Victoria Atkinson White: Basketball, redemption and resurrection

The UNC Tar Heels celebrate their NCAA national championship victory after defeating Gonzaga 71-65 on April 3, 2017. Daily Tar Heel photograph by Nathan Klima

The UNC Tar Heels wanted to redeem their devastating 2016 NCAA men’s basketball championship loss. In winning this year, they accomplished their goal, but they did not change history, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

For an entire year, “redemption” was the theme for the University of North Carolina men’s basketball program.

Soon after the Tar Heels lost the NCAA national championship game to Villanova in 2016, the team began a group chat called “Redemption.” Junior forward Theo Pinson’s screen saver on his cellphone was a picture with a towel over his head following the defeat. The media fueled the redemption narrative as the players used the loss to transform themselves.

On the way to the final game of the 2017 NCAA tournament, Pinson sent the team a final text: “Let’s change history. Let’s make the outcome different this time.”

After defeating Gonzaga, Pinson shouted, “We [are] number one. The redemption tour is done!”

This made me wonder: Was “redemption” really what they were after?

“Redemption” is a theological word we use often in the church. We lift up God as our redeemer through song. We believe that Christ’s death redeems our sinful nature. Paul writes in Ephesians, “In him we have redemption through his blood.”

“Redemption” is a weighty word, often associated with sacrifice, loss and gain, faith and hope. Whether or not we are comfortable with the idea of redemption in basketball, there is something in the Tar Heels’ use of the word that might prove instructive for leadership.

Pinson said the tour was done. The Tar Heels accomplished their goal. They got the different outcome they wanted. They won the prize.

But they did not change history.

In a postgame interview, UNC Coach Roy Williams was asked whether this win felt different given last year’s loss. His response: “The tough thing is it doesn’t make Marcus, Brice and Joel [’16 seniors] feel any better. So that’s the thing that I’m going to have for a long time. … The feeling of inadequacy in the locker room last year is the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”

Williams knew history could not be changed. Even in the glow of victory, the loss still stung. “But yes,” he said, “this one’s fantastic. And it’s sweet.”

We experience the roller coaster of victory and defeat during Holy Week. We have the peaks of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and in between is the darkness of Good Friday. While we might like to live from one Sunday to the next, we know that Easter wouldn’t exist without Good Friday. We also know that Easter doesn’t erase the devastation of Good Friday.

This is why the story of Thomas wanting to see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side is so critical to the ongoing story of Christ’s love for the world. Christ died. Those around him experienced extreme pain, grief and loss. History could not be changed.

Then Easter happened, and Christ rose again. And while many of the disciples celebrated and may have even glossed over or forgotten the loss, Thomas reminds us that the mark of defeat, of death, of loss, always remains.

Thomas, who is often vilified for his brash request to touch the wounds, reminds us that the resurrection doesn’t cancel out the death. The risen Christ will always be the crucified, risen Christ.

How often do we gloss over death, grief and loss in our desire to focus on victory and success?

We list our accomplishments on our resumes, hang championship banners in our gymnasiums, and display trophies and plaques on our shelves. And yet no one has a perfect winning streak. The defeats and losses provide the space for us to reflect on our weaknesses, make improvements, and challenge ourselves and our teams to, in Pinson’s words, “make the outcome different this time.”

Victory feels good. Success opens doors. And championship banners bring in the best recruits for the following season. And yet victory, success and championships come at a price -- a history of failures that cannot be changed.

Redemption comes in the space that carries us from death to life. God is our redeemer as we run and fall and succeed and fail in our attempts to be the people God is shaping us to be. Redemption curates failure, death and loss into transformative experiences of learning and new life. Redemption means a loss can turn into a gain.

I appreciate Coach Williams’ long view of the Tar Heels’ NCAA championship victory. The win this year does not cancel out the loss last year; rather, last year’s loss is embedded in this year’s win. This win is because of that loss.

And most importantly, re-experiencing and talking about last year’s loss does not take away from the celebration of this year’s victory. In fact, it makes it that much sweeter.

Thomas’ request to see the wounds of Christ is not disrespectful. It validates what Thomas, Christ and all the disciples have just experienced, and it makes Christ’s resurrection that much sweeter.

Given that one of the many definitions of “redemption” is “to make worthwhile,” the Tar Heels got what they wanted. In the postgame interview, Coach Williams named last year’s seniors who had experienced the greatest loss, bringing them into this year’s victory. While history cannot be changed, their names are listed among the contributing victors and their efforts are redeemed.