Destination NBA and Yearning for Transfiguration

Claude Atcho

In one sense, the Prime Video documentary Destination NBA: A G League Odyssey is standard sports fare, as it follows five basketball players trying to break into the NBA. What’s unexpected is the documentary’s suggestion, conveyed mostly in visual terms, that chasing a spot in the NBA is a hunger for glory—something Christians can appreciate as evocative of the desire to behold the glory of God.

The documentary reaches beyond conventional sports tropes through its use of lighting and framing, beginning with the camera positions used for the five G Leaguers’ interviews. Mid-screen, black backdrop, a full body shot while seated on a stool. This is how Gabe York, a former high-school phenom trying to break into the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, is filmed. Small, stark, seemingly insignificant.

In contrast, consider the establishing shots used for an interview with Spencer Dinwiddie, who toiled for years in the G League before becoming a legit and well-paid NBA contributor. Dinwiddie appears on camera as larger than life, his body taking up most of the right side of the screen, while a natural orb of light shines above him. In cinephile terms, this light is called a lens flare. Lens flares can occur intentionally or otherwise and are often employed for a sense of gravitas or realism. For religiously minded viewers, the lens flare—a glow of light above the head of those pros who have made the ascent to the NBA—evokes a heavenly glory.

This distinction between York and Dinwiddie is not simply understood by viewers cognitively; it’s a separation the camera asks us to experience visually—an aesthetic demarcation between those who’ve reached the NBA mountaintop and those still lingering in the G League valley. The film gives this same beatific tint to current NBA players (and former G Leaguers) Jalen Green, Seth Curry, and Gary Payton II, confirming the lens flare as an intentional touch. The light preaches: here’s someone who, in contrast to the five G Leaguers filmed like York, has been transfigured by glorious light.

The light preaches.

The Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus transfigured in his heavenly glory, shining in bright light, something only three apostles are privileged to behold. Destination NBA’s visuals suggest reaching the NBA is a dazzling rarity, an aspirational glory that few souls ever experience. Dinwiddie reminds viewers that there are only “450 spots in the NBA” and even those in the G League are among the best “1,000 players” out of the 8 billion people on Earth. Being a G League player is an astounding achievement. Despite the lack of pomp and posh, to make it to the G League is itself a glory. Yet, for York and his fellow aspirants, the G League’s glory falls short.

The G-Leaguers’ hunger for the NBA—a glory beyond glory—is reminiscent, for Christians, of the beatific vision, the telos of salvation: beholding Christ's glory and being transformed into his likeness fully. This burning desire explains why even life’s best goods seem to fall flat. Humanity possesses a wondrous desire for glory that is to be used and enjoyed in a multiplicity of ways, but always tethered to and ultimately and triumphantly satisfied in God alone. Anything less leaves us thirsty. St. Augustine captured it well: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”

For the G Leaguers, there is no rest, only restlessness. The doc is filled with scenes of rugged training; when the players are not in the gym, their downtime is primarily spent lurking in dimly lit hotels, pondering when and if their big break will arrive. This restless yearning can border on idolatry, but it’s also reminiscent of straining toward a high and glorious calling.

Surprisingly, the documentary’s opening showcases the one fleeting moment when a G Leaguer receives the lens flare's glorious aura. York is telling the story of his second NBA game, checking into the contest across from superstar Kevin Durant. York expects Durant to diss him as most pros do to recent call-ups. Instead, Durant honors York’s pilgrimage: “I seen what it took to get here. . . . Congrats.” The visual aura which only shines upon pros during the documentary rests briefly upon York. It’s the light he’ll chase for the rest of the documentary, maybe his career.

No wonder these players keep reaching for this glory despite injury setbacks and bad breaks. For them, basketball is beatific, a site of potential glorious transcendence. Time reveals however that even basketball’s glory is short-lived; bodies and skills atrophy, while the legacies of the greats are slowly forgotten. Christianity teaches us that there is only one beatific glory, the Good to which all other goods are faint echoes: beholding God himself.

How do we grasp this glory? For us, like York, it is only by the virtue of an unexpected spoken word that we are transfigured with glory, placed on a path toward the destination for which our hearts yearn. The Apostle Paul proclaims, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” This gospel glory makes us yearn for more: the desire to be fully satisfied by fully beholding our Creator and Redeemer. Reaching this destination requires making peace with a glory hunger—enjoying traces of grace and glory down below in the valley of setbacks and trials—as we wait to ascend to the full, inexhaustible glory of Christ in the life to come.

Topics: Movies