Spirited Competition

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

In the take-no-prisoners world that is sports, coaches and athletes talk a lot about setting the tone of the game. Hit the opponent square in the mouth and he’ll back down, so goes the conventional wisdom.
If Jay Nanney had been thinking that way, he might have taunted his opponent when, on a recent Monday night, early in the first quarter of a basketball game against Auburn Baptist Church, the 6’2” forward for Belden Baptist swatted the smaller man’s first shot against the gym wall.
Instead of taunting the player, Nanny, who also coaches a boys’ team at Belden, simply turned his back, and without so much as smirking, got ready to defend the inbounds pass.
“He wouldn’t dream of showing that boy up,” said Tim Hamlet, an acquaintance of Nanney’s who sat in the stands watching the game. “If he thought he’d embarrassed him or hurt him, he wouldn’t run the floor without making it right,” he said.
Sportsmanship and Christian goodwill have been hallmarks of the Lee County Church League for three decades.
From second graders all the way up through men’s fast-break, the 123 teams that comprise the league share one thing in common. They play for the glory of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of athletic competition.

Faith and sportsmanship
The Lee County League is a bit of a misnomer, or perhaps a historical carryover. In 1971 a handful of Lee County Baptist churches started playing each other. Today the league includes 32 churches in three counties. Teams from New Albany, Blue Springs and Pontotoc are among those each week trading jump shots with Lee County churches.
There are teams for everyone from second grade boys and girls playing together to senior adults. There are teams for men and women, boys and girls. There’s fast break, where a team is limited only by its own cardiovascular endurance, and slow break, where the point guard has to count to “five-Mississippi” before bringing the ball across mid-court.
Over the 10-game season, nine church gymnasiums in the Tupelo area play host, including Harrisburg Baptist Church, Tupelo Free Will Baptist Church, Tupelo First Baptist Church, Calvary Baptist Church, Auburn Baptist Church, Tupelo First United Methodist Church, St. Luke United Methodist Church, Tupelo First Presbyterian Church and St. James Catholic Church
From December to the first week of March, on any given Monday, Tuesday or Thursday evening, or Saturday morning, games are going on all over town.
The point is for everybody to have fun, and there are mercy rules in place to make sure they do. For example, everybody gets to play one full, uninterrupted quarter. If a junior high team gets up by 10 points, they have to let their opponents shoot unguarded beyond the free-throw line.
All this doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a league for weenies.
“We don’t discourage physicality – don’t get me wrong,” said a laughing David Smith, the senior adults minister at Harrisburg who serves as the league’s director.
Some of the games get pretty intense, and bumps and bruises are just part of sports.
On the other hand, in the church league the players take even the hardest knocks in a spirit of fun.
The week before Christmas, the 10th-12th grade boys of Lawndale Presbyterian took on Harrisburg. It was a close game, with plenty of bumping and jostling. Midway through the third period the referee blew his whistle, jabbing his hand, palm flat, to indicate an infraction.
The ref pointed toward young Jackson Neighbors, and immediately the slender Lawndale guard raised his hand and cracked a little smile.
The folks in the stands didn’t seem surprised. Neighbors’ overzealous attempt to steal the ball from a Harrisburg player had earned him his fifth foul. He’d have to sit out the rest of the game, but his ejection was greeted with cheers and laughter from the bleachers.
“He’s the enforcer,” said Bill Smallwood, laughing, as his own son, Carter, prepared to enter the game.
“Well, he plays soccer, so he’s used to being physical. What can I say?” said the Rev. Kurt Cooper, Neighbors’ coach.
As with any competition, there’s a lot of emotion and excitement in the church league games.
Moments after Neighbors fouled out, Lawndale Presbyterian went on a nine-point tear. Marvin Fairley made a lay-up and drew a foul. Then Drew Wray stole the ball from a Harrisburg player and made another lay-up. On the ensuing possession the point guard kicked the ball out to Raybric Stevens, and when the 17-year-old knocked down a corner jump-shot the Harrisburg gym erupted like Freedom Hall at the height of a Kentucky Wildcat rally.
Lawndale capped the run at the end of the third period, with Austin Pillow sinking a jumper from the corner just as the buzzer sounded.
When the shot fell, Pillow pranced like a Parisian war pony. He ran the sideline slapping hands with anybody, friend or stranger, who offered their palm. He even high-fived the boys at the scorer’s table. Nobody – not even the Harrisburg players – begrudged Pillow his moment of glory.
That sense of enthusiasm and good sportsmanship pervades the league.
By halftime of the Belden-Auburn game, it was becoming clear that it wasn’t Auburn’s night.
Despite the lopsided score, when the buzzer sounded to end the second period the players gathered at half-court and bowed their heads. For a few minutes they completely laid aside their competitive spirit, and a holy hush fell over the gym.
At each game, one team is responsible for leading a brief devotion. On this night, Nanney, who had been Auburn’s nemesis, smiled on his brothers across the floor. He talked about the importance of good will and of setting an example.
“We’re witnesses to others through our attitudes,” he later added.

