When I think of the best leaders in basketball, names like LeBron James and Kevin Durant pop through my mind – guys who are the faces of their franchises. When the game is on the line, they deliver because they are the best player. They are the first players to step on the court in practice, the first ones who are criticized when they lose, and the first ones to hold the championship trophy above their heads if they win.
What I don’t think of is Kevin Ollie, a former professional basketball player who bounced around for 11 different teams (!) in 13 years, rarely leaving the bench except to high-five other his teammates. Even the mop boy got on the court more than him.
But Kevin Ollie is a great example of the kind of leader Jesus tells us to be. In Matthew 5, Jesus challenges us to be leaders and shine before others as the light of the world. He doesn’t tell us to shine only if we are good at it, or only when we feel like it, or only in areas we think we could make a difference. As followers of Jesus, we need to shine simply because we are called to shine.
Kevin Ollie was not a very good professional basketball player, but he chose to shine anyway, even if he would never be in the spotlight. He took Jesus’ words to heart, and he went to work everyday to serve his team, whether it was helping teammates train, cheering them on in games, and praying for them. He tried to emulate Jesus’ teachings on earth: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20: 26-28).
This isn’t a fairytale though. Although he played for 11 teams, his teams never won any championships, or even anything of significance. However, he helped mentor some of the best players in the world today, who credit him for changing their life. One man in particular had this to say about him – “It was (former teammate) Kevin Ollie. He’s unbelievable. He got everybody going and wanting to learn more. I was just one of the guys who was trying to follow his lead. He was a big teacher in helping me do that and making me feel more comfortable in my faith around other people and being able to pray for other people and pray out loud and things like that; take those baby steps. I’ve been trying to do a better job“ That man was Kevin Durant, one of the best players in the world who turned back to the Lord after drifting away when life got busy.
After his playing career was over, he became the head coach of a college basketball team that was banned from playing for a year for cheating academically. Once again, he brought his professional attitude and serving heart to work. He didn’t focus on winning games, but on winning people’s lives. He was once quoted: “Every [coach] brings [the team] before the season [and] say[s], “One, two, three, championship.” I’m not chasing championships. Championship’s chasing us. I’m not doing that. I want my players to be better people once they leave campus because this is a life lesson. This is more than basketball. This is life lessons that we’re trying to teach”. In their first year back from being banned, they won the NCAA National Championship.
None of us know where life will take us. Sometimes, we might be in the spotlight, other times, we are sitting at the end of the bench supporting our brothers and sisters. But one thing is certain: we are called to shine as serving leaders. So the next time you are called to serve, try taking it as an opportunity to ask God: “is this where you want me to shine?”
PS: For you sports geeks, Kevin Durant also had this to say about Kevin Ollie: “[Ollie's] mindset, his professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that, we all wanted to be like that, and it rubbed off on Russell [Westbrook], myself, Jeff Green, James Harden. And you know, everybody that comes through now, there’s a standard you’ve got to live up to as a Thunder player. And that started with Kevin Ollie.”