Servanthood is knowing your role and sacrificing as needed to make your teammates better. It's a key element of team unity and greatness. It involves having a servant's mentality when it comes to your team. Will you truly give of yourself to make your team better?
Manny Ohonme once shared a letter with me he'd received from a friend. "How do churches grow?" it read in part. "The answer is that they don't. I don't mean not at all. They tend to grow to the size of the charisma of their leaders only, and no more. That's because there are two significant elements missing in the church today: touching and treating. Consider what happened with the idea of going barefoot for Jesus. The idea itself brought attention to the plight of the poor. If people went barefoot for food or medicine or food or shelter, going barefoot wouldn't make a difference. But when it involves cleaning people's feet and giving shoes, going barefoot ignites people. Why is that, Manny?"
The answer came, rhetorically, in the following paragraph. "Because washing feet is a serious matter. Jesus said, 'Unless I wash your feet, you have no part with me.' That's serious business.
'I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet. You should wash one other's feet too.' There wasn't a Samaritan's Feet 2000 years ago."***
February 21, 2009 was one of those days from which destiny's arrows pointed outward in all directions. The epicenter was just off Exit 30 of Interstate 77 in central North Carolina, at Davidson College's Belk Arena. The home team was playing Butler University in the BracketBusters series, and it was yesterday's small-college darlings against tomorrow's. Stephen Curry against Gordon Hayward. 2008 against 2010, in the year between.
For me, it was the first time I saw Manny. Davidson held a Samaritan's Feet shoe drive at halftime of that game, and there he was, smiling and waving to the crowd, standing next to a giant sneaker. I'd already agreed to help him write his biography, but that will always be my first real memory of the man.
Without basketball, Manny's story is impossible. He grew up in a complicated family on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria. When he was nine years old, a group of missionaries came to his local park, and organized basketball games and contests for the local children. A man from Wisconsin named Dave gave Manny a pair of canvas sneakers. He'd never had shoes before. Manny used those shoes to become good at basketball. A local coach at Lagos State named Ganiyu Otenigbade, who once discovered Hakeem Olajuwon, picked Manny out of the crowd too. His videotape received interest from small colleges like Davidson and Lipscomb, but as a 6-4 power forward, he ended up with a scholarship from North Dakota-Devils Lake, a Division II school.
The education he received in America led to a high-paying career in the logistics industry. During the dot-com days, he helped create some of the first large-scale supermarket supply chain software. But his sense of compassion overwhelmed his desire for material wealth, and he left it all behind to start Samaritan's Feet with his wife Tracie. The mission of the charity was to distribute shoes to needy children all over the world, but wash their feet first, in the spirit of John 13:6-11
. Eventually, the goals became grandiose: 10 years, 10 million children, 10 million shoes. That's a lot of kids, a lot of shoes, and a lot of soap and water.
For the first five years, it was just another charity, first operating out of the Ohonmes' garage, then from a small office in the Charlotte area. Then basketball played another big role. A member of the Samaritan's Feet marketing staff had the idea to find a Division I head coach who'd be willing to walk the sidelines in his bare feet for a game, all in order to bring awareness to the cause. Half a billion people woke up this morning without shoes.
That coach was Ron Hunter of IUPUI. It was a powerful message that was lost in the din for half a decade, but on the platform of NCAA Division I basketball, more people might listen. And they did.
I presented the thumbnail sketch of this story twice, first in a magazine article that came out shortly after Coach Hunter's first barefoot walk, and again for a national sports website in January 2009, one year on, exploring the growth and development of the movement. Three hundred coaches from all levels of basketball had joined up. That was my last column for the company before I was fired for speaking my mind elsewhere (or rather, here).
Two days before I was let go, Manny approached me with a proposal. His marketers liked what I'd done with the story and thought I was the right candidate. It took me less than a second to say yes. I figured there was no possible way I could screw up such a great story, and, as it turned out, I had more time to work on it.
The original plan was to present the story with detached, omniscient third-person narration, with a lot of quotes spliced with Manny said
and Manny explained.
The shift to first was my idea. Some would call that ghostwriting, but it's difficult to be a haunting spectre with your name on the cover, and that kind of thing is a lot harder than people might think. Folks don't speak in complete chapters, and organizing tens of hours of interviews in a compelling way, carefully organizing by chronology and theme, isn't a cut and paste job. With Manny, the process required capturing his tone and putting exclamation points in the right places. He gets very excited when talking about his cause!
Plus, first person singular is a challenge that I love. It's the opportunity to step outside myself, be somebody else for a few months, and see the world as they see it. I've written a book with a devout evangelical Christian, and another with a Mormon man. Someday, I hope I get to write a book with a Muslim, or a Jew, or maybe even an animist. I think those would be very interesting, and would help me understand the world better.
I was working with people other than Manny, consulting with those inside the organization who would market and position the book upon release. They had ideas too. The plan was to get Manny on religious shows to plug it ("Benny Hinn? There's 50,000 instant sales right there"), and maybe, just maybe, go for the Big O. Over the summer, the book changed. There was more religion, more sermonizing, more self-help. It wasn't my book, and they were paying me to write it, so all I could do was be disappointed. I was reminded of a trip I took once to a religious art museum in Utah. To the right of each painting was a large placard, every one 200 or more words in length and printed in 14-point type, which explained the content of the work -- reference Bible verses, explicit descriptions of the imagery, even the key emotions the viewer was supposed to feel. The curators of the museum refused to let the paintings speak for themselves.
