Every March the sporting world turns its collective attention to the world of U.S. college basketball for the sport’s biggest enchilada, the NCAA Men’s Tournament. After a long, cold winter the frenzy and fanaticism of the road to the Final Four seems to get everyone’s spring fever started. Add to this the media’s feverish attention and it seems as if all attention has been ambushed by the NCAA national basketball championship.
One area of intense coverage you are less likely to see, though, is a profile of an athlete’s committed Christian faith. Amidst all the hoopla (forgive the corny pun!) about the Naismith Award, Sweet Sixteen/Elite Eight/Final Four, and regional rankings, there are some inspiring behind-the-scenes looks at the faith of a number of the players. Honestly, in my eyes, it’s more fundamental than points in the paint.
Enter Cody Zeller, the 7-foot, 240 lb. forward for the Big Ten’s Indiana Hoosiers. Turning down offers from Division I powerhouses, Butler and North Carolina, Zeller took his big frame and even bigger faith to a beleaguered Hoosier team in 2011 that was enduring 3 years of downfall due to recruiting violations. His high school on-court resume instantly caused him to be dubbed the “saviour” of Indiana basketball. The humble Zeller is quick to point out, however, that there is only one Saviour, Jesus Christ. After an amazing turnaround year in the 2011/2012 season, the Indiana Hoosiers have enjoyed many a week at the #1 ranking in the current season. A crowd favourite, Zeller looks to his Lord to maintain a proper focus and to stay clean.
Another name to watch in this year’s tournament is Ohio State point guard, Aaron Craft. The first team Academic All-American stays spiritually fit through Bible studies on campus with Athletes In Action, a sports ministry dedicated to growing athletes in their faith. He plays with passion on the court, and has quite the following with the Buckeye faithful, but his first love is Jesus Christ. Such focus and perspective make Craft a key component to the nationally ranked Ohio State’s winning tradition. (Note: for stories on these and other NCAA basketball players, see the excellent reviews at www.sportsspectrum.com).
Is it really possible to go away to a big university, coupled with the enormous pressure of celebrity status and performance expectations, and still come out with your faith intact? It’s a tall order, for sure, but perhaps it is precisely that strong faith that is what’s powering the engine in the first place. It takes a lot of hard work, teamwork, and perseverance for any team to make it to the Final Four. But it takes faith to keep the focus and perspective while you’re there. Both Zeller’s Hoosiers and Craft’s Buckeyes lost last year (Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen to eventual winner, Kentucky, and Ohio State in the Final Four to Kansas) but their faith didn’t foul out in the process. Expect the same spiritual results this year. Keep your eyes on faith’s Final Four!