Friday Deep- The Bench

Posted on January 2, 2010


I’ve always been a big John Wooden fan. He has always seemed unfailingly wise. If there wasn’t already a pope, and he didn’t have to be Catholic, I’m pretty confident either John Wooden or Tony Dungy could step up and fill the role- certainly as well as any random Italian cardinal the Vatican drags up. Honestly, Pope Wooden 1 has a nice ring to it. Although I’m not sure the Church is ready for a pope with an intricate knowledge of full-court presses, or for papal encyclicals on the correct way to defend the corner three.

One of the things that Coach Wooden has always stood for is his role as a teacher, above everything else. This excerpt from his book, “Wooden”, caught my eye.

I used the bench to teach. When future two-time All American Walter Hazzard came first came to us at UCLA, he had a tendency to get a little fancy. He didn’t continue to be fancy because he liked to play. Early on we may have lost a few games because I sat him on the bench for playing too fancy.

I tell coaches at coaching clinics “The greatest ally you have to get things working well and to get the players performing as a team is the bench. Don’t be afraid to use it, whether for a star player or anyone else.

It’s hard for me to imagine the bench as a teachable place. For me, in sports the meaning of the bench was clear- a place of either banishment for mistakes I’d made, or a safe haven when I wasn’t playing well. If I was on the bench, I was there for one of these two reasons. This dichotomy within the game, between ‘play’ and ‘bench’ eventually made its way into my real life as well. The bench became a comfortable place and an oddly safe one- I was away from the action of the world, where I might conceivably screw up or be punished, but close enough to watch, safe from any kind of hurt. It was not a fun place to be, but I was convinced I belonged there.

Wooden sees the bench differently. It has two elements- 1) the teaching, and 2) its temporary nature. For John Wooden, the bench is a place of teaching, not of punishment. It’s where instruction occurs, with the end of bettering the player in mind. It’s not for punishment.  Wooden sat Walt Hazzard for a specific purpose- to get him to stop trying to show how great he was and to start him playing in a way that helped the team would win. It’s a constructive move. Notice also that the place on the bench is temporary. Walt Hazzard didn’t stay there, he went on to become a two-time All-American. The idea is to get the player back out there, into the game action. The bench is a temporary place.

Christians have a word for this process, called repentance. Too often the word “repent” is spoken and taught with religiosity at the core of it, and it’s heard the same way I once felt about the bench. Repent- you’re a failure, you’re doing it all wrong, get out of the game, you’ll never do it right, sit down because you’re getting in everyone else’s way, and you should feel bad about it. You’re benched.

But repentance is really more like how John Wooden sees the bench. We only need to look at how Jesus treats Peter to see it in action. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is consistently teaching Peter, even though it seems like every other page Peter or one of the other disciples is getting it wrong. Jesus never lets Peter off the hook. When he’s out of line, Jesus says so and corrects him. But he doesn’t leave him on the bench either. After denying him 3 times, Jesus reinstates him as the leader of the disciples. When Peter falls beneath the waves after trying to walk on water, Jesus pulls him back up and into the boat. Jesus won’t let Peter run from following him because he thinks he can’t do it, or because he’s more comfortable on the sideline. Jesus intends for Peter to be one thing- a player. And, as the saying goes, players gotta play. They can’t learn by hiding from the game.

God intends the same for us. He is not content with us to be spectators, or benchwarmers. He intends for us to be players, in the game, part of the action of His redeeming story for the world. And so this process of repentance- going to the bench, taking a moment for instruction, and then checking back in- goes on countless times in a day, every day, for the rest of our lives. This is the manner by which we learn to play, to really live. Repentcome here, was that the right thing? What’s the way I’ve taught you? You have what it takes, now get back in there. It’s the essence of what Jesus did on the cross for us. By grace I have an infinite number of these chances to come to God, to be coached. And by God’s goodness I have a role to play, a reason to be in the game and not in the stands.

All thanks to Pope- I mean, Coach- Wooden, who taught with the bench.

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