I saw how big Samaritan's Feet had become. Manny's garage was light-years away. There were multiple offices and truckloads and warehouses and logistics patterns. It was amazing. Samaritan's Feet was making real impact in the world, and none of it would have been possible without college basketball. And the difference between the old days and the new era was publicity and television and media. The marketers held more and more power in the organization, because, simply, marketing was the reason things had become so wonderfully outsized. Celebrities and sports stars helped get the word out. Manny told me that one of his favorite moments of the journey was when he first saw a NASCAR automobile painted in Samaritan's Feet colors.
But I saw a growing disconnect between the millions of shoes and the original transaction: one by one. One frustrated volunteer told me once that they had scheduled a shoe distribution with the Detroit Pistons the same day as a distribution at a local school. Nobody wanted to do the latter. And things were getting strange and sadly human. In the summer of 2009, Ron Hunter was the subject of an Andy Katz feature, in which the coach spoke of taking shoe distribution trips to South America without the help of Samaritan's Feet. In January, when it came time to celebrate the third year of the barefoot coaching movement, Coach Hunter took his shoes off again. But the SF team spent the bulk of the evening across town, at Hinkle Fieldhouse, watching the nationally-ranked Butler Bulldogs play Cleveland State. Butler head coach Brad Stevens had taken his shoes off too. While Manny held a halftime TV interview, the first coach to walk barefoot on the sidelines was at Conseco Fieldhouse, in front of over 10,000 empty seats, leading his IUPUI Jaguars against Oral Roberts.
I was uncomfortable, conflicted and confused. There was so much good being done, but I didn't know whom Samaritan's Feet was serving anymore: celebrities and egos, or children. I knew what it would look like if I had said anything out loud that criticized a good and well-known cause. So I said nothing. I told the marketers that I wanted to have as little to do with marketing the book as possible. My credit was promptly reduced from "as told to" to "with." I wanted to take my name off the cover altogether, but it was too late. It had already gone to the publisher.
I consulted with a friend of mine, an assistant coach who is one of the most devout and God-fearing Christians I know. He smiled knowingly and nodded. "I call that the Big Church Problem," he said. "My wife and I went through that once, we had to change churches and it was very difficult. We felt all the things you're feeling now, like corked bottles just about to pop. At a certain point, a church has to expend more energy sustaining itself than it does serving God. That doesn't make any of the people involved bad people, and Satan has nothing to do with this. Tractor-trailers need a lot more gas than pickup trucks. It's really as simple as that."
The day after the Butler-Cleveland State and IUPUI-Oral Roberts games, Manny called me up at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport. We needed to talk. "Manny, I love you," I said. "I have never met anybody who is as close to God as you are. I would drop everything right now and go to Africa to give out shoes to kids if you told me to. But I hope you can understand what I'm saying here: I love you, but I don't love Samaritan's Feet."
It's been almost a year, and we haven't spoken since. ***
Servanthood is complicated, even on the basketball court. The traditional servant role, the domestique
of Our Game, is the point guard. The "one" brings the ball up the floor, relays the signals, reads the defense, and distributes to others. There is a lot of thinking and action and subservience there, and it's a tough job. But we've devised a reward for point guards: the assist. We have league and national charts that measure whom the best servants are, and metrics for their performances: APG, the assist rate, the assist-to-turnover ratio.
Brad Stevens has a great quote about servanthood: "The best way to lead is to step up and do something for somebody else." But it's so difficult to be a good servant, to get beyond the "me" and to follow the Gospel example. Being more independent-minded and headstrong than most, I struggle with it every day. The biggest thing is consistency. My Serenity Prayer is less Saint Francis of Assisi and more New York or Pennsylvania. (It's, you know, an NEC thing.) "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the role of defensive specialist, the courage not to think about statistics, and the wisdom to know the difference between self-interest and the good of the team."
It's easy to take off one's shoes and walk a mile. I've done it. It may hurt a bit, but wounds heal. To wash a child's feet and look into their eyes is an experience that would overwhelm anybody, crack even the most hard-boiled cynic. It's harder to do these things with a pure heart and without any selfish thoughts whatsoever. There's a thin line between righteous and self-righteous. There's a difference between acting as a mirror that reflects on the self and acting as a prism for divine light. It's easier to do things for God Points and "hereafter credit" than to truly give of self to make this world better. It's harder to be a sacrificial lion than to be a scared little lamb who's afraid of losing its wool.
My favorite part of "Sole Purpose" comes at the end of the tenth chapter, which is called "Service." There's a story there about the earlier days of Samaritan's Feet. A small church in Charlotte, made up of 40 or so immigrants and undocumented workers, was looking to help the cause. As Manny/I wrote: "The congregation realized that they were called to serve the needy of the community in Matthew 25:40, 'as you have done unto the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.' So church members would each pick up change on the ground, keep it in jars at home and bring it in on Sunday. There was a wheelbarrow they used for the weekly collection, and people would drop their change in. And within six weeks, those poor families had enough to fund a 200-person distribution in Charlotte!
"At first, that congregation didn't have the resources, they didn't believe they could do it. But we told them to dream beyond themselves. When they had accomplished that, you should have seen their joy. They thought they were poor, and they had worked together to help people in the community even poorer than they were! They were so proud to be a part of the economy of God's blessings."