Culture At Large

Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin, and Christian Leadership

Daniel Jung

Two new basketball documentaries—38 at the Garden and The Redeem Team—bring new bounce to the ideas of holiness and Christian leadership, especially as demonstrated by Jeremy Lin and the late Kobe Bryant.

Both documentaries are highly entertaining in their own right, featuring a behind-the-scenes look at two events that caused basketball to spill into the culture at large: the 2008 Olympics and “Linsanity.” As a fan, the documentaries satiated all my entertainment love languages, as they were filled with nostalgia, basketball highlights, and exclusive player interviews. I ended up watching them back to back on a single night and, in doing so, saw a shared reflection on the value society places on alpha-male leadership characteristics. Some of these are biblical—notably sacrifice and courage—while others, such as aggression and physical attractiveness, are not.

The Redeem Team, streaming on Netflix, focuses on Kobe Bryant, even though the narrative subject was the entire 2008 United States Olympic Men’s Basketball Team. The players recount a story about a training session they had in Las Vegas. Afterwards, everyone went out to enjoy the nightlife. Everyone, but Kobe. When they returned to their hotel in the early-morning hours, they passed Kobe in the lobby as he was getting ready to train on his own. Their mouths agape, they realized that this is what it took if you wanted to be regarded as “the man.” From that moment on, they all started eschewing the Vegas nightlife and joined Kobe at his 5 a.m. workouts. Even on a team of NBA megastars—each a “top dog” on their own home team—Kobe was clearly the Alpha of alphas. His message of sacrifice was received loud and clear.

Another story, however, reveals a time when Kobe didn’t lead through sacrifice, but aggression. Pau Gasol was his Los Angeles Lakers’ teammate, but for the Olympics, he was the leading member of the Spanish team. Before the two teams played in a qualifying round, Kobe told his teammates that on the very first play, he was going to “run through Gasol’s *expletive* chest.” To the disbelief of his teammates, Kobe did just that, hoping his act of aggression would set the tone.

38 at the Garden, available on HBO Max, mirrors this commentary, but with a twist. The documentary showcases Jeremy Lin’s unprecedented rise to fame and prominence in the NBA. It also reveals the ways his perceived “Asianness” ran contrary to many of the leadership qualities that are so valued in Western society. As comedian Hasan Minhaj points out in the documentary, to be a leader in the NBA one cannot be “small, passive, unathletic, diminutive, or submissive”—qualities that are commonly stereotyped as “Eastern.” “If I’m trying to be ‘the guy’ at work, at school, in the NBA?” Minhaj says, “you cannot be any of those things.”

Lin, an outspoken Christian, leans into this understanding of leadership as well. In fact, Lin recalls what he said one time before a game against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers: “Tonight, I’m just gonna be hella aggressive.” This is the truth of our human condition. Even as redeemed, beloved children of God, we are still drawn to value systems and leadership definitions that are not in step with the gospel message. Ironically, 38 at the Garden’s focus on Asian-American inclusivity simultaneously includes a desire to assimilate to Western leadership qualities—a desire to adopt a leadership paradigm that can run contrary to biblical leadership.

Some of these attributes are biblical—notably sacrifice and courage—while others, such as aggression and physical attractiveness, are not.

Biblical leadership, after all, must include the gospel narrative of holiness. Nowadays, “holiness” is often misunderstood for piety or self-righteousness. In other words, we often mistake holiness for behavior and morality. But the biblical definition of holiness simply means “chosen,” to be set apart. It has more to do with status than conduct. The biblical emphasis of leadership is more about God’s sovereignty, rather than human qualifications.

God chose Abraham, the first leader of his people, plucking him out and setting him apart from his country, people, and his father’s household. God chose Moses, set him apart, and sent him to pharaoh. God chose a shepherd boy, David, to be king. He chose Jeremiah and Isaiah to be his prophets. God chooses leaders not based on any pre-existing qualifications, but simply because that’s what he chooses to do.

This is a hard lesson to grasp because it runs contrary to our merit-based system of leadership. But in Jesus Christ, God’s divine motive is clear. Isaiah 53 describes some of the non-qualifications which Christ held; he is a bruised reed, despised, rejected, undesirable, with no beauty or majesty that we should be attracted to him. In The Other Side of 1984, Lesslie Newbigin declares that the gospel is a paradigm shift so radical that it “must challenge the ‘fiduciary framework’ within which our culture operates.”

Though we may never be able to fully discern God’s necessary qualifications for leadership, we cannot underscore God’s sovereign holiness as a primary factor. He chooses, not us. Perhaps that’s the lesson. To be aware of our distinct holiness as his people requires us to be wary of the leaders we put on a pedestal. These two basketball documentaries reveal that we are still learning what it means to allow the gospel to challenge the leadership framework from which we operate.

I’m grateful The Redeem Team and 38 at the Garden give a complicated account of leadership, revealing the ways both Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin handled the challenges of being looked to as a leader. The documentaries encourage us to reflect on our own fallen attempts to lead, which can be a nuanced mixture of what Eugene Peterson calls “a muddle [of] good intentions, guilty adulteries and episodes of heroic virtue, desires for holiness mixed with greed for self-satisfaction.” As our sovereign God commands us to “Be holy, because I am holy,” may we pursue a leadership paradigm that better reflects the game plan God has drawn up for us.

Topics: Culture At Large