At the beginning of the week, Kareem, a starting guard for the California Golden Bears men’s basketball team, went scoreless for the first time this season as the team fell to University of California, Los Angeles, 50–40. His performance suffered in part because of devastating news he’d received just a few days prior: A cousin with whom he had been very close had perished in a car accident. And the demands of college basketball at its highest level prevented him from flying back to his native Toronto for the memorial.
The painful loss bore bitter fruit: anger, frustration, the “why” questions so ever-present when tragedy strikes. Kareem soldiered through, but it had been a trying stretch.
Kareem swoops to the basket on a layup attempt against Oregon. California fell in a close game, 77–72.
Sather Tower, more widely known by its nickname “the Campanile,” stands as a landmark sentinel near the center of the University of California, Berkeley, campus. U.S. News and World Report ranked UC Berkeley the fourth-best university in the world in their most recent Best Universities Rankings, the highest-ranked public institution on the list.
Now, as the team gathers in the locker room before warmups for their game with archrival Stanford, their coach, Mark Fox, delivers shocking news: Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were killed this morning in a helicopter accident in Southern California. The room swells with palpable emotion. Kobe was an icon who inspired these young men through his work ethic and competitive fire — off the court as well as on. It’s another heavy blow for Kareem and the team to absorb during an already trying week.
Cal coach Mark Fox strategizes with the team during a timeout in their February 1, 2020, game against Oregon State. Cal would win in a tight contest, 69–67.
The indispensable quality of perseverance
If you were to look at the trajectory of a game, a season, even the entirety of a life, the profile would be a series of hills and valleys. Ups and downs, some triumphantly high or depressingly low, characterize each person’s journey.
Athletes are perhaps better prepared for this life reality than most, because sports naturally provide a crucible of adversity. And as athletes progress to higher levels of their sport, the expectations, pressures and required effort only compound. Student-athletes in an NCAA Division One program, such as those at the University of California, Berkeley, feel them acutely. UC Berkeley, or Cal for short, competes in the Pac-12 Conference, one of the so-called “Power Five”: the five largest, most lucrative and most competitive conferences in the NCAA structure.
Sunset views across the bay to San Francisco draw many students and visitors to the Grizzly Peak Vista Point, a short and winding drive above the Cal campus (foreground).
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco with the steeply pitched Marin Headlands. On clear days — something of a rarity given the Bay Area’s prevalence of fog — the span is visible from high points on the Cal campus.
Kareem started college at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which competes in a much smaller conference. The competition was tough, but not as consistently intense as at a Power Five school. He finished his undergraduate studies with a year of athletic eligibility remaining, so he decided to transfer to Cal for grad school. The transition was an opportunity to challenge himself at college basketball’s highest level, with the dream of playing professionally afterward.
Kareem strolls through the Cal campus on his way to class. As a graduate transfer, he is seeking a master’s degree in public health, building on his undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences.
Two Cal students converse in front of Sather Gate, built in 1910 as the southern gateway to campus. University expansion has placed it closer to the campus center, adjacent to Sproul Plaza, a common gathering spot for Berkeley’s frequent student protests.
Kareem’s years of experience equipped him to navigate his recent on-court slump fairly easily. During one of the team’s practices, Coach Fox told him to trust his shot and hold his follow-through a split second longer, a shooter’s tip that ensures a cleaner release of the ball. And he’s quite familiar with the mantra “Shooters shoot,” a quip players will use to induce perseverance. Give up and you’ll never make another shot, so keep shooting until the shots start to fall.
Persevering through the pain of his cousin’s death is more difficult than shooting baskets, but the remedy is similar: Keep pressing forward. Kareem had a lengthy conversation with one of his mentors, Athletes in Action® staff member Brooke Butler, in the middle of the week. AIA, a Cru® ministry, seeks to build spiritual movements everywhere through the platform of sports. Kareem shared his questions and his frustration with Brooke, and Brooke offered a listening ear and encouragement to trust God. And Kareem kept walking by faith, one moment at a time. Shooters shoot.
“I was able to really rely on the Lord and on His strength to get me through,” he says, “because I know that everything does happen for a reason, and that there is a greater purpose.”
Kareem converses with Athletes in Action® staff member Brooke Butler in a café near campus. Brooke and his wife, Karen, have served with AIA at Cal for six years, during which time the ministry has grown to involve student-athletes from 23 of Cal’s 28 varsity teams.
