Larry Bird and the Power of Repetition

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How the Daily Office will change your life (Part 1)

Like most American Christians I have spent significant time looking for “fresh” Jesus experiences. Several years ago I decided that looking for “new” things was an unhelpful exercise in missing the point. That conviction struck me as I reflected on an experience I had years ago with Larry Bird…

My part-time job teenage job was Phoenix Suns ball-boy. While my friends worked the usual food service and retail gigs, I worked the visitor’s team bench and locker room. I wasn’t just paid better than my friends, I watched games from the floor and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with NBA Hall of Fame greats like Kareem, Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. Well, maybe “rub shoulders” is overstating it. I tossed them towels and put their jerseys on their shoulders when they came out of the game. During those years I noticed something: The very best players, the really great ones, all had a consistent warm-up routine they followed identically, even superstitiously, before each game.

Game nights for me involved arriving three and a half hours before tipoff to set up the visitor’s locker room with towels and soda before the team bus pulled up an hour later. One afternoon in February of 1980 I entered the bowels of Veterans Memorial Coliseum to hear the echo of a basketball being dribbled. I craned my head toward the court and saw the arena lights already on through the tunnel.  The security guard, seeing my confused look informed, “Some Celtics rookie showed up early.” I set up the locker room and walked into to the court to see this curiosity for myself. Larry Bird had finished his layup cycle and was shooting his way “around the world.” I guess Larry had paid for a cab to arrive early and go through his routine. Seeing my ball boy jersey, he asked if I would shag balls as he shot his way farther and farther away from the basket. Fans of professional basketball may know that 1979-80 was not only Bird’s rookie season, it was also the first year of the three-point line, which at 23’9’’ is quite a distance to hurl a basketball with either form or accuracy. Larry continued to shoot his way further from the basket until he was at the 3-point line. Larry Bird was a forward. I had not seen a forward shoot from the still new and rarely used three-point line. What Larry did next I had never seen any player do: He continued to move beyond the arc until he was shooting a full 10’ behind it. I grew impatient chasing balls shot from a distance one could not possibly use in a game. I asked him why he was wasting his time. Larry responded in his Indiana drawl, “You never know,” he said winding up a shot from 12’ past the line on the right side of the arc near the scorer’s table sideline, “when I might need this shot to win a game.” I almost laughed out loud – an NBA coach was not going to give a game-winning shot to a rookie.

Five hours later, with time running out and the Suns holding a two-point lead, the Celtics broke their huddle and inbounded the ball to Larry Bird. The rookie dribbled into the front court where he launched a 30’ shot from within three feet of the spot he had told me he might need to shoot from in warmups. His shot caromed off the backboard and dropped through the net giving the Celtics a one-point lead over the Suns with half a minute left. How did Larry make impossible shots look easy? The answer: repetition – the thousands of shots Larry had launched in his practice routine.

By the time a basketball player reaches the NBA they have practiced tens of thousands of shots, but they still start their warmups with layups. Why do men who can dunk still practice layups? They know how to do a layup. Layups are boring. The truth is that greatness in both sports and the Christian walk is not about information, it is about formation. There is a difference. Information is knowledge. A good Jr. high player knows the mechanics of a proper jump shot. But it was the two decades of repetitive discipline, honed on an outdoor court in Indiana winters, shooting until his hands bled, that gave Larry Bird the freedom to do things others could not on a basketball court. The principle Larry Bird knew is that Repetition leads to transformation. We see this at work in scripture: Romans 12 opens with, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God….” Then Paul explains how to present our bodies to God, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The Phillips translation phrases it like this, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into it’s mold, but let God remold you from within.”

(Next Up: Part 2 How does God “remold us” spiritually, and the basis of Anglican spirituality.)

 

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What Jerry Colangelo taught me about recruiting and training leaders…by a former Suns ballboy

Walter Davis. A great guy, neighbor, and the silkiest jump shot in the NBA. A basketball was a dagger in his hands at the end of a game.

I picked up a great many leadership lessons as a teenage ball boy for the Phoenix Suns in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was a heady era when new Commissioner David Stern and General Managers like Jerry Colangelo remade the N.B.A. That leadership team gave us superstars and entertaining rivalries. Those were the days of Magic, Isaiah, Larry, and Michael. The N.B.A. went from a backwater 3rd tier sport to, arguably, the most influential professional sports league in America. Here are three leadership lessons from those days that have application for leadership recruiting and training for the church:

1. Get players who produce – people who can fill up a stat-sheet. You are never better than your best players. A team with second-level talent, will never be better than .500. Are we ordaining people because they are the most gifted or because they are not doing something better…or, even worse, because they self-selected? Scottsdale Bible, a church with a history of great pastoral leadership, finds 95% of the people they hire. Then, only ordain those people after they have proven that they can grow a fruitful ministry.

Most people who fill up a stat-sheet are quirky. So you need good training. That is why we need to…

2. Have great coaches.  As legendary Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry said, “Leadership is getting people to do what they don’t want to do, in order to achieve what they want to achieve.” We need high capacity, high-expectation mentors for emerging leaders – folks who can get new leaders doing the things it takes to be successful. Success is not just Sunday Attendance. There are other metrics that are of great value to the church…but to not be concerned about Sunday attendance is absurd. What are some things great coaches do?

  •  Give structure. Quirky people need to be protected from themselves-structure does that! Teams have curfews on the road, dress codes, special diets. There is a theory- practice -theory pattern in the season. There is no three-year pre-season camp. It is 6 weeks of camp and then into the theory-practice-theory long season.
  • Show and tell. Someone who has played the game and can show others how.
  • Push them to over-achieve. Have the hardest practices in town!
  • Set clear goals.
  • Study to have a good game plan.
  • Live with your player’s quirks– after all they produce! Don’t frustrate them with making them impress those up the food chain…or those beside their ministry setting. Set them free to produce for the team and the fans.

All of this makes players into a team. Then, when they do well…

3.   Be a great PR person. Showcase your player’s talents. When the team does well, we all do well. Sing their praises. When your people know you will make them a star they will repay you in loyalty and effort.

A few thoughts specifically on leadership in the church…

  1. Calling is not just heard by the individual, it is discerned by the community and confirmed by fruitfulness in ministry.
  2. Capacity is not the only quality we are looking for:  Character (are they dependable) and chemistry (work well with others) are also important.
  3. We  should stop ordaining people because they do good ministry. We should ordain people who can recruit, encourage and deploy other leaders.

It was a lot of fun to be a junior and senior high student sitting on the floor and hanging out in the locker room during Suns games and watching a near-dead league ramp up into a day of influence it had never known. With the movement of the Holy Spirit and the right group of called people of character, capacity, and chemistry, I am convinced our “heady days” are yet in front of us. I am hopeful that I will be sitting front row and in the locker room when that day comes.