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Basketball and God


That summer, before my senior year, we returned to attending the big church at West Angeles, leaving the little church in Carson.  We had started going to the Carson church the year before, because we felt the people there were more sincere.  Our hope was that their prayers would keep my grandmother alive; but because that had failed, there remained no incentive to continue at the church.

West Angeles sat in the heart of Los Angeles, off Crenshaw and Jefferson Blvd.  The church boasted around 10,000 members.  Several famous people went there, including movie star Denzel Washington, singer Stevie Wonder, and basketball star Magic Johnson.  Several other noteworthy individuals attended as well.

Like Carson Christian, West Angeles operated under the umbrella of Pentecostalism.  It featured a mostly affluent Black congregation.

I did not like attending there.  The people came across as insincere, as if they came only to see and to be seen, and not to ‘serve the Lord’ as so many would have claimed.

The building, which they called a 'cathedral' cost more than $5 million dollars to build.  To most it looked fancy and impressive, but, when I looked, I just saw a lot of money which could have been used to help the poor.  That did not impress me.

One of the most disgusting traditions there would occur when a special 'prosperity' preacher came through each year.  He would encourage us to chant things like, "MONEY... cometh to me, NOW!" making motions with our hands and our whole body to show that we were putting our whole soul into the chant.  It all seemed so blasphemous and contrary to the spirit of the teachings of Jesus.  Yet, in many ways, West Angeles was a moderate in the world of money worship that has come to characterize Pentecostalism around the world.

There were, however, some funny things about the church. Each Sunday, they would play 'Holy Ghost music' near the end of the pastor's sermon, to wind things down.  When the Holy Ghost music started on the organ, everyone with the ‘spirit’ needed to get up, run around, and dance.  As soon as the music stopped, the ‘spirit’ supposedly left.  Everyone needed to return to their seats, sit down, and be quiet.

One guy in the church would always make the most of the Holy Ghost music time.  You couldn't help but notice him, as he was long and lanky with a thirst for attention. Whenever the music would start, he'd sprint around the church, screaming, shouting, and ‘praising’ the Lord all the way through.  It amazed me that he never tripped, and never ran into anyone during his ‘spirit-filled’ outbursts.  No one ever complained, but I felt confident that if he were to, say, trip over the feet of an old lady while running, he would be told to tame down his worship routine at least a bit.

The music was good, featuring an excellent choir, touted as the best in the country... or within California at least.  Some of their songs really moved me.  I felt they brought me closer to God, regardless of whether or not a sincere desire to serve the Lord actually motivated those doing the singing.

Apart from going to a new church, summer meant more basketball for me.  We returned twice to Las Vegas for tournaments.  I dreaded tournaments in ‘sin city’, due to an experience I had had the previous year.  We had just finished winning a game to advance to the finals in the tournament, and were back at our hotel.  Sek, my teammate whom I was rooming with, said he wanted to bring some prostitutes back to our room, to celebrate.  He asked me if I wanted him to bring one back for me as well.  I was only sixteen years old at the time.

I declined Sek's offer, saying I wasn't interested.  Sek responded by giving me a funny look.  He said I must be queer, and threatened to tell the rest of the team I was gay if I didn't ‘man up’, and ‘handle my biz’ with the prostitutes.  I stuck to my guns.

I went next door, where two of my more ‘straight’ teammates were staying, Jamal Boykins and Ed White.  Jamal would go on to play basketball at Duke University, before transferring to UC Berkeley.  Ed would go on to play at Yale.

Jamal's mother had told me earlier that if I had any trouble in my room, I was to come straight to Jamal.  Jamal's father was a pastor.  They didn't want Jamal getting into any ‘hanky-panky’ while he was traveling on the road.

I took Jamal's mother up on her offer, and spent the night in his room, trying not to worry about what Sek would say about me refusing to sleep with his prostitutes.

The event cast a cloud over my image of basketball tournaments in Vegas.  I ended up going twice that year, without incident; but the experience from the previous year stuck with me all the same.

There were no tournaments in August, and so I gained a bit of weight due to staying around the house, and watching too many movies.  I no longer wanted to play professional basketball; the motivation to get out and practice was gone.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time.

I also stopped talking to the Jesus Christians that summer.  After my failed attempt at calling Jared by name in July, I felt I just didn't have the faith to obey Jesus.  Also, in the eyes of others I had a lot of things going for me, and I feared letting go of that respectability by doing anything strange.  I had become too attached to being popular.

