EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Almost 10 years ago, Roger Powell Jr. tested the NBA draft waters only to return to Illinois for his senior year. And what a year it was.
Headline: Powell & the glory
Date: Oct. 10, 2004
By BRETT DAWSON
Roger Powell Jr. unlocks the door and asks, before you can slide into the passenger seat of his charcoal-gray Chrysler, 'You like gospel music?'
'Anything that isn't country,' you reply, and Powell gives an approving nod.
You had better be able to tolerate the non-secular stuff these days if you intend to ride shotgun with Illinois' senior forward.
There aren't a lot of other options. Not since last spring.
'It's Israel and New Breed,' Powell says of the soulful sounds that spill out of his considerable system. 'Ever heard of them?'
You admit that you have not, and as Powell wheels his sleek LHS — license plate: 'AIR ROG 2' — onto Kirby Avenue, he reaches into his wallet and produces a laminated card. At the top, printed in detailed caligraphy, is the name of his church back home in Joliet — Mt. Zion Full Gospel Tabernacle.
Looks like a business card.
In a way, it is.
'I just got it yesterday,' a proud Powell says, turning down the volume on the stereo with the touch of a slender remote control. 'I'm not ordained yet, but I will be.'
The card is Powell's minister's license.
This ride has taken an unexpected turn.
It's a little like Roger Powell's life in that way.
Turn for the better
The story you are supposed to be reading is about how Powell made an ill-advised — and much-criticized — decision last spring to enter the NBA draft and didn't tell his coach, Bruce Weber.
Instead, this is the story of a 21-year-old who six months ago reached a crossroads.
And Powell? He took the road less traveled.
Those gospel CDs in the car are the only ones left after a hip-hop purge last spring.
'I threw out a ton of CDs,' Powell says. 'The day after I saw 'The Passion of the Christ,' matter of fact. I was just like, 'Jesus did all this for me, and I'm listening to this stuff?' It really affected me.'
Drinking? He'll have water, thanks, with lemon and lime.
Cursing? Gosh, no.
This is the brand-new Roger Powell Jr., and the path here has been long and winding.
'It's weird, man,' Powell says as he pilots his ride down a short stretch of Neil Street. 'But it's awesome, too. Everything has changed.'
It changed last spring, though Powell is reluctant to say why.
He was going through 'some things,' he says, and does not elaborate.
That's when the signs started.
They came around the time Illinois was playing in the NCAA tournament, and today, though Powell is happy to discuss his faith as he settles into a booth at the back of TGIFriday's, he's reluctant to talk about the signs.
'I'm not sure people will understand,' he says.
Why would they? Powell himself didn't, at first.
He couldn't comprehend why, when a question would come into his mind at church, the answer would come immediately in a pastor's sermon. Or why, when he was watching the Trinity Broadcast Network, the day's topic would fall so closely in line with what was going on in his own life.
And that was only the beginning.
'It's hard to explain,
but people would come up to me — people I didn't know — and they would say, 'God has something for you,' ' Powell says. 'I started to understand that it was my calling.'
He had ignored it long enough.
Cherry Powell didn't raise a bad seed.
The wife of Roger Sr. and mother of Roger Jr. took her son to church every Sunday, and though she and her husband didn't force religion on their son, she knew him to be a spiritual child from an early age.
But the teen-age years have a way of testing a mother's faith.
'He was never a bad kid, but he did the things teen-agers do,' Cherry Powell says. 'Drinking and things. He was like anybody else, sneaking out trying to do those things — and getting in trouble with me.'
Still, Powell attended Sunday service. Every week. In high school, he was a good student as well as a basketball star at Joliet. And even as he acted out the way teen-agers do, he left hints that he someday might heed a higher calling.
'He always had the people of God in his heart,' says Craig Purchase, Powell's longtime pastor at Mt. Zion Full Tabernacle. 'When they asked him his goals in life, he would say he wanted to build a church for the people of God.'
He also wanted to be a basketball star. And, Cherry says, he wanted the trappings that came with it.
'The girls,' she says. 'That was always the thing for him. Women can pull you in the wrong direction, but you can't put it all on the women. The men have to want to be pulled, and
Roger wanted to be pulled when he was younger. That's why he ran from the ministry.'
'He ran from the ministry,' Cherry Powell says. 'It was always calling him. He just didn't always listen.'
A faith-filled journey
But Powell never fully tuned out the message.
Shortly after he settled in Champaign, he set out to 'find a spiritual home,' and as an Illinois freshman, he found it at the Church of the Living God, a lively little spot on Fourth Street with bright red pews and the
words 'Praise the Lord!' hung on a wall below the cross.
