When James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, he did so as a way to build and create Christian values in his players, the first tribute to the basketball gods that he created.
LeBron James is a disciple — he believes that there are greater powers that govern the game. The basketball gods. James believes in the need to honor them in words and in actions.
A spiritual mentor in that regard? Tracy McGrady, who infamously said it felt good to reach the second round of the NBA Playoffs in 2003 after the Orlando Magic had only won three games against the No. 1-seeded Detroit Pistons. The Pistons won Game 5 by 31 points. The next two games featured 15-point margins in favor of Detroit, as the basketball gods frowned upon McGrady’s declaration and kept him from advancing to the second round for the first time in his career.
In 2016, the Golden State Warriors angered the basketball gods and blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals as a result.
The lesson from both of those series is clear — don’t anger the basketball gods. The basketball gods clearly believe in Old Testament-style retribution.
Just this year, James has spoken about them on multiple occasions. In April, James said he doesn’t even think about advancing in the playoffs out of fear of the basketball gods.
“I don’t never think about advancing. I think that’s too much karma for the basketball gods — I don’t play with the gods like that,” he said.
Other than avoiding overconfident declarations or losing focus on the present, James believes that the best way to honor the basketball gods is through preparation. His efforts in that regard are legendary, a true tribute to the basketball gods. He reportedly spends about $1.5 million every year to take care of his body. The basketball gods approve — at almost 34 years of age, with more than 45,000 minutes on his body, James is averaging more points per game than he has since the 2009-10 season.
“You don’t cheat the game gods,” James said in early May. “I’ve never been a part of that.”
As one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, the honor afforded by James to the basketball gods may be one of the most underrated aspects of his incredible legacy. And clearly a huge element of his success.
Consider Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart and his players as other disciples of the basketball gods after three references to them following Sunday’s 72-68 win over the Purdue Boilermakers.
“I really feel like the basketball gods allow those balls to go in much, much more when you’re focused and locked in on exactly what you need to do to do your plan,” said Smart.
For only the second time all season, the Longhorns shot better than 32.3 percent from the three-point line in hitting 11-of-25 attempts from beyond the arc. For the second time this season, Texas shot better than 70 percent at the free-throw line in hitting 15-of-16 attempts, 93.8 percent.
Praise the basketball gods.
“Thanks to the basketball gods, shots were falling and plays were being made,” sophomore point guard Matt Coleman said after scoring a season-high 22 points, including 13 of the final 19 points for Texas.
If mindfulness and intention heighten the power of prayer in religions across the planet, focusing on the process and the mental approach to the game is a major key in gaining favor with the basketball gods.
The Longhorns had clearly gotten away from the plan in the previous three games, which included losses to Radford and VCU. In the second half against Michigan State, following a torrid start, Texas veered from the plan and the process. A three-game losing streak and significantly increased pressure on Smart in his fourth season in Austin were the result.
Two of the most intense and combative practices during Smart’s tenure spanned the days between the VCU loss and the Purdue win. During a time of the year that Smart believes commonly produces mental fatigue and stressors as a result of finals, he coached his team hard and let them know why they hadn’t played well.
A primary focus was on executing Smart’s system rather than changing the plan, paying tribute to the basketball gods by not losing faith in the process. Smart is the priest and his players are the congregation tasked with adhering to those advocations.
“To our guys’ credit, we asked them to stay committed to what we want to do because a lot of people say you have to change this, change that,” Smart said. “Well, you don’t change something after you don’t do it right. The first thing you do is you do it right. If you do it right, it works better. That’s what happened tonight.”
Move the ball. Don’t be robotic. Have fun. Achieve the transcendence necessary to respond to five or six pick-and-roll coverages deployed by Purdue by letting the moment act upon them instead of acting upon the moment.
“We just preached this week just to hoop,” Coleman said. “Not think about it. Don’t be mechanic. Trying to play the right way sometimes causes you to be robotic and just forget you’re playing the game you love. Just have to hoop and have fun with it. That’s what we did, and play for each other.”
The transition from I to We, “The Grapes of Wrath” style. Pure transcendence.
The basketball gods appreciate playing the game with joy, something that has always defined Coleman in his best moments. After the bounce pass from junior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long to freshman forward Jaxson Hayes for a huge dunk in the first half, Coleman bounced high in the air twice and hopped again before heading back down the court. Exactly the type of energy giving that Smart preaches and exactly the type of energy giving that has made Coleman special for a long time.
“That’s when he’s playing at this best — when he’s playing with joy, and he’s playing with confidence,” Smart said. “Knowing that Matt Coleman since he was in eighth grade, that’s the same guy that in eighth grade thought he was better than guys in 12th grade.”
The directive from Smart to Coleman before the Purdue game?
“Stop thinking so much — go play and attack. If you’ve got a shot, take it, be aggressive.”
The basketball gods reward reward a lack of thinking. They reward the right mental approach to the game.
“He’s a better player than what he’s played and he’s the first guy to be hard on himself,” Smart said of Coleman. “I hope that he can take this game and utilize it as a springboard because I think early in the season he had some tough games. It snowballed on him a bit because he’s thinking too much.”
For senior guard Kerwin Roach II, the problem in the previous three games was about too much aggressiveness as he tried to build on his incredible, historic performance against North Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational. After three subsequent games that included only seven makes in 37 attempts from the field for Roach, he honored the basketball gods with his faith and perseverance.
“I really want to praise Kerwin Roach for the way he responded and battled,” Smart said. We coming off the VCU game we really, really challenged him to play the exact way Texas needs to play, and I thought he did a great job tonight even though the game at times didn’t go his way,” said Smart. “He only took six shots, but he got to the foul line, scored in double-figures, and did a great job passing the ball. He kept getting into the paint. That was huge.”
On those six shots, Roach scored 10 points and added five assists, four rebounds, two blocks, and a steal in that type of stat-stuffing effort that showcased an ability to play within himself and do all the little things that go into success.
The basketball gods appreciate the little things, especially sacrifices, according to Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. All success on the hardwood comes from those basketball gods. Investment in the basketball gods reflects back on those who honor them. Naismith started it all. James knows. So does Smart.
“It’s a function of being in the right place mentally and not worrying about the wrong things. It’s amazing how the basketball gods pay you back for that,” said Smart.