The Race to the Heart of a Child
Upward Basketball Makes a Profound Difference in the Lives of Hundreds of Kids in the Sandhills
It’s a scene you’d only see in a movie: we’re late in the game, and the star player is streaking down the court, dribbling with skill and purpose through a clear lane to an easy basket. Just when you think she’s going to take her shot, she stops, looks to her right, and catches sight of a smaller player – one who’s been shy, timid, and doesn’t possess the mad skills of her teammate. In a show of uncommon team spirit, the star passes her the ball. With the encouragement of all her teammates, coaches, and parents in the stands – including those whose children play for the other team – our timid player heads toward the basket, she shoots, and she…
Well, it sounds like something you’d only see in a movie. But in fact, this is the kind of scene that plays out again and again on Fridays and Saturdays in the fall at Southern Middle School. It’s Upward Basketball. And if you’ve never heard of it, well – then you’ve probably never heard of anything like it.
Back in 2008, the Men’s Group at Aberdeen First Baptist Church was looking for new ways to provide outreach and ministry in their local community. One of the members shared what he knew of a program called Upward Sports, “one of the most amazing programs” he’d ever seen. Not long after that discussion, Rod Fleming moved to the area from South Carolina, where he was involved with Upward Sports in the state where it’s headquartered. Founded in 1995 by Caz McCaslin, the mission of Upward is “Promoting the Discovery of Jesus Through Sports.” They accomplish this in part by providing children with “skills for the sports arena and values for life.” And as McCaslin states, a large part of the mission is to “reclaim youth sports for the benefit of the athlete.”
Fleming readily confirmed the value of the program, and it resonated with church members who also knew the potential that sports have for transforming kids’ lives. With the help of the group’s members – including lifelong basketball devotee Larry Richardson – they founded the local Upward Basketball league.
“More than anything, it’s a way of introducing children to Jesus Christ,” says Richardson, who serves as the league’s director. “And we present athletics in a manner that teaches kids that every player matters, that there is no ‘I’ in team.”
This isn’t just talk and wishful thinking. Upward volunteers conduct a detailed process whereby they all but guarantee that every player on every team will make meaningful contributions and know how it feels to succeed as an athlete. The league performs a pre-season skill evaluation for each child, and when the league is formed, talent is equally distributed. Since the rules mandate man-to-man defense, every player gets an armband that signifies who they are to match up against on the other team to ensure equal ability in talent and size.
“Bottom line,” says Richardson, “it makes every player 100% relevant in the game.”
And while this is a refreshing way to approach youth sports, the real value comes in how sports are used to reach out to youth, develop character, and engender compassion. Regular devotionals are part of the games and the practices. Coaches teach a wide variety of concepts, from passing the ball to respecting one’s parents. And the kids truly care about each other. During one game that Richardson was refereeing in the first or second season the league was in existence, one of the young players approached him with a concern that a teammate of hers, a young man with autism, had yet to score a basket that season. Richardson took matters into his own hands, picked the player up, and made sure the young man got to dunk the ball in the basket.
“His mom says he still talks about that to this day,” says Richardson. And all because of the empathetic kindness of a five-year old teammate.
As a father, Greg Davis can’t recommend the program highly enough. He has been involved for about five years, when his kids began to play.
“I think the biggest thing is that it gives kids an opportunity, no matter what their skill is,” says Davis, who is now also the league’s co-director. “It’s a good league to learn basketball, but it’s a great league to learn about Christ.”
He says his daughters have made friends with kids they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to know, and as a coach, he watched with great joy as the team he coached three years ago, filled with shy and timid children, learned how to play and grew in both their abilities and their relationships with each other. “They were eager to share devotions, and they just had such fun.”
Richardson agrees that the personal connections made through the program are powerful to witness. “By the end of the season, the coaches hate to see the kids go. They build such strong bonds and relationships. One kindergartener even gave his coach flowers at the end of the season, and wanted to know if he could visit her home.”
Currently in its tenth season, Upward serves around 325 kids through 100 volunteers each week. Practices are held Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and games are played Fridays and Saturdays. “It pretty much takes up your life for a few months,” laughs Richardson. “But we’d want it no other way.”
Going back to the founder’s statement that Upward intends to reclaim youth sports for the benefit of the athlete: it’s clear that the focus is 100% on reaching out to the kids with love.
“This is a race to the heart of a child,” says Richardson, “and the first one to get there wins. We live in a time where so many kids are out on their own and need the kind attention and support of adults committed to their growth – physical, emotional, and spiritual. Ultimately our program is about making a difference in someone’s life. And you know, we get as much or more out of it as the kids do.”
Back to our movie. Our timid player heads toward the basket. She shoots. Everyone waits with baited breath as the ball coasts through the air in slow motion.
Does she make the basket?
It doesn’t matter. Because in this league, everyone scores.
by Sue Kemple
Player evaluations begin on July 31, practices begin the last week of August, and games kick off September 15. Interested in learning more? Go to www.AberdeenFBC.org/Upward, or you can call the church office at 910- 944-1421, or director Larry Richardson at 910-690-4700.