Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
We could feel the Wemby-mania as soon as our wheels touched down at the Las Vegas airport. We were only there for a layover but the airport was filled with basketball fans in San Antonio Spurs jerseys. Vegas hosts the NBA’s annual summer league games, where first-year and young players compete with each other to gain some NBA experience or catch their coach’s eye in the hopes of gaining a spot on their team’s roster. This year, however, was different for one reason: Victor Wembanyama.
The seven foot, three-and-a-half inch nineteen-year-old French basketball phenom had already captivated the NBA. If not for his massively long frame alone then because he can also move as fluidly as a small point guard. His humility as the first overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2023 NBA Draft also made Wembyama seem like a larger-than-life figure in the league.
But with so many expectations placed on Wembanyama by the media and fans, it’s worth considering if he’ll be allowed to be a human before he’s a basketball player.
We only need recent history to remind us of the woes surrounding athletes who’ve shrouded their identity in what they do rather than who they are. As a former athlete myself, I can attest to the dangerous pitfalls of identity-based athletic performance. I believe that we—the media and fans—are partially to blame for this. So when considering Wembanyama, it’s no surprise that his first summer league game performance left many fans underwhelmed.
In the weeks preceding Wembyama’s first game, the media told us he would be the next Lebron James, that he was defensively dominant and offensively unstoppable. They cited his height, length, and finesse as reasons for all these things. These tales of a new juggernaut left us expecting someone virtually inhuman—a basketball superhero.
During his first summer league game, however, Wembanyama missed easy layups and dunks; was dunked on, crossed over, and put on his keester; and only scored in the single digits. It wasn’t the start we hoped to see. He did show some flashpoints defensively and showed off some fancy passing skills. But with the hyped expectations, most fans wanted, or at least expected, more.
During the postgame media session, Wembanyama gave the most honest answer to help us remember who he is: a teenager who is tall and skilled at playing basketball. “I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court,” Wembanyama told reporters. “But I’m trying to learn.”
Honest. Humble. Willing to learn. What fantastic characteristics for a person who’s taken over one of the world’s most popular sports after a subpar performance. But shouldn’t this always be the disposition we (the fans and media) assume about a person after such a performance? Nobody can always be the best consistently, especially in their first NBA game.
As people—and especially as followers of Christ—the more we extend grace and patience to people from all walks of life, the more we develop the possibility of seeing goodness flourish. Victor Wembanyama’s next game was a complete turnaround from the first game. He showed more signs of the talent we were all hoping to see. We just needed to be patient. After all, he’s only human.