so much depends
red and white
glazed with black ink and
beside the world
For those of you whose love of college basketball (and your observance of the sport during the high, holy month “feast” known as March Madness) also marks you as someone who carefully accrues a few “sick days” to use for the heavenly smorgasbord of endless games filling those first couple of rounds of the NCAA tournament; well, you likely were among the many who considered writing The Presbyterian Outlook to suggest the need for creating a brand new section: a sports page!
While Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians are justifiably proud of and passionately dedicated to the purposes and mission of our sixty-plus Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related colleges, in recent years, it’s rare that these fine institutions are featured in national news outlets because of athletic prowess and prominence on the playing fields. And that is fine, even desirable, to some (given the all-too-common reports of corruption and misconduct that seems to accompany success and “big school” sports, fairly and unfairly).
However, and at a time when the Church – the Body of Christ – seems to need, even crave, for there to be more publicly visible examples of humble, committed, compassionate “ambassadors” of the Christian faith1, the glorious consummation of the 2008 NCAA college basketball season also introduced to the nation – and arguably, large parts of the planet – an enormously talented athlete: Stephen Curry of Davidson College.2
And although his extraordinary play during the NCAA tournament provided evidence that he is the best college basketball player in the country, I suspect that his family, coaches, teammates, classmates, and many, many others would likely argue that his exemplary character and his authentic, humble embodiment of the Christian faith are even more important and vital for understanding and appreciating “Steph.”3
In early October, Coach Bob McKillop and Coach Matt Matheny generously made it possible for me to spend a healthy chunk of an afternoon with Steph. Given the date’s proximity to the start of the basketball season (and the fact that Steph was recovering from a wretched cold), it would make sense that every minute would need to be micromanaged and protected for their star player, who is a finalist for the Wooden Award (given to the best player in the nation). Like anyone else with the gift for protecting their own ego and enlarged expectations with well-developed rationalizations, I arrived in Davidson’s gym fully prepared to nod with understanding at the news that Steph would need to take care of himself and that we could try, again, to chat together on some other day.
This is, after all, a young man who has the phone numbers of NBA players and recent Olympians like Chris Paul and Lebron James saved on his cell phone. This is someone who was featured at this year’s ESPY awards4 and who (as he would later share with me and as was also mentioned in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated) was genuinely shocked to realize that other superstar athletes like Terrell Owens, Danica Patrick, and Annika Sorenstam recognized and acknowledged him. This is a person who, more commonly and frequently, is being described as “the face of college basketball” – and, arguably, for what is good, right, and profoundly admirable across all sports. Yes, it would be forgivable and understandable that a few hours talking with an admiring alum might not be the best use of his valuable time.
Well, the grinning “face of college basketball” (and the rest of Stephen Curry – clad, hopefully, in a Red Sox t-shirt) arrived in the gym at the appointed hour and proceeded (over the next couple of hours) to further convince this writer/ordained pastor/fan to the very real hope and probability for how he (just like the other Ruach writers in this issue and in issues still to come) already is an ambassador of faith in ways that can only serve to help us all become more open and responsive to the stirrings of the Spirit that seem to be re-forming and re-calling the Church5 to its fundamental purposes.
I recognize that this is an audacious claim. Yet, it is one made with great conviction:
• THE SHOE: Steph’s basketball shoes, with “I can do all things” hand penned on the sides, have garnered a fair amount of media attention during the NCAA tournament. As he put on a display of shooting excellence and indescribably amazing team play, this snippet of Scripture became for some (and albeit, very briefly) evidence of a hint of arrogance. However, as Steph would explain then (and today), it is simply impractical to write the entire verse around his sneakers.
In fact, what might have been left behind as a heart-warming footnote6 to Davidson’s romp through the NCAA tournament has become, for Steph, an opportunity for responding to one of his pastor’s invitations to continually study and exegete the Philippians 4:13 verse in the broader context of the whole letter.
• JOY: When “invited” to continually study and exegete Scripture, many 20-year olds (to say nothing of 30-something-year-old preachers) might not immediately claim joy as their first response. However, in telling this story to me, “joy” is the most accurate description of Steph’s words, face, and body language. Similarly, and in response to a question about where he “feels God’s call and God’s presence” off the basketball court, Steph lit up in describing an afternoon earlier in that week.
While still feeling somewhat crummy from his bad cold – some young children from his father’s foundation (his Dad is Dell Curry – former Charlotte Hornet and NBA star) spent the day under Steph’s care. In recounting how exciting it was for him to take them around campus and to share some of his thoughts, ideas, and wisdom with these kids, Steph admitted that he probably gained more from the experience than they did.
• THE CALL: Emboldened by Steph’s approachability, candor, good humor, and genuineness, I asked him about life beyond the NBA. Without hesitation, Steph gave a variety of insights that left me grateful for the gift of beginning to get to know this special young man.
First, he emphasized the absolute centrality of family in his life. His Mom – a favorite of the CBS camera crews during the NCAA tournament – has forever instilled within him an appreciation and commitment to education. (At one point in our conversation, I described my own foundational approach to ministry in all of its forms — service, proclamation of the Gospel, teaching, evangelism, etc. — as being relational. Upon hearing that word, Steph slapped the table saying: “Yes.”) He went on to describe how at Davidson College, he has discovered an inherent passion for the field of sociology. He went on to describe how the learning he is developing in his studies will likely enhance his ability to teach, to reach out to others, to lead, to serve, and to embody his faith.
His Dad has also clearly partnered with Steph’s mother to emphasize the importance of family and faith. His father’s many years as an NBA star provided Steph a venue where he learned that it was “cool” and OK to be open about your Christian faith — an important influence. Steph singles out Allan Houston, another longtime NBA star, as someone who provided him with this “permission” to be authentic and real in every way. Even now, Steph emphasizes that one of the most meaningful parts of his week-to-week life is connected to his participation in a five-man prayer group. At any time and for any reason, one of the five can send out word, like the “Batman signal,” that some prayer and accountability time is needed and, apparently, all five will come together in support and friendship.
Stephen Curry understands that basketball not only allows him to share his God given gifts with an adoring, admiring fan base. He appreciates how his talents provide him with a “platform” for sharing his faith with so many others. In invoking my own version of “The Red Wheelbarrow” at the outset of this article, I intended to do so in ways that functions much like a parable. There is meaning; there is mystery; there are truths; and there is (to me) an exhilarating pronouncement of hope. In a world that seems full with chaos – vessels of God’s Spirit (ruach) like Steph (and like so many other of his peers) – offer a stubbornly hope-filled reminder that the present times – just like the past and the future – are lovingly in God’s hands.
David S. Lindsay is pastor of the Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, S.C.
1Especially as compared with the caricatured “extremes” of Christianity that too often, in my opinion, grab the headlines and become the public “image” for what it means to profess and live out your faith.
2DISCLAIMER: I am a 1994 graduate of Davidson College. Disclaimer for my first disclaimer: In this particular instance, I’m well aware that “disclaiming” my association with Coach Bob McKillop, Davidson basketball, and the entire Davidson College community seems more self-serving than an act of self-disclosure. All I can say is: Thank goodness for the need for such journalistic integrity!
3Since the Outlook does not, yet, have a sports column – I will not use too much space to write about the amazing exploits of Stephen Curry on the basketball court. You need only to go to some of the Web information sites, enter his name, and your afternoon will be filled with a profound appreciation of this part of the Stephen Curry story.
4The ESPYS are the closest approximation of the Academy Awards for athletes.
5Again, here, I am referring broadly to “Church” as “The Body of Christ.”
6Pun intended. Apologies offered.