Based on my research — and I admit it hasn’t been exhaustive — two Hall of Famers, Frank Chance and Bill Russell, share the honor of being the most successful player-coach in sports history, using the yardstick of championships won.
Russell claimed two NBA championships as a player-coach in 1968 and 1969. Before that, he collected nine other titles as a player. His 11 championships, all with the Boston Celtics, are the most in NBA history.
Chance won two World Series with the Chicago Cubs, in 1907 and 1908, as a player-manager (baseball’s version of player-coach).
Hall of Fame manager John McGraw had high praise for Chance: “He was a great player — I think one of the best first basemen ever in the game — but in addition he was a great leader, because he asked no man to take any chance that he would not take himself.”
Chance’s nickname — “Peerless Leader” — reflected McGraw’s sentiment.
Here’s an obscure fact for your next trivia contest from the Baseball Hall of Fame: Chance first signed with a baseball team known as the Chicago Orphans … which became the Chicago Cubs starting with the 1903 season.
Let’s examine three elements of this intel in light of a first-century superstar who is arguably the best player-coach ever — Jesus of Nazareth.
First, McGraw asserted that Chance was “a great leader because he asked no man to take any chance that he would not take himself.” This is the quintessential domain of the player-coach: By definition, regular coaches can’t take the chances their players take — after all, they’re not playing anymore, they’re coaching.
A player-coach, however, is able to take those chances. And that’s exactly what Jesus did.
The foundation of the Christian faith is that Jesus was (and is) God incarnate, the ultimate player-coach who infiltrated the stadium of human history and directly engaged the fracas on the field. Stay in the stands and merely watch? No way — not for this player-coach.
Second, Chance was called the “Peerless Leader.”
The dictionary defines peerless as “unequaled, unrivaled, matchless, incomparable” — actually, that’s from two online dictionaries, but I digress.
Based on the Christian worldview, only one Person can lay claim to the term peerless: Yes, you guessed it — the only incarnate, crucified and risen Player-Coach.
Third, until I researched Frank Chance for this blog post, I didn’t realize that the Chicago Cubs were originally known as the Chicago Orphans.
The Orphans … what a fitting team name in the context of this discussion of the Peerless Player-Coach!
The moving play “Orphans” explores the theme that human beings are, universally, broken orphans looking for home. The Christian faith offers the antidote: Jesus came to seek orphans and give them a forever residence with their Creator, the Father all broken orphans long for.
The song “Name” (by the Goo Goo Dolls) describes the predicament of orphans:
All the dreams you never thought you’d lose
Got tossed along the way.
… And now we’re grown-up orphans
Who never knew their names.
We don’t belong to no one, that’s a shame.
Meanwhile, the song “King Of Hearts” (by Randy Stonehill) describes the predicament and the remedy:
All alone, drifting wild,
Like a ship that’s lost out on the ocean.
Everyone’s a homeless child
And it’s not hard to understand
Why we need a Father’s hand.
… You’re just running in circles
Till you reach out your hand to the King of hearts.
Another song — the Michael Kelly Blanchard classic “There is Still a King of Hearts” — likewise speaks to the theme of our orphaned brokenness and our need for the true love that is found ultimately in the true King of hearts:
There is still a King of hearts, ruler of our shattered realms.
Though our kingdoms come apart, and the fault is in ourselves.
There is still some royalty haunting our dark ruins of soul.
One whose priceless poverty shames us with all our hoards of gold.
… With His love the lost are saved from self-dungeons so dark and cruel.
Oh Jesus, closer than the air.
Welcomed visitor to flesh.
Turn this my castle grim and bare.
To Your Spirit’s home of rest.
May Your presence bless.
We’ve contemplated the striking pre-Cubs name of Frank Chance’s team — the Chicago Orphans.
What about his name? Frank Chance — also striking … and thought-provoking.
The Creator of the universe evidently took a chance when He created human beings. According to the biblical record, the first humans committed the flagrant foul that plunged the human race into sorrow and loss — yet God installed the playing field. His decision to create humans in His image with freedom of choice was, safe to say, an incredible risk.
Since God knew beforehand the worst-case scenario of human history and eternity, why would He risk it? Knowing the cost to Himself — His grief and extreme heartbreak, the excruciating death of God incarnate — why would He take such an inconceivable chance?
Apparently, even given all that downside, the risk/reward was (and is) worth it to God. Which means a human heart turned toward Him in affection and need and intimacy, in the midst of this world’s pain and beauty, is worth it to God.
Bottom line: To our Creator, being in close relationship with us was worth an agonizing Friday that we paradoxically call Good.
“Heart in champions has to do with the depth of our motivation and how well your mind and body react to pressure — that is, being able to do what you do best under maximum pain and stress.”
Do you know the source of this quote?
The champion’s heart he describes is tied to perseverance and longsuffering. Just ask the Chicago Cubs: After player-manager Frank Chance led them to the 1908 World Series crown, the Cubs had to wait more than a century — until 2016 — to win another World Series.
Who best epitomizes such a heart? Perhaps there are as many answers to this question as there are stars in the sky.
But on my better days, I believe one star shines brightest — the One who endured maximum pain and stress as he was executed on a desperate first-century Friday in the Roman Empire. The One who “asked no man to take any chance that he would not take himself.”
Yes, the One who is the incarnate, crucified and risen Creator’s Son — Jesus of Nazareth, the best player-coach in history.
Bruce William Deckert was an editor at ESPN.com for 15-plus years. He blogs at A Slow Life in the FAST Lane.
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