This is Roger Powell, Jr., or "The Rev" as he is called. He is a 6-6 senior, licensed minister, and spiritual leader of the Fighting Illini basketball team. On Saturday Powell prayed at halftime as Illinois took on Louisville in the NCAA semifinals.
"I really did pray at halftime. Seemed like it worked, I guess." Illinois won the game 72-57, thanks in large part to the inspired play of Powell who played one of the best games of his college career with power dunks and three-pointers. He ends the game by pointing to Jesus.
The final game was played Monday night. The Illini played very poorly in the first half. They have rarely played worse. Illini fans, like me, sat slumped on the sofa unable to choke down another handful of peanuts into our upset stomachs. Did they come all this way only to get schooled by a very physical and talented University of North Carolina team?
The second half began and the Illini looked different. They came back from as many as 15 points down to tie the game. I went from slumped to jumping and running and screaming for every shot to go in. Whether you love the Illini or not, it was incredible basketball to watch. Again, it seemed inspired.
Then, as I paced my basement and brushed off my wife's commands to calm down, I watched Illinois lose. Yep, they lost. Confetti showered down on embracing UNC players who were crying with joy. Roger Powell, Jr. and the rest of the Fighting Illini exited the court and slouched in the locker room.
And the big question should have been, Where was God? His Word was scribbled all over Powell's shoes (Eph 6:15!). His praises were on Powell's lips. And His glory would have been proclaimed in every Powell interview and TV spot in the months to come after an Illini win. But God didn't need an Illini win to show His Name is great.
I don't know Roger Powell, Jr., but I've read enough articles and heard enough interviews to know this guy really loves Jesus and has committed His life to Him. I have no doubt in my mind about that.
But God's Name may fare better with a loss. Until now for the Illini, God has been associated with winning and euphoria for things that should comprise very little places in our lives. But Jesus' victory on the Cross wasn't all-good. It took the end of His life for the world to truly live. It took immediate defeat on the Cross to show He ultimately was victorious over a world of corruption and rebellion.
There is no better time for Illini-loving Jesus followers. A win might have been misconstrued as something brought on by a God that believed basketball was as important as die-hard Illini fans. A loss reminds us that basketball is just a game and God is concerned for much more than the flight-pattern of three pointers.
As the game ended, I found no trace of Roger Powell, Jr. or his now famous finger pointing to Jesus. I think all believing athletes need to be careful to not point to Jesus as the point guard of their team. But if the glory goes to Jesus for a win, it must also go to Him for a loss. And I think I've heard enough from Powell to know that he is still pointing to Jesus even after losing, if only in his own heart.
Strangely, Powell may have just received one of the most precious gifts of his life: the chance to put the gods of basketball in their place.