He got to know Bishop Lloyd Gwin. He became a regular on Sundays.
OK, a semi-regular.
'I'm not going to lie — when I first came here, I missed a few Sundays,' Powell says, fidgeting with a lime wedge. 'I was at college. I had never been away from home in my life. I wanted to go out a little bit on the weekends, have some fun.'
But the deeper he went into his college career, the more deeply Powell was drawn into his faith.
His sophomore year, teammate Brian Cook introduced him to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Kent Hollis, that organization's local representative.
'He was obviously a Christian young man,' Hollis says. 'But I didn't know how sincere he was about his faith.'
Hollis soon found out.
Not long after Powell first joined his teammates in Bible discussions with Hollis, he began speaking to kids at FCA-sponsored events. He talked about building a relationship with God, and he was surprised at how easily the words came to him.
But while Powell believed in the message he was delivering, and while he had become a mainstay at Sunday services in Champaign, outside of church, he was just a typical college kid with a basketball scholarship.
'I went out,' Powell said. 'I drank. I wasn't a bad guy or anything. It's just that, in retrospect to where I am now, I wasn't living a holy life.'
Now, Powell is living what he considers a holy life. What he's trying to avoid is living a holier-than-thou life.
Those close to Powell are aware that some will question his decision. But ask the man himself if he's prepared for negative feedback, and he glances at you as if he's misunderstood the question.
'How could anyone see this as a bad thing?' he asks, french fry in hand. 'That would be kind of stupid to think of it negatively. Any time somebody does something positive, whatever it is, I think it's awesome.'
His teammates agree.
'We call him 'The Rev' now,' says Illinois teammate Dee Brown, never one to back down about speaking his mind. 'He's giving himself over to God. That's a positive thing. It's not easy. I wish I could do it.'
But Brown admits that for a basketball star barely out of his teens, the temptations are great.
And though Powell and his teammates remain close, the newly licensed minister won't subject himself to some of those temptations.
If his teammates head out to a bar on Friday night, Powell likely is hanging out with his friends from the Get Free Ministry, a campus group that holds regular Bible discussions and gets together on the weekends, often to see a movie or go bowling.
You can see where a thing like that might form a rift, if Powell allowed it to.
But the senior says that while his priorities have changed, he doesn't expect everyone's to follow. The man can preach, but he doesn't plan to do it in the locker room.
'I'm not saying my teammates are a bunch of devils, not at all,' Powell says. 'It's just that my priorities are different now. But how stupid would I have to be to sit there and tell them, 'What you're doing is wrong,' when I was doing it six months ago? I can't sit here and pass judgment. There's only one judge, and I'm not him.'
Weber has noticed a change in Powell since his decision to enter the ministry. But he's also noticed that Powell 'hasn't gone overboard,' with regard to preaching his own lifestyle, an important distinction in maintaining team harmony.
As for basketball? Weber isn't worried about Powell's priorities.
'I think he's always had a strong faith, and now it's just that he's going to make that his future,' Weber says. 'If anything, I think he's been more focused toward the season and on getting better.'
Hollis hopes (and maybe prays) that Powell's focus pays off.
He worries about the alternative.
'I know that if he goes through a couple of games where he's not scoring, or he just has a little slump, there are going to be people saying, 'Oh, he's too into this religion thing,' ' Hollis says. 'There are going to be some people waiting for him to fail.'
Finding out what's No. 1
Hollis has heard the knock on Christian athletes, that they're soft. That they lose their passion for the game when they make God the top priority in their lives.
He's even had a firsthand look at a changed man, former Illinois football center Chris Brown, who Hollis said gave up his pursuit of pro football after 'putting God at the center of his life,' Hollis says.
'I think he would tell you his priorities changed,' Hollis says. 'I don't know if I would say he lost his love for the game, but it didn't seem as important to him.'
Until recently, Chris Brown was working with the FCA in Champaign, and Powell considers the ex-Illini football standout a big part of his life.
But when it comes to religion and sports, their balancing acts are quite different.
'God gave me a gift to play basketball for a reason,' Powell says. 'It would be a waste if I just walked away and said, 'I'm going into the ministry right now,' and just gave up on basketball.'
That doesn't mean he's the same player.
Powell says that he's better and jokes that 'since I've answered my calling, my shots are falling.' Weber says Powell's teammates tell him, 'Roger never misses.'
There are other changes, too.
