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Final Four: Faith touches the hardwood

SAN ANTONIO (BP)–NCAA college basketball is closing one of its most suspenseful seasons in scenic San Antonio with a Final Four of college basketball royalty: North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas and Memphis.

Saturday’s two semifinal games will match UCLA against Memphis and Kansas against North Carolina. The two winners play Monday night for the 2008 NCAA Championship.

Among the crowds in San Antonio will be a sizable representation of coaches and players who, on the basketball court and beyond, see Jesus Christ as life’s ultimate champion.

“I’m always honored to be part of so many of my fellow Christians at this great basketball gathering,” said TNT announcer Ernie Johnson who will be emceeing the 13th annual Legends of the Hardwood breakfast Saturday morning sponsored by Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Former North Carolina and NBA star Hubert Davis will be awarded the John Wooden Keys to Life Award as a man of faith on and off the court.

Several prominent college players and coaches will be featured at the breakfast, which is expected to draw a crowd of 1,500 people just hours before the Final Four semifinal games at the nearby Alamodome.

While Wooden, a devout Christian and former UCLA coaching legend who won 10 NCAA titles, will be unable to make the banquet because of a recent fall and hospital stay, the Keys to Life award will be presented to Davis by Wooden’s daughter, Nan Wooden Muehlhausen.

CBS lead announcer Jim Nantz described Wooden as the perfect choice by the two Christian organizations for honoring basketball’s faith-filled coaches and players.

“He [Wooden] had always a saintly aura, someone who lived at such a high level morally and ethically,” Nantz said.

“I came to realize that when all of sports is over and spoken, how you are as a man and the life you live in and out of the spotlight is all that really counts,” Nantz said.

The Saturday breakfast also will feature USA basketball’s 2008 Olympics top executive, Jerry Colangelo, chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns.

Nantz, who will be broadcasting his 17th straight Final Four, said he is happy to spotlight the many positive stories in this year’s semifinals and championship game.

One of the stories Nantz and his CBS team likely will tell is of a preacher’s kid who made it to the sport’s ultimate weekend as a head coach. UCLA coach Ben Howland’s dad, Bob, was the longtime senior pastor of one of the largest Presbyterian churches in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Kansas head coach Bill Self and several member of his Kansas team have professed their faith in Christ in the past and will have the opportunity to voice it anew in the national spotlight.

Another big part of the Final Four faith activities will be Friday afternoon’s Athletes in Action Coaches Forum. Among those expected to speak are Baylor’s Scott Drew and Washington State’s Tony Bennett who led their teams to outstanding seasons and postseason NCAA play.

Also scheduled to speak at the forum will be former Baylor head coach Dave Bliss, who was forced to resign for covering up illegal payments to basketball team members in 2003 and for his part in attempting the hinder the investigation of the murder of a Baylor team member.

Bliss, who is out of coaching and living in Denver, has stayed out of the spotlight for most part since then. But in a Colorado media interview earlier this winter he said he wants to say he’s sorry to the coaches for the hurt and stain he left on the college coaching profession.

“Dave Bliss will be talking about the ethics and pressures of college coaching,” Athletes in Action spokesperson Katie Campbell said.

Several evangelistic groups will use the NCAA Hoop City public basketball carnival as a chance for street witnessing in downtown San Antonio, and several local churches are planning special Final Four services, testimonies and outreach on Sunday. And Christian alternative metal band Flyleaf will play at the NCAA World’s Largest Pep Rally, a free event near the Alamodome that will include spirit squads from each Final Four school.
Art Stricklin is a correspondent for BPSports, on the Web at www.BPSports.net.

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