March Madness Finale – A Tar Heel and a Zag.

Well, my bracket wound up more busted than a boxer’s nose again this year. I guess it’s the price I pay for not following NCAA basketball closely enough and using a quarter to help me decide which teams I should pick.  But I’m a big enough sports fan that I can always find a reason to watch a sporting event and with this blog inviting me to dig into the stories beyond the field (or in this case the court), it is easy to find points of interest to allow myself to be drawn in.  So hopefully you enjoyed all the madness.  Here are a couple of stories that I want to share with you from the teams in the championship game.

First, Gonzaga Bulldogs – a fitting story to kick off Autism Awareness Month

Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few (center) and Director of Basketball Operations John Jakus (right)

Tonight, as I was checking out facebook, this article from CRU.org came across my feed.  It is the story of  director of basketball operations John Jakus.  He and his wife answered a call to start a basketball ministry in Macedonia.  There they would use basketball to share the message of Christ with the people of Macedonia. They sold their home, packed their things and moved across the world to see this dream of theirs come to be.

And then came the news that their son had Autism.

They decided that it was best for them to return to the U.S.A. and seek help for him. The help he needed was more than they first expected. But have you ever noticed that even when things don’t seem to be going the way we want them to, God has a way of putting pieces that fit together. From the article “The last event John coordinated in Macedonia was an international basketball tournament. Athletes in Action sent an American team coached by Tim Maloney, the Director of Basketball Operations at Baylor University. Baylor is home to a prominent autism resource center. Upon learning of John’s situation, Tim told him, “If you ever need anything, you just let me know.”

The Jakus family – read their amazing journey from missionary in Macedonia to coaching staff at NCAA championship game

Well that “anything” that Jakus needed was an introduction to Scott Drew, coach of the Baylor Basketball program.  Jakus would go to work with Drew at Baylor and his son would get the care he needed from the autism resource center. 2 years later, through a recommendation from the Baylor’s basketball program, Jakus was hired to join the Gonzaga staff.  At Gonzaga, he works directly with the players. And while he doesn’t get the opportunity to openly evangelize as he did in Macedonia, he is praying that God will use him to impact the Bulldogs. He says “At first it was an odd thing for me. I felt underused. I talked to [AIA staff member] Mike Sigfrids about this, and he just brought up that Christ came to serve. And that you can make a difference in people’s lives by being a servant.

My takeaway from Jakus’ story:

Keep on Trusting –  How many times do we wonder what on earth God could be up to.  He goes against what we think would be a perfect plan and turns our world upside down. We may feel confused, hurt, even bitter, but in reality, we are simply being invited to keep trusting Him. How has life thrown you a curve that pulled you from what seemed to make sense? Keep you eyes on Him and see where He leads you. I promise you that He has a plan for you and for the circumstance you are going through. It takes effort to keep on trusting. It means continually giving up control and believing that He has got it all figured out. I see this in Jakus’ story, and I see in it my story. Look at your story too. See those times when confusion was great and things seemed to be spinning out of control? Look again and see God at the center of it all, putting pieces in place to amaze you and accomplish incredible things through you and your story. Take notice, praise Him for it and share with those around you.

And to the Champs – University of North Carolina TarHeels.

Justin Jackson was a key part of the Tar Heels championship season.

Justin Jackson was named this year’s ACC player of the year. The 6’8″ Junior averaged over 18 points per game this year leading the TarHeels in scoring. He has another year of eligibility left and at this point is undecided about returning to North Carolina or entering the NBA. But as you can read in this article from Sports Spectrum, the decision that he makes will come after a lot of prayer and attention to God’s leading.

Prior to the championship game, he said “My faith is the biggest thing for me. Basketball will fail you. Everything else in life in my opinion will fail you. I say a prayer before every game and it’s always God’s will. That’s why I wrote it on my shoes to remind me.

He is very outspoken about his faith in God. Check out his article from the Player’s Tribune for more.

