The best coach I ever had was Frank Smith at Stone Middle School. Fourteen of us made the team and we were waiting for Coach Smith at center court for our first day of practice. When he walked up, he went down the team roster and made sure we were all there. Then, he looked up and said, “Let’s get this straight. None of you are any good. You’re just not as bad as the other guys who tried out. If we win this year, it will be because I can coach and not because you can play.”
And with that, the season started. We should have noticed he didn’t bring a basketball to practice. All he had was his whistle and himself. For the first week, all we did was run. We never saw a basketball. We ran sprints. We ran suicides. We ran laps. We ran up and down the bleachers. If there was a way to run in that gym, we ran it. We worked on our footwork. We ran our plays, clapping our hands when a pass would have been thrown.
Coach Smith brought out the basketballs for our second week of practice, but we never shot. Not once. We dribbled. We dribbled right-handed. We dribbled left-handed. We dribbled sideways and at angles across the floor. We dribbled two balls at the same time. We dribbled blindfolded. “The floor’s not moving. Dribble the ball straight down and it will bounce straight up. You should never have to look at the ball while you’re dribbling.”
We passed the ball. Bounce passes, chest passes, with one hand and then another, and every pass had to be catchable…if your teammate mishandled a pass, it was probably because your pass wasn’t “catchable.”
Only in the third week did we shoot. We shot lay-ups, and starting one step from the goal, we shot, and if we made it, we took one step back and shot again. If we missed, we had to start the process all over again. We shot off the backboard. We shot without using the backboard. If you missed, you started all over again.
Did I mention Coach Smith made us shoot free throws blindfolded, too? “The goal isn’t going to move,” he would shout at us. “It’s the same place in every gym. It’s all muscle memory. Just close your eyes and shoot.”
We mastered fundamentals. No, we didn’t have any memorable dunks and nothing we did ever made a highlight reel, but we didn’t turn the ball over. We made our free throws and we knew how to play defense. It wasn’t showy, but it worked. We were a bunch of pretty good ballplayers with a really good coach who had taught us to play fundamentally sound basketball. We won a lot of games. Including a bunch of games we shouldn’t have won at all.
According to Coach Smith, if you play fundamentally sound basketball, you’ll always have a chance.
I’ve never forgotten this lesson, and whenever I talk to church leaders, I want to know how they are handling the fundamentals of the faith. I want to know if they are reading the Bible — not every book being published in Christian literature. Most of them are worthless. I want to know where they are in the Word. I want to know how their prayer life is doing. What are they talking to Jesus about and, more importantly, what is Jesus talking about to them?
Our Rabbi is alive. Our Rabbi has promised us if we open His Word and sit quietly in His Presence, He’ll teach us the same way He taught Peter and John.
The challenge for most Christian leaders is we get so busy working for Jesus, we forget to be with Jesus. Talking about Jesus, knowing about Jesus isn’t the same as being with Jesus. Ministry, however you express it, is giving yourself away. Ministry, however its done, must be done out of the overflow of Christ in our lives. That overflow comes from the spiritual fundamentals in our lives – prayer, Scripture study, worship, and gathering with other believers. There are no substitutes for these fundamentals. They can’t be ignored. Like basketball, if you botch the fundamentals, you can’t win the game.
Whenever you hear about some major Christian leader falling, almost every time, they got too busy to take care of the fundamentals. They’re leading conferences, going to meetings, writing books, preaching, and teaching – all good things! What they push out of their lives is time alone with God. They forget the fundamentals and they lose the game.
So, if I ever have the chance to sit down and talk with you, this is what I will talk to you about – the fundamentals. Sure, we may talk about your church and your ministry, but what I want to know is how you’re doing with the fundamentals. Are you reading the Word? What is Jesus teaching you? Are you in a group of brothers and/or sisters who are holding you accountable to your best self in Christ?
These are the fundamentals. These are the foundations of every winning team. They are the foundations of every winning life.
I know it’s not flashy, but it’s how you win the game.