by Dale Reeves
Watching sports for many people has always been a welcome distraction to the challenges and difficulties they might be facing in their real life. Unfortunately, we are living in a time in which many stories in the sports world have a political agenda. I know many people who have checked out of watching sports these days because of it, and they’re saying, “Can’t you just play ball?” But sometimes there is more than just playing ball because an incredible backstory is part of a sporting event. And, I am a sucker for a great redemptive story. This is one such story.
This year sports fans knew that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be unique because of the number of teams that had to navigate many issues due to COVID-19, with its protocols and pauses in game play. College basketball teams didn’t travel as much, a number of their games were canceled, and their home games were played in front of very sparse crowds. But throughout the season, several teams had distinguished themselves in the rankings, and at the end of the tournament, two teams were left standing, competing for the national championship trophy, the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs, from Spokane, Washington, and the Baylor Bears, from Waco, Texas.
Battle Between No. 1 and No. 2
Gonzaga entered the title game with an unbelievable record this year of 31-0. Under brilliant coach Mark Few, the “Zags” were seeking to be the first undefeated college basketball champion since coach Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers did it in 1976. No small task. But Baylor had other ideas. Side note: In my bracketology prediction this year, I had the Zags losing in the final game to Illinois, not Baylor. I thought Illinois would beat Baylor in the national semifinal. Close, but no cigar. Baylor’s record going into the title game was 27-2. Many people believe this team would have enjoyed an undefeated season were it not for their 21-day COVID-19 shutdown in February (including 18 consecutive days without a complete practice). Baylor had been ranked No. 2 in college basketball nearly the entire season behind Gonzaga.
In the title game this past Monday night, Baylor jumped out to a 9-0 lead—and never looked back. By the time one of the most dominating performances in NCAA title game history was over, the Bears had won in decisive fashion, 86-70. Within moments of securing the championship, Baylor’s entire team stopped to gather in a circle on the court and knelt down not to protest, but to give thanks to God in prayer. Scott Drew and Gonzaga’s coach, Mark Few, are close friends, and had nothing but praise to speak about one another after the championship game. Just after Baylor won its first men’s basketball championship in school history, just after the green and gold confetti flew everywhere on the court at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, in a post-game interview, coach Drew said:
“First and foremost, I want to thank God for blessing us with this opportunity tonight. . . . We play with a culture of J.O.Y. That’s Jesus first, others second, then yourself last. Our joy is Jesus, Others, Yourself. It’s so tough to put other people in front of you and teams that do that are obviously more successful. Our guys have so much love for each other.”
That culture of J.O.Y. is something the Bears talked about all year, and it’s even posted on the team’s official Twitter bio. But the program at Baylor wasn’t always based on this kind of positive culture. Coach Scott Drew took over the Baylor basketball program that was in shambles in 2003 after the murder of a player by a teammate and a bunch of major NCAA penalties. What Drew has accomplished in eighteen years is incredible. He was recently asked if he was skeptical about taking the coaching job when Baylor was in a mess, and he responded, “No, I prayed about it. I felt led to come here. I really believed in the vision of the school.”
The Right Recipe
Former Fixer Upper stars, Chip and Joanna Gaines, are proud alumni of Baylor and are Waco residents. They attended the championship game in Indianapolis, even though the tickets were limited and hard to snag. After Baylor won, Chip posted this statement on Twitter: “Good things happen to GOOD people!”
An article in Baylor University’s Spring 2021 e-zine begins with this: “Proverbs 17:22 says, ‘A cheerful heart is good medicine.’ Finding a more cheerful heart than Scott Drew’s in the world of college men’s basketball is a tall task.”
In that article, coach Drew shares, “We’ve been a Christ-centered program since we’ve been here. Everybody comes in, spiritually, at different levels, but the great thing is that everybody’s open to growing. Each and every year, we want our players to grow academically and athletically, but also spiritually and in character.”
When asked about the culture that has been created, Drew enthusiastically responds, “One thing a lot of people have said when they watch our team play, is that you can tell there’s genuine love for one another. You can’t fake that. The love and joy they have for each other is definitely a key to our success.”
To read more about coach Drew’s culture of joy, check this out.
“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:2-4, NIV).
That is a great recipe for a culture of joy.
A Greater Purpose
The title game’s most outstanding player last Monday night was junior guard Jared Butler, who led the Bears with twenty-two points (including four 3-pointers), and seven assists. This first-team All-American lives for more than basketball, however. In his free time, he loves teaching second and third graders in Sunday School at Harris Creek Baptist Church in Waco, TX. When asked about it, he said, “It’s a blessing to get to share the Gospel with them. I love it!” When asked about the culture surrounding the basketball team, Butler said this:
“I say it all the time. Our Lord and Savior gets us through everything. Jesus Christ is the truth. . . . He was with us all season. He’s with us wherever we go. He just sustained us. He brought this team together.”
After eliminating Arkansas in the regional final with a trip to the Final Four on the line, senior MaCio Teague (who played for Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati), said this: “All glory goes to God. Win or lose, God still brings us here and we’re here for His glory. . . . The guys in our locker room have sacrificed a ton for the greater good.”
Nice Guys Finish First
King David wrote about God’s winning culture: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11, ESV).
Jared Butler summarizes, “J.O.Y. is our way of thinking here. Because we are at Baylor, we can say the word ‘Jesus’ and that can be our brand, our culture. I’m joyful because I get to be with these guys, get to practice and play. It’s a joy to be together.”
Longtime manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, among others, Leo Durocher entitled his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last. This past week, the Baylor Bears men’s basketball team proved that Leo’s statement is not true. Good guys, especially ones who have a culture of J.O.Y., live with a winning attitude—regardless of whether or not they win a championship. This time, that culture of J.O.Y. prevailed.