Taking a chance
Perhaps the finest example of athleticism meeting sportsmanship is the team known as Calvary Rock.
The team takes its name from the church’s apartment ministry, an outreach that each week brings in teens from low-income neighborhoods for food, fun and a spiritual message.
A few months back Jeff Overstreet, who’d been volunteering with the ministry, decided to pull aside a few boys and form a team.
It didn’t take Overstreet long to realize what he had. The boys, ranging in age from 15 to 17, are wonders of athleticism.
Even though it’s not allowed in the church league, three of the starters can dunk the ball on a regulation goal.
At a recent Tuesday night practice, forward Devonta Fields, probably the most athletic even among his strong teammates, moved the ball up the floor like he was skating on ice. At 6’2”, with a breath-taking vertical leap and arms that seem almost too long for his body, Fields looked at times like he was shooting down at the goal.
Guard Renshay Dean looked for all the world like a young Scotty Pippin, exploding through the defense, moving with a fluid ease that seemed to make all the players around him a little better.
It’s hard not to be awed by the boys’ athleticism, but perhaps more striking is their insightful understanding of their singular place within the league.
During practice, Overstreet, a 25-year-old banker and Mississippi State grad who shares coaching duties with Mario Hilliard, is the only white man in the gym, a fact that makes for some funny inside jokes between him and his players.
The league itself is almost entirely white, and the boys of Calvary Rock know, like it or not, that they’re representatives of their race. They also know that an all-black team in a nearly all-white league will have to deal with certain expectations and stereotypes.
“People might expect us to be cursing and talking trash, but if we play like gentlemen we show everybody that we’re good sportsmen,” said Dean.
“A lot of it is about self-control and composure,” said center Chezney Baker.
Much like the superstar trio of Lebron James, Dewayne Wade and Chris Bosch in Miami, it took the Calvary Rock boys a while to gel as a team, despite their athleticism.
They squeaked by with a one-point victory in their opener against a team they should have defeated soundly.
In their second game they played better as a unit.
Overstreet chalks it up to the lessons the league teaches about discipline and working together.
Ultimately, the coach said, Calvary Rock is a ministry. Low grades are one of the reasons many of the boys can’t play at school. Their neighborhoods aren’t safe places for boys their age to roam in the evenings. The church league gives them a safe environment in which to build relationships and display their athletic prowess.
“I’m inspired by these boys. I love them all, and we’re having a great time,” said Overstreet.
A betting man might figure Calvary Rock will run the table in their seven remaining games, but Overstreet said it really isn’t about winning. In fact, he said, they’ve won already, by daring to do something different and by taking a chance on each other.
Overstreet couldn’t help but use an aphorism from his profession to sum things up. Flashing a mischievous smile he said, “No risk, no return.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662)
678-1510 or galen.holley@journalinc.com.