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Faith at the Final Four

I know what you’re thinking. Really? Classic Wheaton student, finding a way to force the “square peg” of Christianity into the “round hole” of the Final Four. But, I want to give you a fair warning: this isn’t that kind of article. I went to the Final Four with an open mind to find the most undercovered story possible. I wanted to unearth something big publications like ESPN and USA Today were missing. This is what no one’s talking about. And most of all, this is what matters.
What motivates basketball players? The Final Four represents the best four college teams in the nation, but if these players are not being paid — besides scholarships which are pocket change when compared to NBA salaries — then why do they play?
For some, it’s the prospect of playing professionally. College basketball is simply a stepping stone on the road to a much loftier goal. Other players at the Final Four want to be the best basketball player ever, and that’s what drives them. But, being the “best ever” is a near-impossible goal that could leave athletes distraught when they fail to reach it.
Other players at the Final Four think a bit differently. One of these players is North Carolina’s star forward, Justin Jackson. The 6’8” junior will be a Top 15 selection in the NBA draft this year and averaged 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists this year for the #1-seeded Tar Heels.
Jackson is also an outspoken Christian. In his Twitter bio, he describes himself as “a Christ follower who’s in desperate need of [his] Savior, Jesus Christ each and everyday.” He writes different messages on his shoes to remind him of his ultimate mission to “play for God.” “Every time I step on the court I say a prayer and it’s His will, not mine,” Jackson told the Christian Broadcasting Network during his team’s run to the National Championship last year.
He also frequently tweets encouragement to his 54.6K followers including gems like, “‘He must increase; I must decrease.’ -John 3:30” or “I’m broken, but blessed to have the best repairman you can find!! #ThankYouJesus” or even “So much respect to @davidboudia and @Steele_Johnson for being so bold with their faith!! #GodIsTheReason.”
Jackson’s faith began with his parents who raised him in a Christian family. Growing up, Jackson kept this faith at the center of his life and was known for being genuine and humble. His best friends were all involved in Jackson’s homeschool community and attended the same church, Tomball Bible, where Jackson’s father was an elder, according to Wheaton junior Caitlin Post.
Post lived in the same part of town as Jackson and the two had numerous mutual friends. In fact, Post even went to senior prom with Jackson.
“His fame has never been something that’s changed his friendships from the little that I have seen,” she explained. “It was never about how good he was at basketball … it was always how kind he was.”
Much of this is due to Jackson’s family, especially his parents who are both devout Christians. In a Players’ Tribune article, Jackson explained that he is most grateful to his parents for introducing him to his faith because it’s “kept [him] grounded and shown [him] what’s really important in life.” Post agreed, saying that she had little doubt that the NBA would change Jackson or his Christian faith. She explained, “ From what I know, from who he’s friends with and how much he relies on and loves his family … Jackson will be very firmly planted during his time in the NBA.”
Back in high school, Jackson set a very similar goal for himself as well. Clearly, his faith has always come first.
“The big thing for me is to show that you can be a big-time athlete and still live for Christ,” Jackson said in an interview with USA Today High School Sports in 2013. “If I have the opportunity to make it to the pros and be on that type of platform, I want to show people how a Christian acts and lead by example.”
Jackson isn’t the only one who puts an emphasis on playing for Christ. Teammates Joel Berry, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks are all Christians, as well. To show his faith in a public setting, Berry consistently retweets Joel Osteen tweets.
Hicks recognizes the blessing that God allows him to play and he tries to always show that on the court in the way he plays and acts, such as “letting [his] play speak for itself” and not trash talking other players. His Twitter bio reads “God First.”
In an interview with WSOCTV a few days ago, Meeks’ great-grandmother, Rosalie Davis Meeks, explained how much faith meant to the family. “If you serve God, this is what happens,” she said. Meeks and Jackson are both friends of Christian rapper Lecrae, who congratulated the two on Twitter after the National Championship game.
For these players, faith has a visible effect in their lives: It gives each of these NBA prospects a purpose greater than their own success and an identity that supersedes their accomplishments on the court. As Jackson explained to the members of Athletes in Action in Chapel Hill, “You have bad games and lose games, but with Christ, he never fails.”
Yet for the countless other players on these Final Four rosters who won’t be going professional on these Final Four rosters, their purposes for playing range from loving the game of basketball to enjoying being a part of a team to being able to compete at the highest level of collegiate sports.
But what about when the ball stops bouncing for these players after four or five years of college? How do they fill the hole left by basketball’s exit from their lives?
Like Jackson, Oregon freshman starting guard Payton Pritchard has used his faith as a reason to step on the court since he was a teenager.
“When I was in high school, I was involved with all of the FCA stuff and then also went to church with my family,” Pritchard explained to The Wheaton Record at the Final Four. His Twitter bio reflects many of the same values that Jackson holds. It reads, “God, family, basketball.”
Similar to his first-round opponent, Justin Jackson, Pritchard’s faith originated with his close ties with his family.
“Family is big because they’re always with me wherever I go, supporting me,” he said before Oregon’s Final Four game. “I have a huge family and we all live in a tight community, so family has always been big to me.” In fact, his entire family all made the trek down from the West Linn, Ore. area in order to cheer on Pritchard — with matching “Pay Pay” t-shirts to complete the ensemble.
“We feel very blessed,” his grandmother explained to The Record. “As a family, we always say, ‘God is first.’”
Not to be omitted from the list, Gonzaga also has a large number of Christians on their roster due to the fact that the school is a private Roman Catholic universtiy. Starting with the team’s best player and future NBA lottery pick, Nigel Williams-Goss, who recently tweeted “#AllGloryToGod,” many of the Gonzaga players have similar faith-based mindsets like Jackson and Pritchard.
At times, the integration of faith and athletics seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet as many of these athletes display on a daily basis, their faith plays a very real role in their lives, both on and off the basketball court.
But it’s important to not simply dismiss their off-the-court lives, either. Each player is more than just a jersey number on the court or a row of statistics in the box score. They are humans, first and foremost, just like the people who watch them compete. As humans, each of their stories is valuable. People love learning about the lives of other people, especially the things that truly matter.
And for these players, it’s faith that ultimately matters — regardless of the scores or storylines that accompany the Final Four frenzy.

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