March Madness? Yawn. The most wonderful time of the college basketball season comes before the season even starts. That's when vagabond teams of CBA has-beens and low-wattage former college stars make all-night bus trips for the privilege of getting bludgeoned by America's best State U.'s. For the mercenaries who pull on the jerseys of the EA Sports All-Stars, Marathon Oil, and High Five America, the exhibition basketball circuit is probably their last shot to impress international and minor league scouts. For fans, the preseason is all about cheap thrills: It's more fun to see your team's latest blue-chip recruit dunk on Charles O'Bannon than watching him knock over some pasty, knock-kneed Division III kid.
Three weeks ago, one such traveling circus, Athletes in Action, ended its season with an 89-63 loss to the University of Alabama. At halftime, the nation's elite barnstorming Christian basketball team took the court to say a few words about Jesus. But this was different than the usual benediction. Athletes in Action was performing its own last rites.
For 38 years, the sports arm of the Campus Crusade for Christ has praised the Lord before, during, and after playing preseason games against powerhouse college teams like Duke and Florida. But that's all over now. In a half-baked attempt to stamp out recruiting flim-flammery, the NCAA essentially banned Division I basketball teams from playing noncollegiate preseason opponents like Marathon Oil and Athletes in Action last April. That loss in Tuscaloosa will probably be the last time AIA's Christian soldiers spread the good word in a 15,000-seat arena. Instead of Duke and Florida, AIA now has to schedule lower-division teams like Wingate, Catawba, and Southwest Minnesota State.
Athletes in Action has always been a bit of an outlier in the exhibition basketball world, and not just because of that whole Christian thing. While most preseason cream puffs are happy to take a beating as long as the check clears, AIA has actually put together an impressive record. "Certainly God uses this team regardless of wins or losses," reads a credo on the AIA Web site. "Winning does, however, increase our credibility in the world's eyes and earn us their respect." While exact records are hard to come by, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that Athletes in Action had 859 wins and 372 losses—not bad for playing nearly every game on the road.
AIA wasn't always a powerhouse. Fred Crowell, who coached the team in the 1960s, says he struggled to reach .500 because scanty paychecks—he remembers getting paid 67 cents for a month's work—made it tough to recruit post-collegiate Christians, especially tall ones. Even if they didn't win that often, Crowell says those early AIA teams were trailblazers. In one 1969 road game against Pete Maravich's LSU Tigers, AIA suited up three African Americans when the SEC had only one black basketball player.
In the 1970s, Athletes in Action finally started to corral America's best second-tier Christian basketball players. Ralph Drollinger, a 7-footer who helped lead UCLA to a national title, turned down a $400,000 NBA contract to play for AIA for $7,500. Drollinger and his cohorts got some national publicity for winning the 1976 AAU national title; two years later, an AIA squad finished fifth as the United States representative in the basketball world championships. Athletes in Action also went 52-2 against collegiate competition from 1976 to 1978. According to a Campus Crusade for Christ brochure, UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian moaned after a 1977 blowout, "They beat you up in the first half, pray for you at halftime, then beat you up in the second half."
AIA's signature halftime and post-game prayers typically included personal statements from players about drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and how they found the Lord. Rle Nichols (that's his real name), who won more than 400 games as an AIA coach in the 1970s and 1980s, says less religiously inclined crowds often threw things or read ostentatiously as they waited out the sermons. "Oh yeah, you'd see the newspapers go up," Nichols remembers. Harry Sheehy, Athletes in Action's all-time leading scorer, says Northern crowds were the toughest to inspire. When AIA played Ontario's Laurentian University, the school's French-Canadian explorer mascot keeled over just as Sheehy wrapped up his halftime testimonial. It wasn't because of the power of his message—Sheehy could smell the mascot's boozy breath from half court.
In the 1980s, AIA kept winning behind sometime NBA-ers like Swen Nater and Lorenzo Romar and building their name internationally. The roundball missionaries can even take credit for ending basketball's Cold War. During one tour of the Soviet Union, AIA's Donnie Nelson guarded Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis. A few years later, the future Lithuanian national team coach lured Marciulionis to the Golden State Warriors, making him the first Soviet to play in the NBA.
AIA became such a formidable brand that Christian collegians regularly used the sports ministry to gain leverage after getting drafted by the NBA. Dale Davis (in 1991), Jon Barry (1992), and No. 1 pick Kent Benson (1977) all talked about playing with Athletes in Action before signing their rookie contracts; Terry Cummings (1982) and Mark Price (1986) actually suited up for AIA while holding out. Sadly, modern-day God-squadders like Dwight Howard will never have the chance to play the AIA card—it would be an idle threat considering Athletes in Action no longer has enough money to pay its players. (Howard does appear in an AIA commercial.)
While AIA's winning percentage has dipped in the last decade, they still beat NCAA-bound Alabama, Wake Forest, and Washington just last year. But that was before the NCAA smote God's traveling team. Forget Terry Cummings—on account of the downturn in both competition and wages, even 2003 stalwarts like Rusty LaRue and Joe Crispin didn't come out for the team this year. Athletes in Action used to get around $10,000 per game from Division I schools, but head coach Eric Nelson says he now has to get creative to make ends meet. "There's a lot of different ways. A bus company in Green Bay gave us a great discount."
Athletes in Action finds some consolation in the fact that the NCAA ban doesn't extend to women's teams—the AIA women can still play their usual schedule of Division I opponents. The men's team will focus more on the overseas market and continue to spread its message via Division II basketball. Nelson says that even though small-town crowds are more receptive to the team's outreach, he wants his team to be ready if big-time exhibition basketball beckons again. This year, Nelson says, "we beat some really good Division II teams up in the Dakotas."