It was halftime at the Anaheim Convention Center. Visiting Nevada-Las Vegas, 16-1 and ranked fifth in the AP poll, was trailing by 14 points and had retreated to its locker room to plot a comeback. But the home team, an outfit known as Athletes in Action, had remained on court and said to the crowd, in effect, "And now a word from our Sponsor."
The first player to take the microphone was 6'10" Center Bayard (the Tree) Forrest, an ex-Grand Canyon College star who was the 19th man selected in the last NBA draft. "Seven months ago I rejected a $230,000, two-year, no-cut contract with the Seattle SuperSonics," he told the audience. "With this I turned down the dream of every basketball player in the country, and that is to play ball with the superstars of the NBA. And, you know, I did it because of the tremendous challenge of seeing the lives of people change, as mine has been changed, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the greatest person of all history."
Center Ralph Drollinger (ex-UCLA) offered a short, religious talk; Guard Eldon Lawyer (ex-Oral Roberts U.) led the audience in prayer; and then the squad hurried off for a three-minute locker-room chalk talk, before reemerging to warm up for the second half. Praise the Lord and pass the basketballs!
Nevada-Las Vegas' comeback never developed. Forrest, the 7'2" Drollinger and 6'8" Forward Tim Hall (ex-Colorado State) controlled the backboards, Guards Brad Hoffman (North Carolina), Freeman Blade (Eastern Montana) and Lawyer handled and shot the ball expertly, and AIA won 104-77, which is what you might expect when Las Vegas tries to take on God. The victory improved AIA's season record to 23-6 and its winning streak to 13. Not bad, considering that many of its games have been against Top 20 teams and that this was only the second home game in AIA's 9½-year, 367-game history.
The first home game was held just the week before against the top-ranked and unbeaten University of San Francisco. AIA achieved perhaps its most important victory that night, crushing the Dons 104-85. Hall scored 20 points, Drollinger and 6'9" Forward Irv Kiffin 18 apiece. Luckily for USF, the game was not counted by the NCAA.
"They are extremely talented," said USF Coach Bob Gaillard. "It's a super team, with a lot of experience, well coached and poised. We wanted to play a talented team to shake us up and that's what happened."
Thus Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian expected trouble when it came his team's turn to visit the arena near Disneyland last Saturday night, and he got it. The Rebels' 77 points were more than 30 below their average and they were outrebounded 64-33. Hall had 17 of those 64 rebounds, while Lawyer and Forrest had 23 and 18 points respectively, and Hoffman had seven assists. Leading scorer Kiffin, perhaps preoccupied by thoughts of his five-day-old daughter, had an off night, but AIA did not need him.
"They wiped us out," said Tarkanian. "They totally dominated us every way. We weren't even in the same class with 'em."
Just what is Athletes in Action? It is the jocks-for-Jesus arm of Campus Crusade for Christ International, which was founded at UCLA in 1951 (SI, April 19, 1976 et seq.). Dave Hannah, an ex-Oklahoma State football player, started the first AIA basketball team in 1967. Today there are AIA wrestling teams in Lancaster, Pa. and Long Beach, Calif., a gymnastics team in Wheaton, Ill., a college-division basketball team in Indianapolis, and, in Tustin, Calif. (a few miles southeast of Los Angeles), the main basketball team plus weight-lifting and track-and-field teams. Hannah is still in charge and soon will add soccer, women's volleyball and women's basketball. He calls his squads "teams of destiny."
The purpose is "to use the ready-made platform that athletic competition provides" to win converts. Says Hoffman, "I think our record for converts is even better than our basketball record."
AIA is coached by Bill Oates, who had a fine record at Santa Ana (Calif.) Junior College. He favors the racehorse game—fast breaks and full-court presses the whole game. Fast breaks are easy to start, of course, when you have Forrests, Drollingers and Halls to get the ball off the defensive backboard.
Oates has all kinds of talent. Forrest was the MVP in the NAIA tournament, where he led Grand Canyon to the 1975 title. Hoffman, a little guy (5'10") with a barely discernible blond mustache, was captain at North Carolina, an All-East Regional selection. Blade was a fourth-round NBA draft pick, as was Scott Thompson of Iowa.
It is Irvin Kiffin, though, who has the best story to tell at halftime. He grew up in Queens, N.Y. and made the mistake of running around with "the cool guys instead of the creeps. I was strung out on drugs for five years of my life." Somehow he got the needle out of his arm long enough to play one season of basketball at Springfield Gardens High and win a basketball grant to Virginia Union. His heroin problem went along and he didn't last. Then he got married and switched to Oklahoma Baptist in Shawnee, Okla., where "we both found the Lord together." He had two good seasons and was disappointed that no pro team drafted him.
"Now I just thank God He didn't let me get drafted," he says. "The uniqueness of this team is there are no individuals. We're all playing for a common bond for Jesus Christ."
What they are obviously not playing for is money. Each team member is paid from $7,000 to $10,000, depending on his number of dependents. When they're not practicing or playing games, they are kept busy speaking about their salvation. The word is further spread by AIA's newspaper and radio-TV network (ex-UCLA Coach John Wooden is doing the TV color for the second year).
There are bigger things ahead. More televised games. More home games in Anaheim Convention Center. And perhaps a world title. "Our goal is to represent the United States in the World Games in 1978 in the Philippines," says Oates. "That's one of the things we're shooting for. We need to pick up two or three more outstanding players."