Changing the Game

“Weʼve decided to go with someone else.” <phone click> ” Translation: We donʼt want you.

Anyone who has ever been turned down for a job, understands how much those words sting. Itʼs a quick prick of pain followed by a stretch of numbness that never leaves. If I didnʼt know better, Iʼd swear those words were laced with Novocain.

Looking back, I think the reason it hurt so much had more to do with what rejection seemed to imply. Youʼre not good enough. We donʼt have faith in your coaching ability. Thereʼs someone better. For a guy who had given his life to the sport of basketball, it felt like a slap in the face.

In the next few weeks there would be other head coaches calling and a few job offers extended, but nothing could restore the confidence that had been breeched by a sport Iʼd sold out to. Every ounce of sweat, tear of defeat, and meaningful minute of each self-centered day. One sport (basketball) had my all.

But worst of all, I had placed this sport above Jesus.

It sounds hideous, I know, but why on earth would I need Jesus? I had made this sport my god, and I was its right hand man. The more I worked and centered my life around this false god, the greater success I experienced. The greater success I experienced, the further my ego was nurtured. And the further my ego was nurtured, the more sports became the perfect mechanism to exalt myself. Who doesnʼt want to be celebrated and told youʼre the best, right?

Then, in one phone call, the sport I had worshipped for so long spit me out. It hungered for the next big thing, and I was no longer it. I felt betrayed. Not by the coach who didnʼt hire me, but from a false idol that wouldnʼt support me.

So on that hot summer evening, after being told “weʼve decided to go with someone else”, I placed the phone on the kitchen table and quit the god I was worshipping, giving up an identity I had spent my entire life building.

I had actually accepted Christ as my Savior 20 months prior, but It would be the resolution made on this night which I would look back upon as one of the most pivotal decisions of my life.

In the coming months my life would change dramatically. I transitioned from a college basketball coach to a 7th grade middle school teacher with the extra duty of teaching 12-year old girls how to run motion offense after school. I went from front row seats in national tournaments games to working with distracted girls who were far more interested in the boys out in the hallway than zone defense. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, I walked away from packed arenas and traded them in for empty gymʼs filled with more giggles than cheers.

From a worldly perspective, it was humbling, even embarrassing at times. As difficult as this pill was for me to swallow, it was exactly what God cautions about in His word, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2, NIV)

At that time of my life, I didnʼt need anyone to read me that verse. I was living it. For most of my life pride had poured itself over every corner of my body, and now, I was reaping the consequence the Bible promised. It was painful, embarrassing, and confusing. From Godʼs perspective, however, there was no such confusion. He intentionally brought me to a season of life where I could feel my brokenness. He wanted my attention, and realized the only way to get it was to strip everything away.

Little did I know that Jesus was about to flip the whole process upside down.

In those 24 months, I had accepted Christ as my Savior, lost the coaching job of my dreams, and launched a Christian basketball camp called Cross Training. If God would have shown me the battle going on in the spiritual realm during those 20 months, I probably would have gone running for the hills. But He didnʼt. He did make visible, however, a vision for the camp program (Cross Training) I had just started. It was an exciting concept to create a sports ministry where I could use my skills as a coach to develop players physically, but more importantly spiritually. In those days, there werenʼt a lot of people in the business of combining sports and God, but I didnʼt care. I was hopelessly naive to the people saying “donʼt do it” and spiritually called by a God saying, “go for it!” I felt like Peter, standing on the edge of the boat:

“Lord, if itʼs you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come,” Jesus said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (Matthew 14:28-29, NIV)

Sometimes I wonder if God just wanted to see if I would really trust him. Would I “come”, if He asked? Would I step out of my own boat of comfort and expect Him to be there? Could I ignore worldly logic and put my faith in a God that I believed was capable of producing “water-walking” moments in my own life?

In this season of my life I found myself both lonely and scared to death. I was still so weak and young in the faith that I possessed no strength to consider doing anything BIG for God. To me, the word “come” signified the desire on my heart to get close to Jesus. I had watched my life slowly spiral downward and now only craved refuge from the Savior in whom I had put my trust.

As my faith grew, the ministry of Cross Training expanded as well. What started as a small group of kids in a gym would grow to an army of athletes numbering in the thousands. There would be salvations, worship sessions, international mission trips, baptisms and a culture of ministry that felt like family. Our ministry was, and still is to this day, as imperfect as we are. But amidst that imperfection, I would watch in amazement as God was recruiting athletes to play for Him.

With each year of ministry, I became aware of a rather remarkable shift in my life. God had taken the sport I once worshipped and transformed it into a platform I now stood on to tell others about Him.

The Bible says, For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 22:13) I had literally experienced both sides of this truth. In the pride of my life God had humbled me, and with the humility I was now genuinely trying to live out, God was lifting me up.

He had, in a very literal sense, flipped my world upside down.

The purpose of my coaching was no longer focused upon winning games, but winning souls. The competitive drive I once had for a sport was replaced with a ferocious appetite to reach people with the Gospel. A mind once addicted to a sport was now consumed by my Savior. If you stop and think about that for a moment, itʼs pretty remarkable. Sports ruled over me, and then God, in His sovereign authority, allowed me to stand upon sports. Not for my own glory, but for His.

My life in athletics had transitioned from passion, to pride, to purpose. God hadnʼt removed the game from my life, he was changing the game in my life.