Kareem leafs through his journal while eating oatmeal, a typical breakfast for him. He prioritizes eating healthy and taking care of his body, habits he impresses upon younger players as well.
A page of Kareem’s journal reveals some thoughts and prayers. Time spent in prayer during the days after his cousin’s death enabled Kareem to accept the reality of her untimely passing and also to reflect on the Bible’s admonition to rejoice in suffering, knowing that it ultimately produces perseverance, character and hope.
As Cal prepares to face Stanford while in the fog induced by Kobe Bryant’s sudden death, Coach Fox reminds the team of Kobe’s legendary perseverance and tells them that the best way to honor him is to give their fullest effort, as he did game after game. They’ll need it; Stanford is one of the Pac-12’s toughest teams, and, by some measures, one of the top 30 teams in all of college basketball.
Leadership through example
Cal wins the opening tip against Stanford, and on their first possession Kareem darts to the top of the key, receives a pass from point guard Paris Austin and immediately fires a 3-point shot. He’s still holding his follow-through as his feet hit the floor and the ball swishes cleanly through the net. It’s a confidence boost, and Kareem quickly sinks two more outside shots, netting 7 of Cal’s first 13 points. They take an early lead against their favored rival.
Cal forward Andre Kelly soars in for a dunk after receiving an alley-oop pass from point guard Paris Austin during the second half of their game against Stanford.
Kareem plays 17 of the 20 minutes in the first half, a typical workload so far this season. Before the season even began, Coach Fox affirmed that Kareem’s experience and seniority give him an important voice on Cal’s young team.
“He has a peace about him that I think is very healthy for the rest of our team,” Coach Fox says.
Freshman guard Joel Brown attempts a shot against an Oregon State defender during their February 1, 2020, game. Joel sees Kareem’s faith, work ethic and leadership as examples to emulate. “Once he leaves, I want to be able to help lead the team and follow by his example,” Joel says.
Kareem’s peace comes from a naturally calm and composed demeanor, but needed to be sharpened and applied through enduring difficult circumstances. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi lost in their conference championship game twice during Kareem’s time there, falling agonizingly short of a berth in NCAA March Madness, the Division One Men’s Basketball Tournament. Off the court, in addition to the recent challenge of losing a beloved cousin, Kareem wrestled with his own beliefs after watching his father fall away from faith in Christ. The dynamic of a faith-filled mom and a doubting dad forced Kareem to examine what he truly believed. Leaving his Toronto home to play college basketball in south Texas also put the impetus for pursuing God on him, rather than his faith being reliant on someone else’s.
Malik McMorris (far right, seated), a member of Cal’s football team, leads a Bible study for men’s basketball players. In attendance are (from right to left) freshman Kuany Kuany, sophomore Blake Welle, Kareem, Armin Sirossian (a friend who isn’t on the team), and Athletes in Action® staff member Brooke Butler. “[Kareem] has been instrumental in helping us connect with other guys,” Brooke says. “We’ve never had a men’s Bible study before for basketball.”
Christian teammates in Corpus Christi offered an inspiring example of living a Christ-focused life, stoking Kareem’s personal exploration of faith. Before long, he decided that he wanted to pursue Christ fully. He was baptized last year at his home church in Corpus Christi and now embraces his opportunity to influence younger teammates for Christ.
“Every moment I step out on the floor, I want to show that I’m working as hard as I can because God gave me these God-given abilities,” he says. “And then with my teammates, just trying to be a good example, trying to imitate Christ. I know I’m always going to fall short of that, but that’s what I keep on striving to do.”
Kuany Kuany (shooting) joins Kareem for one of his pregame traditions: shooting 50 free throws the night before a game. Kareem has become an informal spiritual mentor to Kuany, who is from a Sudanese family that emigrated to Australia when Kuany was young.
Several moments during the first half of the Stanford game prove that these are more than just words. He’s quick to tap a discouraged-looking teammate on the chest and offer a word of support. He’s always among the first to help a fallen teammate up or to celebrate a made basket with a high-five. His leadership is subtle, though not always vocal.
“There’s a lot of people that carry a Bible but don’t walk the walk. I think [Kareem] walks the walk every second. And I have a great admiration for how he conducts his life.”
