On Being the Best

Mercedes Benz, one of the oldest and most respected car manufacturers in the world, has a company slogan that is at once both inspiring and a little discouraging. They promise to deliver “The best or nothing.” You could argue all day about whether or not they’re actually creating “the best,” but I would also argue that the sentiment behind the mantra is pervasive within our culture.

Our review-driven culture, particularly here in the United States, has changed the way we perceive excellence. A bad Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic score can derail a blockbuster movie’s box-office aspirations. A single bad Yelp review calls a restaurant into action to correct it, because in today’s social-media culture that single review can catch like wildfire. We are both crippled by the quantity of choices, and the desire to spend our time, money and energy on only apex products and experiences. We’ve inadvertently adopted Mercedes’ slogan into our everyday lives.

The NBA draft is just a couple of days away, and any repeat reader of this blog ought to know by now that I’ll be following it very closely.

Basketball is the most beautiful sport. It becomes almost symphonic when it’s done correctly. Players on both teams move around the court in an improvisational, choreographed dance. On offense, screens are set to create two degrees of advantage when making an angled cut to the rim. In a well-oiled spread motion offense, the ball hums around, among, and between defenders to create wide-open shots against the most sophisticated defenses in the world. A perfectly constructed defense, on the other hand, has players switching and closing out like they are on a taught string.

But something unusual has happened to my beloved league over the last seven or eight years. That same desire to only consume the best, the cream of the crop, has become pervasive there, too. Talent has started to consolidate to the degree that at the beginning of last season, the finals match-up was a foregone conclusion. No one else really had a chance.

This psychological phenomenon is really discouraging for the other 28 teams and their fans; anything except a title contender is considered less than mediocre. It’s no longer interesting–or even acceptable–to build a very good team. No one cares that the Raptors, Spurs, Rockets, Jazz or Wizards had excellent seasons and played inspired ball. There are simply the two best teams, and everyone else.

I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

I was reading a little about some top-five prospects yesterday. In particular, I was reading about Josh Jackson, a combo forward from Kansas. I watched a little video and read a few hundred words, and I was struck by two things. Firstly, this kid has “Shawn Marion” written all over him. That’s Shawn Marion, former all-star, candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA champion who had career averages of 15 points and almost 9 rebounds per game. Shawn Marion was not a good player. Shawn Marion was an excellent player.

But Josh Jackson’s player stock is falling. Two weeks ago, there was idle chatter about him maybe stealing the first pick in the draft. More than one mock draft has him going fourth or lower at this point.

Because very good teams are being de-emphasized, the potential impact an excellent player can have on a team’s fortunes is being diminished.

Within my own life, and within the context of Christianity, what does this mean? To me, excellence is something that I strive to get a little closer to every day. Being the best in comparison to my peers is unimportant; being the best version of myself in the eyes of God, however, is something to which we can aspire.

Paul writes about this in his letter to Corinth. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). The best part of striving to be our very best in God’s eyes is that we are all capable of being victorious.

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