Jackson, the champ. Giving credit and praise to God along the way

My Takeaway from Jackson’s story

We Need Him more than He Needs us. – This seems silly to have written down, but it just jumped out at me.  Jackson shares this episode in his freshman year when Coach Williams got after Jackson and another couple players about their work. He wanted them to work harder and if they were not going to, he was going to be done with them. And that is when he says he realized “I needed UNC way more than UNC needed me“.  I’ve been in this place before.  Not on the court at a top basketball practice being chastised by a college icon – I’ve never been there!! But I’ve been in the place where I feel like I’ve earned my spot, that I can rest on my achievements and I can coast. And while God is never going to kick me off his team, I need to be reminded that I needed Him to save me from my sins. He doesn’t need me to do anything for Him. He chooses to accomplish things through me, and asks for me to surrender to Him. But I need Him way more than He needs me.  I pray that I always remember this and show my gratitude and joy at being on the team. May I be ready to be coached and follow His playbook.

 

Faith amid the Madness – Mike Krzyzewski – Duke University

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Coach K is one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history

March Madness is narrowing down the field and cranking up the excitement.  By the end of the weekend, the elite 8 will be reduced to the final four.  I did not do a bracket this year – I’m not a huge basketball fan.  But in my many years as a casual fan of NCAA basketball, I’ve learned one thing.  The chances that Duke will be playing in the final 4 or at least the sweet 16 is almost a given.  The key to their success can be attributed to the amazing job done by Coach Mike Krzyzewski. 

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Coach Krzyzewski passed the 1000 win mark this season

In his 35 years as head coach of the Blue Devils here is his resume

4 National Championships

4 National Runners-up

11 final four appearances including a string of 5 in a row and 7  in 9 years).

29 NCAA tournament births in the past 30 years including a current string of 20 consecutive)

Career coaching record (at time of this post) 1015-310

Add to that college resume his success in international competition (defending 2 time Gold Medal champ – 2 more Olympic Gold medals as an assistant coach.  And it is obvious that Krzyzewski is a great basketball mind.

But as you can read in this article from americancatholic.org, he credits his upbringing, his parents and his time in catholic schools for giving him a strong foundation of faith and belief in God that helps guide his coaching and his life.  His role as a leader has an impact on how he lives his life – striving to be a nice guy, humble, empathetic and ethically moral  Check out this video from faithandleadership.com

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A familiar scene. Duke has won 4 championships with Coach K at the helm

My main takeaway from Coach K’s story:

Be a good guy – Seems simple and basic, but sports is a competitive world, and when competition and seeking to be the tops often some things that can be compromised are nice guy-ness and good sportsmanship,  I know that when I played church league softball in high school and university, I had a terrible attitude when it came to failing and losing.  If I got out, or if we were losing, I was not a nice guy,  I was a poor sport, I would throw stuff, slam my glove, yell at myself and spiral worse downward.  It was not a good reflection of who I wanted to be and it was not a good reflection of who God calls us to be.  Being competitive in itself is not a bad thing, but we still need to reflect Christ in our words and actions.  Setting meanness and anger aside and choosing kindness, empathy and morality is a Christ-like way to carry ourselves and in our desire to reflect Him in all we do, it is how we should choose to live.

 

Final Four – Who are you Cheering For?

imgresI am not a great college basketball mind.  I don’t follow very closely and therefore don’t have any allegiances once the tournaments begin.  That allows me to be entertained by the games that I watch, and keeps me from getting too emotionally attached to a team, should they fall in an early round.  And so, in an effort to be like Switzerland (neutral) for the remaining teams, I would like to draw your attention to 1 person on each of the final four teams whose life is motivated by living for God and His purposes.

In no particular order, here we go-

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UConn Coach Kevin Ollie

UConn Huskies – Head Coach Kevin Ollie –  The importance of Christian Mentors

As you can read in Kevin Ollie’s own words in this article at FCA, Ollie struggled to follow God when he struck out on his own in college.  But it was after signing to play in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks that one of the established players – A.C. Green, helped draw Ollie back to following God.  Green was an outspoken Christ-follower who would hold chapel in his hotel room before games.  He helped Ollie avoid the temptations that fame and fortune presented and helped Ollie build a solid relationship with God.  How cool is it now, years later, to see Ollie in a position of mentorship and influence in the lives of the members of the UConn Huskies.

