a mild national and global resentment of American dominance in all things, a strange and pathological interest in the game of basketball, and an aimless addiction to NBA.com’s mobile app are all features of a practice that consumes a considerable amount of my time. None of these things make much sense within a Scriptural frame, except that we are still sinners in a sinful world.
It seems to me that the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and courage) can be adapted and applied on the basketball court, but the theological virtues (faith, hope and love) are a bit more resistant. Of course the latter are intended to infuse the former, and there is nothing saying a faithful Christian cannot be a basketball, corporate, or elected all star. But for all of us there are dangers at every turn (perhaps for clergy most of all) as the moral “simulacra” of our contemporary world constantly posture as objective norms that conceal their emotivist intent.
It is a dangerous world for Christians but for us the greatest virtue is love, a love that is embodied in the life of Jesus. Where this virtue, the unity in which the others abide, guides our careers is anyone’s guess.