March Madness is on. The excitement of the Big Dance combined with bubbling alma-mater pride will draw thousands of college basketball fans to San Antonio, site of this year's Men's Final Four weekend.
But for some, the highlight of the weekend will occur off the court.
A Breakfast for Champions -- and for Life Change
Mark Hiepler (above) annually attends the NCAA Men’s Final Four, but 4 years ago, the successful attorney from the Los Angeles area also went to the Legends of the Hardwood Breakfast. Co-hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Cru, guest speakers from the world of basketball explore the question of "What is more important than winning the Final Four?"
The breakfast made such an impression on Mark that he decided to return, this time with friends.
"I brought a group of 6 guys," Mark says. "One was the hardest to reach in my mind: Cruising along, financially abundant, lacking the true meaning only Christ can give us -- whether high or low or rich or poor."
During the breakfast, his friend became a Christian.
The Best Part of the Weekend
"[The event] got the guy in the door to be presented with the gospel and make an eternity-changing decision."
Mark's love for basketball runs deep, but the actual games were overshadowed by his friend's salvation. "That was the best thing of the whole weekend," he says.
At last year's Legends breakfast, 135 people indicated a decision to receive Christ.
"I've never been really good at knocking on doors or doing street ministry, but I can invite them to this, and the Holy Spirit does the rest," Mark says. "It's such an easy invitation. Basketball is an open door for everybody."
When Sporting Events Become Ministry
This year's Legends of the Hardwood Breakfast is on Saturday, April 5, less than one mile from the Alamodome, site of the Final Four games. Speakers include "Inside the NBA" host Ernie Johnson, Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo, and Hubert Davis, who will receive the annual 2008 "Keys to Life" Award at the breakfast.
Large events like the Final Four provide the perfect backdrop for AIA to present the same message they deliver daily to athletes around the world: life's greatest victory is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
These events also allow AIA to build deeper relationships within the sporting community. Connections made with coaches can result in pioneering AIA ministries on new campuses. Of the 64 colleges represented in this year's bracket, 28 campuses currently have an AIA presence.
The widespread appeal keeps Mark inviting others year after year.
"It's so well done that anybody can go whether they are into Christianity or not," Mark says. "You could have a campfire and the Holy Spirit would still move, but you can reach out so much better when you have something that is top-notch. Excellence attracts."