There are always stories inside the big story of the title game. This year the biggest story within the story was of one Jahlil Okafor. He is a freshman who has played like a seasoned veteran all year. Okafor is a smart player who played in the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference all season without fouling out. He was expected to play a major role if Duke was going to beat the giant-killer Wisconsin, who had toppled the 38-0 Kentucky Wildcats just two days before.
In college basketball a player is basically allowed to break the rules four times and stay in the game. If you commit a fifth foul, you are out of the game. Okafor was called for 4 fouls. When a good player gets into foul trouble, a coach will take them out of the game and put them on the bench so they can be used at a more critical time. Okafor was on the bench for 18 of the 40 minutes of the game. He basically missed half of the game. He never found his rhythm. Regardless of the validity of all of the calls, this young man who many say was the most valuable player in the whole tournament could only contribute to his team for about half of the game.
I never saw his team members give him a dirty look for letting them down. I never saw the coach berate him for sloppy defense. I never heard the crowd boo him for his mistakes. He was on the bench in large part because he didn’t play as well as he could. He later said, “My teammates were telling me to stay focused and stay in the game.” Stay in the game? He was on the bench. His friends had confidence in him even though he sort of took himself out of the most important game of their lives. His team rallied around him, stepped up their game, and won the national championship. When they won, he won. They all participated in the tradition of cutting down the nets. The team won, which means Okafor won.
We have all been Jahlil Okafor in our lives. Every one of us has broken the rules. Some of us have broken more of God’s rules than others. Maybe we have found ourselves benched because of our foolish mistakes. We want to participate, but our actions have disqualified us in some way. Perhaps during this time you have been the focus of glaring eyes or harsh words by people you thought were on your team. This is not how it should be. You feel bad enough for messing up, but then you feel worse because those who should be lifting you up are tearing you down even more.
We have all known an Okafor in our lives. I’m sure you know a Christian in your life who has messed up so bad that they find themselves on the sidelines, unable to contribute to the team as they would like. How will you treat them? Will you let them know how much they are letting you down, or will you encourage them to stay focused and stay in the game? When someone messes up in front of everyone, you don’t have to keep reminding them. They usually feel bad enough for letting the team down. What they need is to be lifted up.
The apostle Paul understood this principle though he never saw a basketball game. He wrote to the early Christians, “Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load.” (Galatians 6:1-5)
No, my team didn’t win the championship. But Christ’s team does win the trophy. It is up to us to encourage our struggling teammates toward the prize. Today, lift up someone who finds themselves on the bench because of their mistakes.
Find more of David’s work at Heart Of Ministry.