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Florida Gators center Patric Young

Florida Gators – Patric Young – Pastor Patric Patrols the Paint

One of the keys to the Florida Gators amazing season this year is the defensive backbone they have in 6’9″center Patric Young.  As you can read in this story from gatorsports.com, he hopes to follow his NCAA time with a long NBA career, but he is also open to becoming a minister.  He says wherever God leads him and gives him a platform, he wants to share the Gospel with others.  The article goes on to talk about the two vocational dreams meeting when he, fellow teammate Will Yeguete and a group of others went to play basketball and share the Gospel message in Ivory Coast.  God will give us opportunities to show His love by our actions and share His story with our words.  Let’s make the most of these opportunities.

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Wisconsin Badgers guard Traevon Jackson

Wisconsin Badgers – Traevon Jackson – Fighting the Battle of Expectations

Here you can read about Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson, who was forced into a starting role due to injury and then every mistake that he made along the learning curve was magnified and criticized.  Oh, and his father Jim was an all-American at Ohio State and played 14 years in the NBA, so there are the expectations of the “Jackson name” that he was trying to live up to.  And so basketball lost its joy for Traevon.  But then, Traevon went to a God’s Image Sports Training camp.   There he met one on one with the founder of the program – Anthony Rhodman.  He challenged Traevon to take his faith seriously and make it a priority.  Traevon was awakened to how far he had wavered from the faith he claimed to have.  It was not represented in his life.  He returned to Wisconsin a with a new focus and a change of attitude that was noticeable to teammates.  He desires to be an example of the difference that Jesus makes in a life.

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Kentucky Freshman Julius Randle

Kentucky Wildcats – Julius Randle – From Underdog to Lottery

The most impressive run in the tournament this year has been the 8th seen Kentucky Wildcats taking out 3 of last years final four teams and finding themselves favored in the semi-final against Wisconsin.  One of the teams stars is freshman Julius Randle who is expected to be a lottery, maybe even a top 5 pick in the NBA draft this year.  His story includes a stint with the Texas Titans – a travelling team that was coached by great coaches and whose busy travel schedule was funded by Texas millionaire Kenny Troutt.  One of the team’s coaches, Jeff Webster, remained active in Randle’s life helping him improve his game, but also played the role of father figure for Randle who grew up in a single mom family.  Now, he is free to let anyone know that he enjoys reading the bible and learning about God and credits God for working in his life to give him these amazing opportunities.  Will these opportunities include a championship from and #8 seed?  We will know soon enough!

Who are you cheering for?  How is your bracket doing?  Enjoy the weekend of basketball!!

 

The God of the Broken – Kevin Ware – Louisville Cardinals

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Kevin Ware played in 9 games for Louisville this season

So… How’s your bracket doing?  Well, I’m in the “there’s always next year” mindset right now, but there is still some great basketball left to watch this year – I just guessed that the wrong teams would still be playing when I filled out my bracket a week ago.

One of the teams that I did predict to go this far, though is still in it.  The Louisville Cardinals are the defending champions and I would be okay if they repeated.

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Luke Hancock comforts and prays for Kevin Ware moments after his gruesome injury in last years NCAA basketball tournament.

They won me over last year when I saw and read about what happened in the wake of one of the most gruesome things ever witnessed on live network TV.  Guard Kevin Ware went up to contest a 3 point shot and when he landed,  his leg broke mid shin and set off a violent reaction among teammates and fans.  But amazingly, Ware’s teammate Luke Hancock came right over to comfort and pray for Ware.  You can read my blog post about last year’s Cardinals championship team here.

Amazingly, Kevin Ware is back on the team and while his minutes have been limited (he appeared in only 9 games this season) the fact that he is back and playing at all is a miracle.  In fact, just six months after the break, video surfaced of Ware dunking a basketball.  Check it out.

And through the gruesome injury and long road of recovery, Ware has been aware that God is there in the middle of all of this, in control of all things and working things out according to His plan.  Check out this interview with Ware on CNN just 4 days after the injury. (especially around the 2:25-4:15)

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Ware on crutches days after the injury. His trust in God’s plan has prepared him for whatever may come, including a return to basketball.

Here are my takeaways from Ware’s story and his return to the Cardinals.