Mark Fox, Head Coach, Cal Men’s Basketball
Kareem and teammates Joel Brown and Jacobi Gordon connect with a young fan seeking autographs after Cal’s victory over Oregon State.
Another opportunity to persevere
Stanford opens the second half with intensity. Cal struggles to defend against a series of aggressive Stanford drives, and the Bears miss 14 of their first 15 shots. With 12 minutes left in the game, Stanford leads by 11. For the Cal team, who have lost more games than they’ve won this season, and whose deliberate pace renders comebacks more difficult, another defeat appears inevitable.
Kareem assists Paris Austin from the floor after a fall during Cal’s game against Oregon. While playing at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Kareem twice participated in the Athletes in Action® men’s Captains Academy, an annual event that seeks to equip, encourage and empower team leaders in men’s college basketball.
But as Cal huddles during a media timeout, Coach Fox doesn’t need to do a lot of damage control. The team is ready for adversity because they’ve practiced for it. Practice drills include assistant coaches and student managers standing under the hoop with the type of large, rectangular pad used in karate sparring, throwing their full weight into the Cal players as they leap to snare missed shots. Managers also claw at the ball as soon as players receive a pass under the basket, then make friendly taunts if they induce a missed layup. In some ways, game situations are easier than those the coaches create in practice.
Kareem approaches his faith in similar ways. “Every day I spend time in prayer and meditation,” he says. “Going to Scripture [also] helped a lot in defining who I was in Christ, and helped define what I’m called to do.”
Consistently communing with Jesus has given Kareem a sense of freedom and peace. He can zoom out of the swirl of uncertainty so common in the course of a game (and life itself) and trust that God is in control.
Kareem and teammates (from left to right next to Kareem) Matt Bradley, Grant Anticevich, Joel Brown and Kuany Kuany enjoy a lighthearted moment at the Cal Athletes in Action® weekly meeting. Though weekly attendance varies due to athletes’ busy schedules, staff member Brooke Butler estimates that about 130 student-athletes are involved, and about two dozen have invited Christ into their lives over the past five years.
Community offers another preparation ground for life’s trials. The AIA ministry at Cal offers support for Kareem — and over 100 other athletes from 23 of Cal’s 28 varsity teams — as he navigates life’s hard realities, the pressure and demands of high-level athletics, and even the challenge of persisting in faith at one of the world’s most famously “radical” and freethinking universities. AIA meetings are places of deep vulnerability, where athletes open up about doubt, the idolatry of performance and even intensely personal trauma. The honesty has created a community in which people feel safe and encouraged to examine how Jesus can meet them in the hardest of places.
“I think fellowship is often underestimated, especially as a student-athlete. You need right people, like-minded people, around you in order to have a successful college career.”
A Cal student skateboards beneath a few of the hundreds of massive eucalyptus and redwood trees that adorn the Cal campus.
Sproul Plaza, outside the Cal student union complex, and the wide steps leading to Sproul Hall, have served as a speaking platform for dozens of student protestors, luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Cru® co-founder Bill Bright (see sidenote).
The basketball team shares a similar closeness. When asked if the team had faced any internal conflict this year, forward Grant Anticevich was quick to reply, “No, not at all. Not one bit.” Kareem’s leadership contributes to this camaraderie, but walking shoulder-to-shoulder through the forges of adversity has truly solidified it.
Cru® seized on Cal-Berkeley’s student activist energy with the 1967 “Berkeley Blitz.”
A New Kind of Revolution
Student protests are one of the defining marks of the turbulent 1960s. The first such event occurred at the University of California, Berkeley, with the Free Speech Movement that started in 1964. Its momentum opened the door for other anti-establishment groups to demonstrate, and the central public space on campus ⎯ the steps in front of Sproul Hall ⎯ became a platform for a steady rotation of Communist, antiwar and other socially dissenting voices.
Bill Bright, Cru®’s founder, saw in Berkeley an ideal place to boldly and broadly proclaim the message of a different kind of revolutionary: Jesus Christ.
So for one week in 1967, approximately 600 Cru staff members and volunteers blitzed the campus with the radical message of Christ’s love. To ensure that all 27,000+ students would personally hear the gospel, each participant called through a segmented list of the student directory, seeking appointments with each one. Bill Bright addressed groups of athletes and student leaders, and took his own turn on the steps of Sproul Hall. The week closed with Billy Graham addressing a crowd of about 8,000 people in the Greek Amphitheater, an outdoor auditorium on the upper slope of campus.
