Michael Feldstein
Michael Feldstein

Chris Paul… and the Promised Land

Chris Paul is an NBA professional basketball player. A 16-year veteran who plays point guard, he has won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, an NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award, and two Olympic gold medals.  He has led the NBA in assists four times and steals a record six times. He has also been selected to eleven NBA All-Star teams.

I’ve been a basketball fan for more than 50 years now, first getting hooked on the sport as a pre-teen watching the 1969-70 New York Knicks win a championship.  I’ve seen many great basketball players in my lifetime.  Many of them were better pure shooters or better scorers than Chris Paul.  There certainly have been better rebounders.  There have even been better passers than Chris Paul – although he is a superb passer.  However, in my five decades of watching the game, I have never seen anyone with the basketball IQ and court vision that Chris Paul possesses.  He is an absolute pleasure to watch on the basketball floor. It’s no wonder his nickname is “The Point God.”

He also possesses unquestionable leadership skills – he has played on five teams during his illustrious career, and each time that he joined his new team, they dramatically improved their won-loss record from the prior year.  Paul makes every other player on his team perform much better.  Paul is also the President of the National Basketball Players Association, another example of his leadership skills.

Unfortunately, Chris Paul has never won an NBA championship.  While playing with the Clippers, he suffered three first-round exits and two second-round losses. In two of those five years, he suffered an injury to his hamstring and to his right hand, forcing him out of the playoffs.  Paul reached the Western Conference finals after joining the Rockets, but he again suffered a hamstring injury in that series – and his team was eliminated.

This past year, Paul joined the Phoenix Suns – and the team defeated the Lakers, Nuggets, and Clippers to advance to the Finals, in no small part due to Paul’s brilliant playoff performance.  It was Paul’s first trip to the NBA Finals in his 16-year career, and when the Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the first two games of the best of 7 series to move ahead 2-0 in the Finals, it looked like Paul might finally achieve his lifelong dream of winning a championship.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  The Bucks defeated the Suns in four straight games to win the NBA Championship.  Paul had a costly turnover in the final minute of the fourth game, which proved to be the difference in the Suns heartbreaking loss.  And he did not quite live up to his abilities for the remainder of the series.  Once again Paul fell short of his elusive goal.

NBA sportswriters and fans have noted that even though Paul is a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, his inability to win a championship is a significant stain on his resume.  One basketball writer didn’t even include Paul in his list of top ten point guards of all time, pointing to the lack of a championship as the reason.

This is quite unfair, in my opinion.  First of all, there have been plenty of great Hall of Fame basketball players who have never won a championship: Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Patrick Ewing immediately come to mind.  Their place in basketball history has been firmly established, even though none of them has added a championship to their list of accomplishments.

Also, one player does not make a championship team.  The great players who have not succeeded in winning a championship have often played on average teams, or teams that did not quite have enough firepower to become champions.  That should not be considered a blemish on the careers of these talented athletes.

And finally, if a championship is the ultimate determination of a player’s real worth, then Robert Horry – who was a respectable but not a great NBA player – should be in the Hall of Fame.  He won a championship title seven times – that’s more than Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Magic Johnson.  Horry was lucky because he played with several great teams while on the Rockets, Spurs, and Lakers … and received enough championship rings for both hands in the process.  However, I don’t think this should be the true measure of a player’s worth.

There is another great leader who never achieved his dream.  We have been reading about him in recent weeks in the parsha.  He never played basketball, as far as we know, but he earned the respect of his flock and accomplished many great things during his lifetime.  I’m referring, of course, to Moshe Rabbeinu, l’havdil.

Moshe Rabbeinu never set foot in the Promised Land, even though he spent 40 years leading the Jews through the desert in the hope that he would eventually enter the Land of Israel.  And while I don’t mean to compare a basketball player to our greatest Jewish leader, I do think there are some lessons we can learn from Moshe’s experience – and that can also be seen in Chris Paul’s journey on the hardwood court.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, explained these lessons well.  For each of us, there is a river we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter, and a destination we will not reach. Even the greatest life is an unfinished symphony. Moses’ death on the Eastern side of the Jordan is a consolation for all of us. We should not feel guilty, frustrated, angry, or defeated if there are things we hoped to achieve but did not. That’s what it means to be human.

Nor should we be haunted by our mistakes, according to Rabbi Sacks.  Even the greatest human beings have made mistakes, have failed on occasion, and have had moments of despair. What made them great was not that they were perfect, but that they persisted. They learned from every error, refused to give up hope, and eventually acquired the great gift of humility that only failure can grant. They understood that life is about falling and getting up again. It is about never losing your ideals even when you know how hard it is to change the world. It’s about waking up every morning and continuing to march toward the Promised Land, even though you know that you may never get there, but also knowing that you might have helped others get there in the process.

Moses never made it across the Jordan River.  However, our Torah ends by teaching us about three great life-changing events that relate to Moshe Rabbeinu’s life.  First, we are mortal; therefore, we must make every day count. Second, we are fallible; therefore, we must learn to grow from each mistake. And finally, we will not complete the journey; therefore, we must inspire others to continue what we began.

Chris Paul already has announced that he is not retiring, and that he will be continuing his pursuit of a championship next season.  Whether or not he succeeds remains to be seen, but what’s most important is that whatever the outcome, he has already proven his great worth – both as a basketball player and as a leader.  And he has left quite a legacy for others to follow.  Ultimately, that is what his career should be measured by.

 

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the founder and owner of MGF Marketing, a direct marketing consulting firm. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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