Not meeting up with the Jesus Christians did not hide the fact from myself that my lifestyle stood in opposition to the truth.  I knew what Jesus had told His followers to do, and I knew I could do it; but I didn't want to.  That summed up my problem.  To cover my guilt, and to avoid being confronted about where I was going spiritually, I avoided any contact with the Jesus Christians.  I was in a bad place spiritually.

In September, classes resumed.  As a senior, I could now wear brown uniform pants, whereas before, my pants had to be blue or black.  Aside from that, things were pretty much the same as the year before.

It was around October when I started to get serious about where I was heading.  I decided to make whatever changes were needed to get back on the right track.  That included a return to vague thoughts of joining the Jesus Christians some day.  I resumed visits to their web site, but did not communicate with them directly.  Becoming more focused spiritually helped me with basketball too, as I sought to play ‘to the glory of God’ like the JCs had suggested. 

I decided to maximize my final season in high school by increasing my training.  That meant getting up early to practice at the Gardena YMCA before school.  Jared agreed to come with me.  He rebounded for me, as I hoisted shot after shot.  I felt grateful that he did it, as most parents aren't willing to sprint after balls while their children practice.  Maybe the hope that I would soon be earning millions contributed to his willingness, but it was still good to have him there.

As I trained, my skills got better.  The official season had not yet started, but I felt a lot more confident on the court during the fall league games.  My shooting was definitely improving.

Then something significant happened near the end of one of our fall league matches in my senior year.  As I raced down the court, I felt a sudden sharp pain in my right leg.  I could barely bend my knee.  There were only twenty seconds left in the game, so I hobbled around until the buzzer sounded.  I limped off the court.  We drove home, my knee swelling up during the drive.  I couldn't put pressure on it without pain.

The next day I went to the doctor to have it checked out.  It turned out that I had torn my lateral meniscus.  The injury - a serious one - would keep me out of action for quite some time.

Though I tried to stay positive, the news devastated me.  Maybe God wanted to teach me something.  I researched various forms of therapy for my knee, in the hopes of being ready to play when the season started in December... just six weeks away.

I bought ankle weights to strengthen the knee when exercising, and a knee brace to keep my knee in place while playing.  I was more than determined; I was 'a man on a mission'.  If I was not going to go on to play in the NBA, this could be my last chance to prove myself as a basketball player.

The hard work seemed to pay off.  I was back on the court practicing in less than a month, despite my knee not yet being fully recovered.

In November, I turned 18.  That was significant, in that I was supposedly free to make my own decisions now.  But the courage to act as an adult does not come all at once.  A test soon presented itself in the form of our new assistant coach, Deon Evans.

Deon made it clear that he believed in authoritarianism, and that anyone playing for him would have to respect him.  Otherwise, they would not touch the floor.  Deon wanted to be addressed as "Coach Deon".

Not long after introducing himself to the team, Deon came over to speak with me.  Though I still couldn't play, due to my knee injury, I attended games and practices regularly.  I was sitting on the sidelines at that time, doing some dribbling drills as practice progressed on the court.

"Joseph," Deon said, "Do you know what my name is?"

I nodded my head yes.  I knew he wanted me to call him "Coach".  Still, I also remembered what Dave had told me six months earlier, about addressing people by title out of fear.  I wanted to confront that fear with Deon.

I had been talking to adults without addressing them in any way, in order to avoid confrontations, and so far it had worked.  At best, I would just call them by their last name.  If my teacher wanted to be called "Mr. Perucho", I would call him "Perucho".  If someone else wanted to be addressed as "Mrs. Delgadillo", I would call her "Delgadillo". This allowed me to side-step the real confrontation of addressing them by their first name.

I did something similar with Jared and Sheila.  I had stopped calling them "Mom" and "Dad" after the incident in July, four months earlier.  But I didn't call them by their first names anymore either.  Instead, I simply didn't call them anything.  In the past I would have said, "I'm home, Mom."  Now I would just announce "I'm home".  Instead of saying, "Dad, can you come with me to play basketball," I would simply say, "Can you come with me to play basketball?"

Jared and Sheila knew my reason for not calling them "Mom" or "Dad" stemmed from Jesus' teachings.  And they also knew that specific teaching had been brought to my attention by the Jesus Christians.  Occasionally, Sheila would ask me if I had been back in touch with the JCs.  I would deny it, and that would be the end of it.