Hundreds of students invited Christ into their lives. A 30-year member of Berkeley’s faculty commented, “For the first time since I’ve been here, the topic of conversation at this university has changed from Karl Marx to Jesus Christ.” The event created such momentum that Cru staff members held similar “blitzes” on dozens of other campuses.
So when they break their huddle, down by 11, they’re ready for whatever the game’s home stretch will bring.
Fight to the finish
Whether from a desire to honor Kobe Bryant, a belief borne out of their togetherness that victory was still in reach, a steadfast willingness to get back up after being knocked down, or a combination of these factors, Cal’s play during the remaining minutes of the Stanford game is infused with grit. Point guard Paris Austin and leading scorer Matt Bradley challenge defenders and sink contested shots. The team ratchets up their defensive intensity, forcing turnovers and misses. Cal surges back ahead with six minutes remaining, and waves of crowd noise roll down onto the court.
Cal guard Matt Bradley slices through a maze of Oregon defenders on a drive to the basket.
Cal’s mascot, Oski the Bear, helps a cheerleader address an issue with her eyelash during a break in game action.
As the clock drops under 5 minutes, Kareem uses his quickness to escape a potential double-team and knifes toward the hoop on a left-handed drive and lays the ball high off the backboard, over another oncoming defender. Cal’s lead stretches to 3. A minute later, again with Cal clinging to a one-point lead, Kareem avoids another double-team, driving right this time for another clutch layup. Both plays are a window into Kareem’s personality and the fruit his faith has borne over the course of his basketball career; he’s quick but controlled, poised under pressure, unflappable.
The score is tied at 50 and Cal’s pressure defense forces a turnover. The clock ticks below 20 seconds. Paris Austin launches into a slashing move toward the basket, then collides with a defender whose move to offer help arrives too late. Foul. With 3.2 seconds left, Austin calmly makes both free throws. Stanford calls timeout to set up their last effort.
Cal point guard Paris Austin sails beneath the rim on a reverse layup attempt late in the game against Stanford.
Anticipation swells with the noise of the crowd as the teams emerge from the bench and prepare for the inbound pass. Stanford guard Bryce Wills receives it at half-court, then turns and makes a beeline for the hoop, taking one dribble, two, three, four, then twisting in midair as four Cal defenders converge, releasing an acrobatic shot that bounces once on the rim and falls through as the horn blares. Stanford appears to have forced overtime on a miraculous buzzer beater. But a referee sprints in behind the play, waving his arms in a gesture indicating that the basket wasn’t made in time. Both teams linger on the court in a mixture of celebration and confusion.
As is the procedure in these situations, the referees gather at a monitor on the scorer’s table for a look at instant replay. Players on both teams gaze upward at the giant screen hanging in the center of Haas Pavilion, Cal basketball’s 11,858-seat home. A minute passes, then one of the referees turns, blows his whistle and signals that the basket is indeed no good. The Cal bench erupts, and Kareem leans back and bellows triumphantly toward the sky, celebrating a rousing home win over an archrival several places above them in the conference standings, their biggest victory of the year to date. Perseverance has been rewarded.
Kareem celebrates Cal’s victory immediately after the referee signals that Stanford’s buzzer-beating shot doesn’t count. Reflecting on the game later, Kareem said that the crowd noise during the waning stretch was probably the loudest he’s ever heard at one of his games.
Training for the ups and downs
Cal would sink into another valley in their next game, a hard-fought loss to Oregon on their home floor. Then came another high, a win over Oregon State. And the ups and downs continue. Another player suffered through the death of a loved one. Injuries and academic difficulties and illnesses restrict playing time and hinder performance. As in life, the cycle never ends.
Kareem’s journey, as the team’s, and as each one of our own, can be triumphant, regardless of whether it is marked with victory or defeat, through communion with Christ, connection to community, and a commitment to lead and to persevere. These anchors must mark the journey of every Christian.
Kareem heads for the locker room to prepare for another demanding practice.
How does communion with Christ and connection to community mark your journey through the victories and defeats of life?
Jason writes for The Communications Group of Cru®. He served as a team leader for Cru’s campus ministry in Pittsburgh for seven years. He has one wife, three kids, and an embarrassing number of brain cells reserved for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.