Champion Basketball Players Take Faith Seriously
Just before a campus-wide reception in their honor on March 25 (see video), members of the most-winning men's basketball team in the history of EMU were asked to fill out a one-page questionnaire on the role that the Christian faith did, or did not, play in their season.
In their anonymous responses, all 13 of the respondents said they viewed themselves as Christians, and almost all of them offered examples of how their faith influences the way they act on and off the court.
Leading by example
"I try to show my faith by my example," wrote one player. "This means working as hard as I can to fulfill my God-given abilities. I compete as hard as I can while showing good sportsmanship and unselfishness and creating relationships with my teammates." Six other players mentioned the importance of being "unselfish" and displaying "good sportsmanship."
One said he shows respect for others "by not using profanity or violence," on or off the court. Another said he prays to get through tough times on the court and seeks "to be a model citizen on and off the court." Several spoke about trying to help others, with one adding "even if they don't want the help."
This 2009-10 season, these young men attracted wide attention for their amazing performances on the basketball court. Their season ended in the D-III National Championships, where EMU wound up ranked No. 4 in the country, with 25 wins and 5 losses.
One player wrote: "I remind myself that people are always watching me, on and off the court. I want people to know I am a Christian through my actions and in the manner that they see me."
He added, "We are taught to be good basketball players but, more importantly, we are taught to be good people."
Coaches are good models for Christian living
Referring to Dean, one player wrote: "He makes sure everyone is good and pushes me to be the best on the court and outside of the gym." Another said that the coaches "show us the right way, or the positive way, to approach things in life." Others wrote about team prayers, Bible studies, speakers invited from the Seminary or from churches, and chapel attendance modeled by the coaches.
Asked how he influences his men, Dean says, "It's not my responsibility to save them - God will do that. I just plant plenty of seeds; I want them to get closer to God and closer to Jesus."
The 100% positive responses offered on the anonymous surveys awakened a hunger to hear "on the record" from a player or two. Dean suggested approaching the only senior on the team, Austin Twine.
Austin Twine - the lone senior
Dean explained that after Austin's freshman year in 2005-2006, there was a kind of mass exodus from the team, with key playmakers quitting for a combination of academic reasons, desire to play elsewhere, and personal issues. But Austin hung in with Dean, making him the only player from that era to play for Dean all four years and to be on track to graduate with his class.
Austin said he had the opportunity back then to transfer to a Division II college where he could have played both football and basketball, but he liked "the type of guy he [Dean] is. He made the difference. He stayed true to his Christian beliefs, even though hard times."
Austin also praised the EMU faculty and staff. "You can come and approach them. They are always willing to help you out. They aren't just here to teach; we consider them friends. I've had some personal issues off the court, and they would have lunch with me, just to let me talk about it. This was a big plus about coming to EMU."
Austin said he grew up going to church once or twice a week because his father, Nicky Twine, is the pastor of Montvale First Baptist Church in Bedford County, about 100 miles south of EMU.
In a phone interview, Nicky said his son had lost beloved grandparents while he was an EMU student and that the college community helped him cope with his grief.
Just before the postseason tournaments, Austin also lost a spot as one of the leading players on the court when he suffered one of the most devastating knee injuries an athlete can have, a torn anterior cruciate ligament. This ACL injury requires surgical repair and extensive rehabilitation before an athlete can resume fully playing a season or two later.
Austin's parents consoled him with the thought that he had enjoyed almost four full years of playing college basketball and had helped his teammates get to the point of competing for an NCAA title. "Sometimes you don't get to live in the house you helped build," his father told him. "You just drive by and admire it."
Austin's parents, who typically drove five hours round-trip to see him play in virtually every basketball game, home and away, of his college career, said that "this was just another mountain for Austin to climb, with the help of God." "Life for Austin is just getting started," his father added. "Athletics helped him to get a good education, and now God is turning his life in another direction."
Finding value in relationships
Under Dean's leadership, the basketball team regularly works with Special Olympics basketball players. This is where they met Josh Reid, a young man whose mother works at EMU.
Josh became an unpaid assistant to the team, initially running the clock during practices and gathering up the athletic gear, but gradually moving into the highly responsible position of being the official videographer for the team. Josh travels on the team bus, stays in the hotel with the team, and is in every respect a valued team member.
The relationships built through the Special Olympics and other venues are, for Dean, as important to the formation of his players as their skill-building exercises in practice.
Dean said he has two Bible verses that speak to him both on and off the job. ""For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future' (Jeremiah 29:11)." "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)."