The Err Of Basketball Prosperity Theology: A Book Review Of The Leftovers by Matt Sayman

Matt Sayman’s autobiographical narrative The Leftovers: Basketball, Betrayal, Baylor, and Beyond is many things.  It is first and foremost an insider’s account of the Baylor basketball scandal of 2003.  Patrick Dennehey’s murder was heartbreaking; Carlton Dotson’s involvement was horrifying; and Coach Dave Bliss’s coverup was dumbfounding. The book is also an account of those who were understandably displaced by this tragedy — guard Matt Sayman, guard Terrance Thomas, and Forward R.T. Guinn. They had come to Baylor with optimism and hope.  Against the backdrop of this horrible tragedy, they had to face a hopeless situation.  But most importantly, The Leftovers is a testimony about the shallow, evil, destructive, and disillusioning nature of prosperity theology.

In full disclosure — I know Matt Sayman, or at least I knew him.  We had a Spanish class together our freshman year with Señora Ochoa. I remember chatting with him a few times during the course of that first semester in the Fall of 2000.  Perhaps this is why I found Matt to be a fitting tour guide through the story of Baylor University in the early 2000s.  In the first few chapters we can tell that Sayman lives the life of a basketball worshipper.  Although he came to Christ at an early age, Sayman admits that his worldview foundation was shaped more by Pistol Pete homework basketball videos and less by the Bible that Pistol Pete later embraced upon his own conversion.  One gets the sense that Matt believed in a kind of basketball prosperity gospel.  As he stated early on, “If my relationship with God was good, then my basketball game was good.”

This basketball prosperity theology proved to be a stable theology throughout his basketball career, a career that began in the small town of Berwick, Pennsylvania where he was a local basketball hero and continued into The Colony High School in Texas, where Sayman shined as an elite player.  Sayman was good enough to earn a division 1 scholarship offer from Dave Bliss at Baylor University, where his up and down successes with the men’s basketball team through his first three years at Baylor served to reinforce his theological framework: if you obey God, good things will happen on the court and in life.  Sayman’s theology seems to be additionally reinforced through his friendship with Jessika Stratton, a standout player for Baylor’s women’s team and a committed Christian.  Together, they embodied the ideal Baylor basketball student athletes — standouts on the court and in the game of life.

But then, the narrative takes a dark turn.  Tragedy struck during the summer of 2003 pushing Sayman to reexamine his theology, asking, “Why did this happen to me? I didn’t do anything wrong. And I am suffering for it.” Basketball prosperity theology was exposed for the fraud that it is.  Stunned by this revelation, Matt writes, “It [basketball] had been the idol of my life.”  Freshly disillusioned, Sayman turned to binge drinking, partying, and casual sex as a way of coping with his upended worldview.  As we find out in the afterward, these coping mechanisms slowly morphed into habits that robbed his life and his first marriage of the joy that God intended for them.

At one particular party, Matt describes a drunken encounter with Jess Stratton and the subsequent tear-filled conversation she had with him about the state of his life.  This was the low point in the story.  With the arrival of a new coach (Scott Drew) and a deceptively impressive 8-21 record, Sayman finally came to peace with his basketball journey.  He had not achieved his goal of reaching the NCAA tournament. However, he had found victory in readjusting his goals.  “How many other teams could win 8 games, beat Texas A&M twice, and not finish in last place in their conference with only 7 scholarship players?” Sayman bragged.

Sayman used the events after his college career to finally address some of his inner demons.  A failed marriage, a stellar overseas career, and a litany of late night binge drinking experiences led to a sober realization at the ripe age of 30.  Matt gave up drinking and partying, was befriended by a local pastor, joined that pastor’s local church, and got married to a godly woman.  By the end of the narrative, we find that Matt Sayman needed this writing project as a way to put his basketball journey into a proper Biblical perspective, one that had matured from the naive basketball prosperity theology of his youth.

The Leftovers functions partly as an act of catharsis and partly as a spiritual discipline for Sayman.  Along the way, he grants readers access to a behind-the-scenes account of the the story of Baylor basketball.  It is in his story telling that Sayman’s communication ability is fully appreciated.  Matt is judicious in the way he portrays his characters.  Dave Bliss, for example, emerges as a complex figure who is both a Bible reading, FCA preacher as well as a cussing, hard-driving, coach with anger issues.  Scott Drew, on the other hand, comes off as an initially mercurial, but ultimately genuine father figure, who, along with his staff, helps to establish a nurturing basketball program that trains future leaders. Sayman, again, opts for a balanced honesty in the way he treats teammates with John Lucas III described as a brilliant player and a difficult teammate, and with Terrance Thomas beginning as selfish and troubled, but ending up as an exemplar human being and player.  And when particularly incriminating events need to be expressed, Sayman opts for confidentiality against the opportunity to dish.  In one scene during Drew’s first year, Matt prefers to keep a teammate’s name hidden from print, since the teammate is drinking wine coolers before practice. A nice touch, if you ask me.

Sayman should also be lauded for his wry sense of humor. For example, when asked to speak to the media immediately following the scandal, Sayman ponders aloud in a perfect Seinfeldian way, “I wonder what the proper dress code would be for the dissolving of a program press conference.” Part of the appeal of this book is that Sayman lives up to his name.  He says with judicious filter what all men would be thinking if pressed into a similar situation, and he delivers with a keen comedic timing.

Matt Sayman’s The Leftovers provides a readable history of the good and then bad and then good years of Baylor basketball from 2000-2004 and beyond.  Sayman is a capable narrator of the ins and outs of college life, college basketball, and the quest to find meaning and our place in this world.  In the end, his life story helps preach the good news that this meaning and place is found best, not in basketball, but in Jesus Christ.

 

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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