Regardless of where they live, regardless of their circumstances, Latter-day Saint young men share the same great decision: Whether or not to accept a mission call. For many, the answer is a simple “yes.” Others might not be sure, but they are guided by the desire to serve the Lord and follow the counsel of the Brethren that all worthy young men serve a mission. Still others, with the same desire, might face the competing challenge of finishing their schooling, meeting military service obligations, working, or, as in the case of the young men in this article, continuing in a sport they love. Sports may seem a trivial reason for not accepting a mission call, but for young men in the United States, proficiency in a sport or athletic endeavor may lead to college scholarships, and even a professional career. The young Latter-day Saints you’ll meet here had to make the decision whether or not to accept a mission call or to continue to play college basketball.
The air in the gym is heavy, thick with the smell of rubber-soled shoes, of basketballs, and of sweat. In one corner, young men do warm up exercises. One of them calls out, “Pasame la pelota!”
In unison, the other players repeat, “Pasame la pelota!”
“What does that mean, Kelly?”
“Pass me the ball,” Kelly answers. “Now try this, ‘a la izquierda,’ That means ‘to the left.’
“A la izquierda!” the group answers.
And so the Spanish language practice continues as the basketball players prepare for a game. It took place at the University of New Mexico, where their team, the Lobos prepared for a game against Brigham Young University (BYU). The Lobos were getting a quick course in Spanish from their team player, Kelly Graves, who served in the Chile Santiago Mission. Many of the players for BYU served Spanish-speaking missions, and sometimes they try to confuse and intimidate opposing teams by speaking Spanish to each other during the games.
“Those BYU players can’t fool me,” said Kelly, “I served a Spanish-speaking mission too. During our warm up time, we’ve been reviewing some Spanish phrases.”
Keith Chapman, a player for the University of Utah, is a returned missionary from the Germany Frankfurt Mission. On his mission Keith learned to keep an eternal perspective on things. “Before my mission, basketball was my whole life. Now I know there are more important things like staying worthy and looking more into the eternities than just to the next game.”
From the time Reid Newey of Roy, Utah, was six years old he had dreamed of playing basketball. He played on community and church teams as a boy and as a teenager. He watched games on television and attended games with his father. Basketball was what he wanted to do with his life.
During his first year at Utah State University, Reid was honored by being selected for the national team made up of first year college students. He was making a meaningful contribution to college basketball. The following year he would have been one of the leading players. But something else was affecting his life. “I read the Book of Mormon all the way through during my first year in college,” said Reid. “And I really gained a great testimony of it. I loved it. I’d rush home from practice just to read it because I loved it so much. From then on I had a different feeling. I went through a lot of prayer and fasting, and it was a personal revelation for me that I should go on a mission.”
Reid had a tremendous experience in the mission field that made everything worth it. “We met this man who was a retired colonel from the army. He was just a great man. He was baptized a week before I left. He drove me to the airport to go home, and we had the opportunity to visit together for a while before my departure. As we spoke, he looked at me and said, ‘Thanks for coming, Elder Newey.’ I didn’t know exactly what he was referring to. But then he took my arm and said, ‘I mean, thanks for coming on your mission.’ That was the greatest experience of my life. It really touched me, and I can’t bear to think what it would be like if I hadn’t experienced that.”
Reid had one more piece of advice. “I’m a basketball player, but everybody has their own obstacles to going on a mission. Everybody can think of something to keep them from going. But I know there isn’t anything worth staying home for. My advice would be to get your life in order and go, no matter what it takes.”
Talk to any of the college players who took time out to serve, and they’ll tell you the same thing. Go! There isn’t one who regrets his service to the Lord.
“The decision I made to go on a mission was the greatest one I made in my life,” says BYU’s star player, Mike Smith. “I made my decision to serve a mission many years ago. I made the decision before other pressures could influence me.”
And the pressure did come. Mike was considered to be one of the best players to come out of any California high school and many large universities wanted him. Mike chose BYU, and in his first year, he was a starting player 27 of 31 games. But id didn’t bother him at all to leave his sports career behind for a couple of years.
