Holy Hoops

Upward Basketball was established to minister to the community and help kids grow in self esteem
Sunday, February 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:40 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

As a voice on the loudspeaker boomed their names, 10 boys clad in identical royal blue T-shirts and bright orange jerseys charged through a silver tunnel made of wire and paper that stretched out in front of them.

They leapt over a cloud of gray smoke that billowed in wisps at the tunnel’s exit and then darted onto a basketball court surrounded by their cheering families.

Although this energetic team bears the name Orlando Magic, the prevalence of boys who seem, at most, half the size of Magic star Tracy McGrady shows this is no NBA game. This Magic, a team of fifth- and sixth-grade boys, is one of 28 teams in Memorial Baptist Church’s Upward Basketball league.

League Established as an outreach to the community

The league, in its fourth year, has been enormously popular among parents and the 269 male and female participants, ages 6 to 12.

Upward Basketball was established as a means “to minister to the community, to help kids grow in self esteem and character and prove every child is a winner,” said Todd Pridemore, minister of outreach and activities at Memorial and overseer of the league’s operations.

The atmosphere at the Magic and Suns basketball game on Feb. 6, made it clear that the league is fulfilling its mission. Throughout the game, coaches constantly offered words of encouragement — not only to their teams but also to the opposing players.

Magic coach Craig O’Keefe softened calls to his team with words of affirmation, shouting, “Good job, Magic, make it hustle!” throughout the game.

When Dan Dohrer, a Magic player, sat glumly on the sidelines after a missed shot, the Suns’ coach, Josh Bindseil, told him “as long as you try, that’s all that matters.”

The league’s philosophy is that each child, regardless of skill, plays the same number of minutes each game. There is no benching the less-advanced players. Every child should have an opportunity to be involved, Pridemore said.

Although the Magic won the game, there were no gloating taunts from the team, nor were there angry protests from the Suns. The players shook hands and left it at that.

In fact, after every game, with the press of a button, the digital scoreboard is cleared — and all record of victory or defeat is erased. Pridemore said this is done so the children will not feel too much pressure to win.

Using this reasoning, Upward decided not to distribute trophies or ribbons. Instead, players are given a small star, about a half-inch in diameter, that can be ironed onto their T-shirt sleeves.

The stars come in five colors. Each color denotes a special skill or trait that was demonstrated by the player who received it.

Red is given in recognition of good defense, blue for best effort, gold for good sportsmanship and gray for best offense. The white star is the most prestigious award, and its recipients must demonstrate Christ-like behavior and attitudes.

Magic player Amand Hardiman proved he understood the meaning behind the white star when he said, “I ain’t getting one, ’cause I’m getting mad here.”

The white star is not the only symbol of Christianity at Upward games. All games are played within Memorial Baptist Church — it feels like a church, even when the ball swings through the hoop and the fans go wild.

During halftime, the Magic gathered into a narrow corridor, bare except for a large, vivid stained-glass window. When the boys became too rowdy during this break, O’Keefe called attention to the fact that “this is still a house of worship.”

And over the basketball court hangs a purple banner emblazoned with the word “Joy.” The idea is that, with Christ’s help, one should be joyful in all circumstances — win or lose. The players, coaches and referees huddle underneath the banner at the start of every game. They are led in a simple prayer that asks God to help the players to be kind and work together.

Reaching out to people through the help of Christ is clearly what this league is all about. All 50 coaches are volunteers.

O’Keefe said he loves seeing the kids’ smiles and knowing they enjoyed themselves. But he described the ultimate satisfaction in coaching as “introducing them to God, so every kid comes to know Christ.”

The popularity of Upward Basketball among both parents and children has prompted Calvary Baptist Church and Woodcrest Chapel to start similar leagues. This is the first year Woodcrest Chapel has been involved; Calvary started Upward Basketball three years ago and has about 220 participants.

Program helps parents communicate religisou values to children

Parents often seek out the program to further expose their children to religious values. “I like the Christian atmosphere and the teaching of the boys that winning isn’t everything,” said Greg Turner, father of Magic player Quinten Turner.

Jennifer Huntley, mother of the Magic’s Samuel Huntley, said she has been thrilled with the program’s “emphasis on sportsmanship and Christian values” and the way it teaches her son to be “a good player as well as a good man.”

It is through recommendations such as Turner’s and Huntley’s that Upward Basketball has a following. Pridemore said although Upward Basketball distributes some fliers in the fall, most of the families find out about the program through word of mouth.

Some families are initially attracted to the program because Upward games are never scheduled to conflict with church on Sunday mornings. The Midwest Sports Challenge league regularly holds games during church hours.

Regardless of what attracted the families to Upward Basketball, Pridemore said, parents constantly express their satisfaction with the program. Typical comments, he said, are that the league is well-organized, has sound teaching and is positive.

But the program is not focused on appeasing parents. When participants were asked their opinion of Upward Basketball, they all responded warmly, with wide smiles, and said they approved.

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