1- Nothing happens that is out of God’s control –  Ware talks about knowing that God had a plan to use this injury for His plan and purposes.  We do face hard things in this life.  In this world we will have trouble, but Jesus has overcome the world.  (John.16.33).  He tells His disciples this after telling them that they will be persecuted, thrown out of synagogues, murdered, and will have to go through these things without Jesus physically by their side, but with God’s spirit inside them.  The hard things of this life are no joke,  they are not a vague list of inconveniences.  Like Ware’s leg, we will be broken by the hard things that we will go through, but our hope is in Jesus who died to pay our debt and make a way for us to be with Him in a place where pain and tears will not exist.  To know that He is with us in the midst of whatever we are going through can help us bear it.

2- God is still God – I appreciate Ware’s attitude at the prospects of never playing basketball again.  He says in the interview that if he can never play again, then he knows God will open up something else for Him to do.  While we do have our own desires (which God knows) the truth is that God’s plan is the best.  It may not always involve what we desire the most, but it will ALWAYS be the best.  We simply need to trust it and follow.

The Sweet 16 is this week, and Louisville is still in the process of defending their title.  They have been through a great deal over the past year and God will use them, win or lose, to share his message with whomever may hear.

Respect Authority – Anthony Gill – Virginia Cavaliers – March Madness Part 2

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Virginia Cavaliers Forward Anthony Gill

Every year in the NCAA Basketball tournament, it is fun to watch the skill level that the top players demonstrate.  And yet, with all the talent around and the attention that is paid to the top players in NCAA, there is still a need to remain humble and coachable.  The successes a team realizes in a season is largely related to the amount of trust they have in their coach – to buy in to his philosophies and plans and put in the work and effort to execute what he says.  A coach plays so many roles – cheer-leader, drill sergeant, father-figure, and game manager.

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Gill and the Cavaliers survived a scare from Coastal Carolina to advance in the NCAA tournament

And when a coach does their job well, their team will buy in to their plans and do anything to execute those plans.  We read about that kind of dedication from University of Virginia Cavaliers  forward Anthony Gill in this article from The Daily Progress.  Even when his coach, Tony Bennet, chose to sit Gill out for the entire first half of a game, he replied

“I trust [Bennett] 100 percent and whatever he wants me to do, I’ll do.  I’ll run through a wall for him. He wanted me to sit out the first half and that was fine with me.”

So where does this attitude come from?  It comes from trusting God in hard times.  A child of divorce, it was when his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer that Gill began to grow in his faith.  He initially was upset that his mom was sick, but her positive attitude and resolve helped Gill realize that God was vital to life and he began to grow closer to Him.  His mom has been cancer free for over 2 years now, and mother and son continue to depend on God for guidance in life and strength for the challenges of life.

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Virginia Coach Tony Bennett is outspoken about his faith in God

And Coach Bennett is a good coach to team up with as well.  As you can read in this article from WSLS.com, coach Bennett is a Christ-follower and is very open about his faith.

Here are my takeaways from this story:

1- Respect Authority – I really like the story in Matthew 8 where a Roman Centurion approaches Jesus to ask for healing for one of his servants.  Jesus says “I will come” and the Centurion says, this is not necessary – just say the word and I know it will happen.  The Centurion understands authority.  He has soldiers under his command and knows that they will do whatever he asks.  He is the authority and they must do what he says.  Jesus has this same kind of authority over sicknesses.  He simply needs to say the words and the servant will be healed -The centurion acknowledges Jesus authority.  There is no question in his mind.  We see this with Gill and his coach.  He trusts his coach and will do whatever he is asked to do.  He submits to authority instead of questioning it, knowing his place and ready to follow out of devotion.  Are we that dedicated to following God?  Are we so devoted to Him and His plan that we will follow wherever He leads and do whatever He asks?

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Gill has 1 Corinthians 6.19-20 tattooed on his right arm

2- You are not your own – Anthony Gill has a scripture verse tattooed on his right arm.  It is 1 Corinthians 6.19-20

“Don’t you know that your body is a temple that belongs to the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit, whom you received from God, lives in you. You don’t belong to yourselves. You were bought for a price. So bring glory to God in the way you use your body.”

How do we get to the point where we can submit completely to God?  We begin by understanding that we are not our own, we are His.  He paid the price of Jesus for our lives and our devotion to Him in all we do is the only fitting response.  We can bring glory to God in the way we use our body.  For Gill, that includes on the basketball court.  How can you honor God with what you do and how you act?