The National Basketball Association has dunking sensation Vince Carter. College basketball boasts coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski. But the Upward Basketball League lays claim to a far greater presence on the basketball court — 120,000 girls and boys learning about Jesus and jump shots.
Through this unique ministry, more than 600 churches this year will have the opportunity to teach children fundamental basketball skills while also sharing with them about salvation.
"Upward Basketball is not a traditional basketball league," said Shane McKenzie, Upward Unlimited vice president of operations. "Its primary focus is outreach. It's not about championships. It's not about trophies. What we're about is changed lives and creating opportunities to share the Lord."
The Upward Basketball season consists of eight games and ten practices. Boys and girls in grades one through six are encouraged to participate. There is a fee for a child to join the league, but kids receive a bag full of basketball goodies. Scholarships are available for children who need financial assistance.
Caz McCaslin, president of Upward Unlimited, created Upward Basketball in 1986 at his church in Spartanburg, S.C. In 1994, Upward Basketball consisted of just one participating church but enrollment had boomed to more than 700 children.
"A friend told me, 'You don't need another gym. You need a 1,000 more gyms,'" McCaslin recalled.
Thus, by 1996, the ministry had grown to sixty-four churches and more than 13,000 children. Each year since, the number of churches and children participating has doubled. Today, 610 churches nationwide are involved in Upward Basketball.
Based on decision cards and questionnaires returned to Upward Unlimited, the average number of people saved per church is twenty-two.
Head coaches give their teams a devotional midway through each practice. At each Saturday game, a member of the sponsoring church walks to half-court and gives a five-minute testimony to parents.
"People are encouraged, motivated and excited about telling their story," McCaslin said. "Upward Basketball is structured so that a lot of people can contribute bits and pieces. There are so many different areas to get involved."
Churches encourage their members to serve as coaches, assistant coaches, halftime speakers, referees, commissioners, directors, and prayer partners. The season culminates with a special awards night at which every child receives an award. Parents, grandparents, and friends are invited to the ceremony, which is held in the church. At every awards night in every church across the country, the message of salvation is shared.
McCaslin relates one testimony in which a minister shared with him the amazement of looking out over his church and "realizing there were more lost people than had ever been in their sanctuary before."
One hundred days prior to awards night, every church seeks to recruit 100 people to pray for their fellowship's Upward Basketball ministry.
"So you can be in Hong Kong and still be praying for your Upward Basketball in South Carolina," McCaslin said. "It begins to involve people in the church who have never been involved before."
Upward Basketball also reaches out to people who would otherwise never be reached. The program is successful in part because the United States is such a sports-oriented society.
"To reach the lost, you have to think 'lost,'" said former pastor Greg Sandoval who now is devoting his ministry to Upward Basketball. "You have to think, 'What would they be attracted to?' The uniforms are great. The posters are great. It's marketed very well."
Sandoval, who served at Bethel Church in San Jose, Calif., moved with his family to Las Vegas in December to start Upward Basketball leagues. Nevada currently has no programs.
"My goal is to plant as many leagues in Las Vegas as possible," Sandoval said. "That's where I'm going to start."
A recreation center isn't even necessary for a church to run an Upward Basketball program. First Baptist Church, Daytona Beach, Fla., uses multiple courts around the community for practice and for games.
While waiting for the completion of its life center facility, Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., used its chapel as a basketball court. Portable basketball goals were set up and tape was laid down for out-of-bounds and free throw lines.
Hunter Street began its league in 1996 with 114 kids and this year has 400 children participating in its now maxed-out facility.
"I had been doing church recreation for eighteen years," said Bill Palmer, Hunter Street's family life minister, "and this is the best thing that has come along in sports in all my years of ministry. If it weren't for Upward Basketball, so many people would have never stepped into a Baptist church."
Just as compelling are the testimonies of people within the church community, as well as those beyond the sanctuary walls. McCaslin received an e-mail that demonstrates how Upward Basketball has impacted the lives of people and children within the church. The man wrote:
"A boy in our church loved to play Upward Basketball. He would play his heart out because he loved it. A few weeks back he fell into a coma from bleeding on the brain. He died on Thanksgiving. His father asked anyone who was going to send flowers to do something else instead. He asked them to donate the money that they were going to spend on flowers to go towards scholarships for Upward Basketball. [The boy's] father said that Upward was one of the few things he loved to do."
The boy's story is just one of many testimonies associated with Upward Basketball. The program continues to impact churches and communities all across America.
"We're just using a ball to share Christ," said Sandoval, "and we're reaching people we've never reached before."