In reality, Sheila knew that I was reading through the website.  I was, by this time, actually thinking about leaving home and joining the Jesus Christians in February, though I doubt that Sheila had the slightest inkling of that.  She knew that acknowledging the truth about my contact with the Jesus Christians would force us into a confrontation, and so she did not challenge me.  This was one of those awkward situations where parents have to start accepting that their kids are growing up.  Neither she, nor I, wanted to have a showdown, and so neither of us pushed the point.

I continued to get good grades at school and to do well in sports.  I continued to stay out of trouble, and as far as Sheila and Jared were concerned, nothing had changed.  I remained the same faithful, obedient son I had been more than eighteen months earlier, before I had ever learned of the Jesus Christians.  In fact, there was an interesting acknowledgment by Sheila in court later that my behavior at home actually improved during the time I was in contact with the Jesus Christians.  

Anyway, back to Deon.  I told him I thought his name was Deon, to which he said no.  I then played dumb, saying I thought he gave Evans, or something similar, as his name.  He said no once again.

Of course Deon had introduced himself as Deon Evans; I had given correct answers with both of my guesses.  But Deon had earlier prefaced it by saying to the entire team that he wanted to be called 'Coach' Deon Evans.  I had left the 'coach' part out.  Deon went on to tell me his name, but that he wished to be called 'coach' before his names.  It was a sign of respect as far as he was concerned.  I nodded in apparent agreement, and he walked away.  I never called Deon ‘coach’ that year.

By mid-November I was back playing again.  A sophomore, Hakeem Washington, had replaced me at point guard while I had been sitting out with my injury.  But I had come to re-claim my spot.

Then, during practice, I leapt up for a jump-stop; when I landed, something went wrong.  To compensate for my still-injured right knee, I had placed my weight on my left side when landing.  The force upon impact overwhelmed my knee and I heard a pop.

I limped off the court in pain, wanting to cry, but fearing what my teammates would think; I ‘manned up’ instead.

Our trainer gave me some ice for my knee, and tape to stabilize it.  It didn't look good.  Any hopes for having a good season that year looked shot.

The next day I visited the doctor.  He told me I had torn the lateral meniscus in my left knee this time.  I had also fractured the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the same leg.  He said I needed surgery to repair the knee.  Sheila, of course, opposed surgery of any kind.  She said we needed to trust God for healing, and not worldly doctors.  She loved to quote the passage in the Bible from Isaiah that says "by His stripes we are healed", as evidence that Christians had the right to be healed from all sickness without any help from surgery.

She had a couple of examples which she cited as proof that her faith would bring about miraculous healings, despite what doctors might say.  One example came from my infancy.  According to Sheila, I was born with badly bowed-legs.  She says that the doctor had told her that he would need to break and then re-set my legs if I wanted to ever walk or run.  As the story goes, she went against his advice, and I turned out to be one of the fastest runners in the area.  Pretty impressive, even if I cannot verify it myself.

Another instance came when I was thirteen.  This one I could remember.  I had broken my left arm for the second time in less than a year.  The doctor said that I needed surgery.  Sheila insisted that I should not have surgery, while Jared and I both favored going through with it.  In the end, the break healed without it, and I returned to playing within a few months.  This constituted further evidence in Sheila's mind that she could reject the doctor's orders again, and still get results through ‘faith’.

It was a similar situation when she urged me to play on in my junior year despite the heart murmur, saying that it would be all right.  Again, there had been no further problem with the murmurs, although I don't recall us getting any more checkups either.  (After leaving home I had a further check-up and the murmur was still there; but Sheila put the blame for that one on the Jesus Christians.)

Now, faced with yet another doctor saying I needed surgery to recover, Sheila said no once again.  This time I agreed with her decision.  I accepted that, with surgery, I could make a full recovery.  But it would delay my return to the court.  I didn't want that.

I checked into a sports clinic near the sand dunes in Manhattan Beach.  There they showed me several drills I could do to help get my leg back up to speed.  They gave me electromagnetic stimulation (EMS) therapy, and had me do free weight exercises to build back strength.  I made some progress; but it did not come as quickly as I would have liked.

December marked the time when most senior students would choose the college or university they would attend the following year.  People were also rushing to secure a prom date for the 'big' dance, which was only five months away.

Sheila and Jared had been fine with me stalling a few months earlier, when Yale made their offer.  A few more schools had offered me basketball scholarships in the meantime, but not UCLA, USC, or Stanford, Sheila and Jared's three preferences.  So we continued to delay.  

