Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
2023 was full of marquee matchups, controversies, and historic moments. As we look back here in The Coach’s Box, we are reminded by these competitions of how we, The Church, can show our culture the power of unity, acceptance, and perseverance.
Victor Wembanyama Drafted by the Spurs (May 22)
In an age where virtually any player of any era can be crowned “the GOAT” (greatest of all time), the hype around the 19-year-old, 7-foot, 5-inch French basketball star Victor Wembanyama might’ve seemed overblown. The Wembanyama (or “Wemby,” as Americans have nicknamed him) hype train was full steam ahead throughout the 2022-2023 NBA season, and he was guaranteed to be a number one pick. But with so many scouts hyping “unreal” athletes and scattered talent worldwide, it was hard for some (i.e., me) to believe the Wemby hype.
However, I, along with the rest of America, quickly saw things we’d never seen done on a basketball court by a young man of his size, skill, speed, and finesse. It’s hardly believable until you see it yourself, so check out some of these highlights.
I point out the seemingly unbelievable side of Wembanyama because it gives me a greater sense of empathy for characters in the Bible who couldn’t believe in Jesus and people today who can’t bring themselves to believe in the miracle of Jesus’s death and resurrection. After Jesus’s resurrection, he told one of his disciples, Thomas, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29 MSG). Sometimes, seeing is not believing. But on a less spiritually weighty matter—the case of Victor Wembanyama—it certainly is.
Coco Gauff Wins the Women’s Tennis US Open (September 9)
It’s hard to imagine a 19-year-old being considered a letdown in the sense of achieving the pinnacle of the world at such a young age. But the stakes were high since Coco Gauff turned pro in tennis at 14. Since Venus and Serena Williams—the American teenage tennis phenoms of their era—took the world by storm with their speed, strength, intensity, and competitiveness, America has craved the next iteration of greatness, which everyone believed to be Coco Gauff. “I think people were putting a lot of pressure on me to win. I felt that at 15 I had to win a slam at 15,” Gauff said. She admitted that she suffered imposter syndrome even as late as the spring season.
Though Gauff has come close over the past five years of her professional career, she’s learned hard lessons in what it truly takes to achieve one of the crowns of professional tennis: perspective. Gauff told the US Open organization, “I realize in a way [winning tennis matches is] pressure, but it’s not. There are people struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills.” She said, “That’s real pressure, that’s real hardship, that’s real life. I’m in a very privileged position. I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. That’s something that I don’t take for granted.”
Gauff’s perspective and subsequent championship is an excellent reminder of what I constantly preach here in The Coach’s Box: inevitably, sports are and should be a medium to display the glory of God through humans he created in his image. Whether we’re fans, coaches, athletes, or critics, the opportunity to enjoy competition is a privilege, not an identity.
Texas Rangers Win Their First World Series (November 1)
As a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas resident, I couldn’t resist a roundup without mentioning the Texas Ranger’s first-ever World Series championship. As one of America’s more significant metropolitan areas, the metroplex hasn’t celebrated a professional national championship team since the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. But I hadn’t moved here yet. So when the Rangers entered the postseason, I was eager to see how a sports team could galvanize a metropolitan area with a championship.
The Rangers and the metroplex did not disappoint, and the galvanized city was a reminder of why sports can effectively bring people together across genders, cultures, ages, and religions simultaneously. An event like winning the World Series was an excellent opportunity for Christians to connect with people outside of their regular bubbles and build relationships that allow us to display the goodness of God to a world desperately in need of peace and hope.
Florida State Left out of the Coveted CFP After Going Undefeated (December 30)
What does a team that won all of their games in a top-tier division of football deserve at the end of their season? Most people would say at least a shot at playing for the championship. However, Florida State University would not have such an opportunity. After a stellar season, the Seminoles’ starting quarterback suffered a devastating season-ending leg injury, yet the team finished the season undefeated. The College Playoff Football Committee, which meets in Grapevine, Texas, decided that the quarterback’s leg injury was reason enough to keep Florida State out of the college football playoff.
The committee’s decision set off several weeks of debate about deserving and earning in sports. I couldn’t help but be grateful thinking about our relationship with God concerning such a topic. We don’t deserve his mercy and cannot earn his grace. God the Father freely gave his son Jesus to us despite our lack of merits for forgiveness (Ephesians 2:7-10). Without this perspective, however, it’s plain to see that is not how the playoff committee—or any other American sport—operates.
The Right Time podcast host, Bomani Jones, explained the controversial decision rather accurately when he pointed out that the committee doesn’t make decisions based on deservedness or merits. The committee, in Jones’s estimation, decides based on ratings. The teams that will draw the most attention, the most eyes, and subsequently, the most dollars, will win the day. The sooner we accept this reality, the sooner we will start enjoying sports for what it has become in America—pure entertainment unless we see it as a more powerful medium to point to a greater purpose beyond ourselves.