There were those who didn’t understand, however. One man in particular, a long-time fan of Mike’s from his hometown, couldn’t understand why Mike would run the risk of sacrificing his career to serve a mission. Mike wrote his non-Latter-day Saint friend a letter from the mission field in which he bore his testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel, the Book of Mormon, and the prophet of the Church. Mike also told him he felt it was a privilege rather than a sacrifice to serve. His friend was so affected by mike’s testimony that he took the letter to a local Catholic priest, who happened to be interested in Mike’s basketball career too. The priest, in turn, read the letter in mass every day for a week, saying it was an example of a youth who was doing all he could to serve the Lord.
“Nothing that happens on the basketball court can compare with experiences in the mission field,” Mike explains. “The feelings you experience on the basketball court are so limited, so temporary. You can make a game-winning shot and the fans love you, but the next play you might accidentally bounce the ball off your foot and that great feeling is gone. But the feelings that you have in the mission field, where the Spirit touches your heart, you’ll never forget.”
Brian Taylor, a BYU player who served in the Spain Seville Mission, will never forget or regret his decision to serve a mission. “I had the great opportunity to go out and open up a new mission in the Canary Islands. I felt like the Apostle Paul. We’d walk down the street and people would ask, ‘What are you young men doing in white shirts and ties? Why aren’t you down at the beach in your swimsuits?’ When we explained what we were doing, they’d be impressed, and they’d listen to us, sometimes 150 people at once. We’d show movies like The First Vision and Families Are Forever on the sides of buildings, and the whole village would come out to watch. We would then bear our testimonies, and the people would weep.”
Brian smiled and shook his head as he remembered, “There is just no comparison between that and playing basketball. You win a game for your team, you feel great, but the feeling only lasts a short time. But just as I talk about being on that island and bearing my testimony to that many people, it makes me feel like cheering again. You just feel good about it, and it never leaves you. It’s that eternal kind of feeling.”
Mike Johnson from Utah Stake University has basketball in his blood. His father and uncles all played at Utah Stake, and Mike wanted to follow in their footsteps. But a mission came first. He left for the England Leeds Mission straight out of high school, not knowing if any of the college basketball recruiters who contacted him before he left would be interested when he returned two years later.
“I wanted to go on a mission,” said Mike. “I wanted to say, ‘I’ve done what I’ve been asked to do , and now, if I need to call on my Heavenly Father for help, I can do it knowing that I have kept his commandment.”
Mike has talked to several young men who are leaving on their missions. He encourages them to work hard and be dedicated. Then he tells them the lesson he learned, “If you go on a mission, when you get back everything will work out well for you.”
These athletes as well as other missionaries soon learn that some of the fruits of their labors are harvested later by others. Alan Astle, a BYU player, had one such experience. While tracting in England, he and his companion kept a record of every door they knocked on. “I remember one lady we tried several times was always too busy to talk to us, but I thought she was a good prospect. Right next to her name in our missionary book I wrote ‘good prospect.’ About four months later I got a letter from this lady, thanking me in countless ways for putting that comment next to her name. The new missionaries in the area saw what I had written, went to see her, and she was baptized. She’s brought about five or six others into the Church so far.”
Jon Hansen, a student at the university of Utah, returned from the Switzerland Geneva Mission just six weeks before school started. In some ways he enjoyed taking a break from basketball. “On your mission all your focus is on spiritual things, service, and spreading the gospel,” said Jon. “A mission is a total change. It’s harder coming home than it is leaving. When you get home, you really have to work hard to stay as close to the Lord as you were on your mission.”
Tom Gneiting, one of BYU’s fourth-year players last year, said returned missionaries do have a few advantages. “Mentally, you’re smarter about the game and you know more about it. You’re not quite as emotional as you were when you were eighteen years old. You’re calmer in the games.”
Brent Stephenson, of BYU, added, “Also it helps you with patience. A lot of the game is having patience and doing the right things at the right time. I think the maturity we gain on a mission helps us.”
Hard work seems to go with missionary service and pursuing sports. Danny Conway, at Utah State University, found that a mission helped him learn how to improve his game. “If you want something, you really have to dedicate yourself and sacrifice. For me, if I’m good, it’s because I work hard and sacrifice something. I’ve never been one of those who can play well without putting forth the effort.”
Brian Taylor of BYU agreed, “After your mission you have the confidence that you know you can do it. You know you can do anything, because you’ve done the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life.”
Even though these young men love basketball, none of them love basketball more than the Church and their missions.
Jon Judkins, of Utah State, summed up the feelings for the group. “I don’t think there’s anything I could ever do in basketball that would make me feel that joy—the joy of seeing someone join the Church and completely change their lives.”