The Kansas Jayhawks and the North Carolina Tarheels met Monday night in New Orleans for the men’s national college basketball championship, and the game didn’t disappoint. It was exciting from start to finish. The teams battled to a 22-22 tie late in the first half until North Carolina went on an 18-3 run and headed into halftime with a 40-25 lead. Kansas exited the locker room and quickly took control, erasing the deficit and taking the lead less than halfway through the second 20 minutes. The rest of the game was a back-and-forth thriller, as it all came down to the final possession. Kansas walked away as national champions, the program’s fourth time, winning 72-69.
While the national headlines focused on Kansas’s victory, there’s an even more important story to be told here: the strong Christian faith of many of the players and coaches. At a time when it seems that nearly all universities are openly hostile to religion, it’s easy to wonder whether any student or employee’s faith can survive. The stories of faith told and lived out by these players and coaches on both sides of this championship game show that nothing is impossible with Christ.
Take, for instance, Kansas sophomore Jalen Wilson, who led his team in points scored. Last November, he found his season and his future in serious jeopardy when he was pulled over for driving under the influence. How did he overcome this adversity and press on? He doubled down on his faith, seeking forgiveness, reaching out to his family and his childhood pastor, and once again putting Christ first in his life. In late December, he praised God for bringing him through a tough year. “I love the life God has blessed me with and the people he has around me every day,” he wrote in a post on Instagram. “His plan is beautiful and I wouldn’t change a single thing. I pray this new year is full of even more blessings and new opportunities.”
And immediately after winning last night, Wilson gave God all the glory, tweeting: “Thank you God, you are the reason for it all.”
Kansas guard Joe Yesufu also credits God with getting him to the place he is at today. He explained that his family focused everything around the church and he credits his mother, in particular, for helping him to know Jesus and to believe in Him. “It’s definitely a blessing being here,” he said. “You know without Him, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And just being in the Final Four, not a lot of people have gotten to this point. I try to spread His Word through this game. It’s bigger than basketball. That’s the way I look at it.”
His teammate Jalen Coleman-Lands, who also grew up in a church-centered home, credited his Christian beliefs for his journey and success, saying, “My faith is the reason why I’m here today. It’s molded me into the man I am today. Being able to use this platform to spread His Word, being able to have an opportunity to still play is an opportunity for us to continue doing what God has given us the talents to do, which is to play and use our talents for the greater good.”
It’s not just the champs who are living out their Christian faith, though. Hubert Davis, who made it to the top of his sport in his very first year as head coach of UNC, has been refreshingly open about his commitment to Christ.
At his introductory press conference last year, Davis, who played at UNC before going on to play professionally in the NBA, gave his testimony. “[Faith is] the most important thing to me,” he told the media. “My faith and foundation is firmly in my relationship with Jesus.”
He recalled how that hadn’t always been the case. His mother, a strong Christian, had begged her son to go to church when he was growing up, but he wasn’t interested. “She used to always say that Jesus had a plan for me, plans for a hope and a future, plans not to harm you and plans to prosper you,” Davis explained, noting her go-to Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11. “And growing up, I didn’t understand it and I didn’t listen to it.”
That attitude only got worse when tragedy hit. Just two days before Davis’s junior year of high school, his mother died. He was devastated, and losing her caused him to turn completely away from God. “I grew a tremendous hate towards God, and for the two years that I was here at Carolina, the same way. And the reason being is, I just couldn’t understand all the things that my mom was telling me about Jesus loving me and having a plan and a purpose for me, and I didn’t understand any reason why He would take away my mom.”
When Davis started playing for UNC’s basketball team in 1988, his head coach Dean Smith and an assistant coach encouraged the players to go to church. Davis went, though only to make his coaches happy, but at some point, he felt his heart change and his eyes open. “I started to understand what my mom was talking about. I started to understand the sacrifice that Jesus made for me and how much He loves me, and two days before my junior year of college, I became a Christian,” Davis said.
Now, his focus is on Christ and the blessings of this life and the next. “Instead of being upset that Jesus has taken away the most beautiful person in my life in my mom, I’m thankful every day that He gave me the best mom that I could ever have for 16 years.… My faith in Christ is the foundation of who I am.”
When Davis went back to the Tar Heels as an assistant coach in 2012, it was because of his faith, he said. “The reason why I made this decision [to return to North Carolina as an assistant], No. 1, is this is where I felt like Christ wanted me and my family to go. Wherever He wants us to go, I’m following Him. I’m not going any other direction.… This is not a job, it feels like a mission field, a ministry opportunity.”
He added, “I’m here to serve and shed light on and be an example for Christ.”
And so, after losing last night’s championship game, Davis wasn’t focused on the scoreboard but on something much greater. As reporters talked and wrote about what they saw as a bitter loss, Davis hugged his players, encouraged them, and pointed to God’s provision. He reminded everyone how the season had been full of so many blessings. “I told the team…. I feel like I’m supposed to feel disappointed, but I’m just filled with such thankfulness and I’m just so proud of them,” he told a reporter afterwards.
Although it may seem that younger generations are rejecting Christ and that all the celebrities and athletes you enjoy watching are opposed to your beliefs, many still serve the Lord, whether they be coaches, professional athletes, or college players. The influence that’s prevalent during the pursuit of a college education and sports career on a secular, woke campus is not enough to overcome the power of the Gospel. Whether it be the influence of a coach or family or hitting rock bottom and realizing that Christ is the only answer, many young people are still hearing and believing the message of salvation.
And as these players and coaches are using their platform to glorify God, there is no doubt that God will use their testimonies and examples to lead others to embrace the gospel and glorify Him as well.