Monday, February 28, 2011

Another Season in the Books

Ten years ago our church family decided to build a Family Life Center (which is church code for gym). We didn’t build it so we could pamper ourselves. We built it because we wanted to bring Upward Basketball to our city. And we just finished up our tenth season this past weekend.

It’s a big deal. Upward Basketball is a program for children designed to give them a quality basketball experience while opening doors for sharing the gospel. Coaches share a devotion with their team at every practice. During halftime of every game, someone shares a testimony or a brief talk about Jesus with the kids’ families who’ve come to watch the games. And at the end of the season we have a big celebration in which we get to share the gospel with the children and their families. Upward allows us to share the love of Christ with hundreds of people every week for about seven weeks. So Upward is an open door for the gospel.

But it’s also an open door for the kids who might not find a place in any other league in town. We have some good players every year—kids who would be stars in anybody’s league—but we also have a number of kids, some even with disabilities that we find a place for and a coach for and a team for. We had a nearly blind kid for a few seasons. We’ve had kids with autism and seizure-risks and even some brain damage. We get to love on them and their families, and they get to play as much as anybody else. Then, in the post-game meeting they get a star to put on their shirt for something they did in the game to help their team.

It’s a lot of fun. For the first few seasons I coached a team. And while I love to play basketball, I’m not much of a coach. Except for one 5th and 6th grade girls team, my teams never were much good. We don’t keep an official score in Upward for the younger kids, but most coaches keep score anyway. And the score of most of my games was Other Team: Too Much – My Team: Not Enough. But we always had a good time.

One of my favorite teams was a group of 1st and 2nd grade boys. I had twins on that team who were absolutely clueless about basketball and were there not because they wanted to be but because their dad was making them play. I remember giving the team a pep talk before a game, trying to get the boys ready and focused. One of the twins raised his hand. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “he’s finally getting into it.” And he asked, “Will it be dark when we get through?” (It was 8:00 in the morning.) “Focus,” I said. And about that time his brother raised his hand with a question: “Do your legs sweat in those pants?” Well, needless to say, we weren’t focused. At one practice I was really trying to get those boys to pay attention and to give some effort so I bent down to look them right in the eye and make my point. No sooner did I straighten up then one of the boys started waving his hand in front of his nose signaling that I must have had some serious bad breath going on. Upward is a lot fun.

In the last few seasons, I traded in my coach’s hat for a referee’s whistle. We get a little cat-calling from parents and coaches who don’t like what we call or what we don’t call, but we don’t get much of that in Upward. And when I ref, I get a front row seat to see some really neat stuff happen on the court—which brings me to my highlight for the 2011 season. It happened Friday night with the 5th-7th grade boys. There’s a kid named Ty on one of the teams. He’s a fifth-grader and a little feller—the smallest kid on the court. He’s played Upward for the last few seasons, but he’s got some issues that keep him from really grasping this whole basketball thing. But he loves to play. He’s a joy to watch. And nobody has a better time on a Friday night than Ty.

In between periods on Friday, his coach told us refs that they were going to try to get Ty a shot at the goal. The kid rarely got the ball all season long, but we really try to see that every kid gets to make a basket before the season is over, and his coach wanted Ty to score. They’d tried before and it had yet to happen. This was the last game so it was now or never. His tall teammate, a good player, worked hard to get Ty the ball in a position close to the goal where Ty could shoot it. His defender backed off of him to give him a chance. Ty’s so small he can’t get it to that 10-foot goal goal by shooting the ball from his shoulders or his head. So he had to do a granny shot—a two-handed, underhand toss up at the basket. He got about three shots close in. He hit the rim a couple of times. And with every try the crowd would hold their breath and then groan at the miss. Time was running out. Somehow Ty ended up with the ball outside the three-point line (which is around 20 feet from the goal). People were yelling, “Shoot!!” but he was too far from the goal to even get it close, right? Wrong. The kid pulled that ball down between his legs, threw his whole body into the shot, let her fly, and … swish! A little string music. Nothing but net. And a three-pointer no less—one of only four that I remember being made all season long. You should have heard the crowd—family and friends of both teams rising to their feet to cheer. And you should have seen Ty running and jumping down the court with both arms raised in triumph, kids giving him high-fives. For a fleeting moment, time stood still, and Ty was “the man.” In the words of ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, it was “Awesome, baby!!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if Ty remembers that moment for the rest of his life.

That’s my basketball highlight for Upward 2011. But there are always other highlights of a different nature: kids encouraged and loved whether they are star athletes or whether they trip over the free throw line; families blessed by the way their kids are treated; people mustering up the faith and courage to get out of their shell and share a testimony about Jesus at halftime of a game; and some folks—kids and adults—discovering the life that only Jesus can offer. That’s what Upward is all about. That’s why we built the gym … uh, I mean Family Life Center. And that’s why so many dedicated volunteers pray, coach, ref, work possession arrows, serve concessions, set up, clean up, and organize that whole wonderful thing.

Not long after Ty made his big play, the father of a player on the other team said to me, “God made that shot.” And he’s right: God did make that shot. But it’s not the only shot God made this season in Upward. And most of them had nothing to do with a ball and a rim and a net.


  1. Brother,
    that was a wonderful thing to share, just what I needed at the end of the work day Monday. How awesome that God uses us to touch others,and yet we get the greater blessing.
    Thanks Pastor

  2. John that is a great story and it is what upward is all about. thanks for being you and making our walk with christ that much more pleasant. We are fortunate to have you. thanks to all who helped, you did a great job as always Gregg Alford