This was about the same time that I decided to re-start talks with the Jesus Christians.  I had been avoiding them for about six months by then.  But now, my thinking had changed.

I took my knee injuries as a sign from God that I needed to get my priorities straight.  Try as I might, physically, I could not do what I wanted to do on the basketball court. Circumstances suggested to me that, at least for the time being, God had a mission for me which was bigger than playing basketball and I needed to fully accept that.

Near the end of the year, I arranged to meet up with a couple of the Jesus Christians at our usual haunt, the McDonald's next to El Camino College.

Casey, whom I had been meeting up with most before, had left the US to go to Kenya.  So now I needed to become acquainted with other members of the community, some of whom I had never seen before.

That first meeting after so long without contact was when I met Reinhard for the first time.  Reinhard walked into the McDonald's wearing his standard get-up: a white dress shirt, blue jeans, and brown sandals.  He looked like a relaxed university professor, or Rhodes Scholar; he didn't look like the type of guy you would find eating out-of-date vegetables from a rubbish bin.

I greeted Reinhard, and we took a seat near the front of the restaurant.  Reinhard had picked the spot.  I felt uncomfortable sitting so conspicuously with this very pale skinned guy in his thirties, fearing we would attract too much attention by being together.  I dripped with paranoia about being spotted with any of the Jesus Christians, lest word should leak back to my parents.

Our meeting that day probably lasted around thirty seconds.  My free first period had been cancelled, so I needed to return to school.  I didn't have a phone number for the Jesus Christians, and so I had not been able to call and tell them I couldn't make it.  As an alternative, I turned up, hoping to share in person that I could not stay.

After explaining the situation to Reinhard, I left.  Later I learned that he and another Jesus Christian had driven several miles to meet me that morning.  They probably were not very happy about my short stay, but they did a good job of not showing it.

In January, 2006, I went back to playing basketball for Serra, despite my knee not being fully recovered.  It showed in reduced playing time.  I had little to show for what time I did get on the courts as well.

My younger brother, Josh, no longer went to Serra with me by this point.  He now attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School, in Long Beach.  We had moved there near the end of 2005.

Josh had been a part of the Serra High varsity basketball team with me when he was a freshman.  He didn't get much playing time, but could at least brag that he had made the varsity squad in his first year of high school.  That represented quite an accomplishment.

However, things had changed for this new season, which was Josh's sophomore year.  Josh had been demoted to the junior varsity team.  This hurt his pride, and my family's pride by default.

Our coach's discretion was part of the reason for the change, although an injured knee did not help matters much for Josh.  Dwan was upset that I had not yet signed with a university, and I had the feeling that his dissatisfaction with me played a part in his decision to demote Josh.  I had turned down an offer from the top school in the country, Yale University.  Me going to Yale would have been a big thing for Serra High, and something to reward Dwan for his efforts with me.  But at that point, I was still noncommittal toward everyone.

I had a few other offers over the ensuing months.  San Jose State stayed on my tail, offering a full athletic scholarship.  But San Jose wasn't good enough for my family.  Offers came in from Columbia (NY), Dartmouth, UC Davis, Lehigh, UC Irvine, and UC Riverside, as well. So I had a lot of options to choose from.

Anyhow, for whatever reason, Dwan decided to cut Josh from the team; Josh decided to switch high schools as a result.  He wanted to go to Long Beach Poly, but we needed to live in Long Beach to do that.  We lived in Carson.

Determined not to have her son playing junior varsity at Serra, Sheila decided it was worth moving house.  With the help of her sister, Yvonne, who worked as a real estate agent, Sheila managed to find a cheap apartment complex just walking distance from Long Beach Poly.  

We moved into the apartments in December, 2005.  I continued to drive each morning from the apartments, to school, in Gardena.  Josh would walk a few yards, from the apartment complex to the Long Beach Poly campus.

Before Josh left Serra, however, I had started to notice a slight change in his personality. We both exhibited a fair amount of social awkwardness; that much did not come as a surprise.  But Josh had started acting like more of a loner, keeping to himself mostly, and losing himself in his music.  He would listen to his CD player constantly.  He liked rap, listening to the likes of Jay-Z, Juelz Santana, and so on.

I found it hard to explain, but something seemed different with Josh. We remained best friends, but his interactions with others seemed, in a word, weird.

Click here to read Part 11 of Joe's Story
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