'I know that he still loves basketball, and that he's still going to try his hardest and he's going to win and enjoy success,' Purchase says. 'But God is No. 1 in his life now. He's surrendered, and so now it's a totally different outlook.'
So you might notice a smoother jump shot this season (Powell plans to shoot a few more three-pointers, though he's still primarily a power forward). Powell's opponents might notice something else.
'I'm not going to cuss anybody out on the court, and I'm not going to go elbowing people intentionally,' Powell says. 'I believe that you can play hard without resorting to the profanity and playing dirty.'
And when the game is over?
'I want to be successful and I want our team to be successful,' he says, 'because whenever we win, whenever I have a good game, I'll say, 'Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Father,' because that shows that he's blessing us.'
Giving credit where credit is due
And that, when all is said and done, is at the heart of what Powell is doing.
Basketball always has been more than a game to him.
Now, it's even more significant. It's a way to get out his message.
'The coolest thing is really understanding my purpose and realizing what I'm here for,' Powell says. 'I knew that purpose was to play basketball, because God gave me the ability. But the ministry has really opened up my understanding. Now I see basketball as a way to give glory to God and to spread the word.'
The way Powell sees it, he does that every day.
And he does it the way his parents taught him to do everything. He does it without forcing the issue. He does it without being preachy.
When that message is coming from the pastor on the corner, it's one thing.
When it's coming from a standout college basketball player with NBA aspirations, Hollis says, it's another thing altogether.
'What an incredible witness,' Hollis says. 'First, because he's a high-profile individual. But also, any other person of faith who's a high school student or a college student and is feeling the pull of the Lord to leave behind some of their behavior can see somebody like Roger Powell do that, and they might think, 'Well, this is OK.' '
To earn his minister's license, Powell had to deliver a sermon at his church in Joliet. He read a few biblical verses, considered them for a week or so and tried to apply them to his daily life.
The sermon he produced, Purchase says, was 'marvelous,' a message to the congregation — but especially to its youth — about the changes in his life and the challenges of giving himself over to God.
'He's going to make a wonderful minister, and I think that basketball will allow him to touch even more people's lives,' Purchase says. 'They say you can't be in Hollywood and be saved, but I think basketball is a different story. There have been ministers in the NBA. Several of them, I think. And I think Roger is going to prove that you can have both.'
His road there — in basketball and in his faith — is just beginning.
Getting better on the court, too
For all his considerable talent on a basketball court, Powell is, as of today, considered a marginal NBA prospect.
Chris Monter, who publishes the Monter Draft News, says he likely wouldn't have been selected in either the first or second round of last spring's draft, and that NBA scouts will need to see some perimeter skills out of Powell before they'd consider spending a 2005 selection on him.
'We talk all the time about how the NBA isn't a club they just invite you to,' Weber says. 'We tell him, 'If you want to make it, then go work on your ball handling, your shooting, your defense. If you want it, go work at it.' '
So Powell has worked. For hours on end. Shooting free throws. Putting up jump shots. Dribbling with both hands.
Until a minor hamstring injury slowed him last week, he was perhaps Illinois' most diligent offseason worker.
That's always been his way. It hasn't changed since he heard his calling.
'He still has aspirations of the NBA, and we still encourage that,' Cherry Powell says. 'And I think this will open up that path. I always tell him, 'If you're not true to everything in your life, don't expect other things to be true to you.' By accepting the ministry, I think his NBA aspirations now are even more possible.'
And make no mistake, Powell still is passionate about playing professional basketball.
It's just that, these days, that dream shares space in his heart.
'It's basketball first, and then it's whatever God calls me to do,' Powell says. 'I don't know if it'll be my own church or if I'll be an evangelist and just travel around preaching or if I'll be a youth minister or what. I don't know exactly what that calling is yet, but it'll be in the ministry.'
But his two-part goal also means twice as much work.
You don't wake up one morning and decide you're an ordained minister anymore than you become an astronaut during a long weekend.
It takes years — probably three or more — to reach that level, and the path will be challenging for Powell.
Powell begins his post-graduate studies at the Urbana Seminary in the spring. Whenever his basketball schedule allows, he'll be expected to be in Joliet with Purchase, sometimes studying, sometimes preaching.
'He's got a long journey to go, but he'll get there,' Purchase says. 'He's not T.D. Jakes, now, but he could be some day. Or better yet, maybe he'll just be Roger Powell Jr.'
Staying the course
Beyond the studying and the preaching, though, Powell also will need to stay on what Weber calls a 'pretty straight and narrow path.'
Those close to Powell say he's up to that task.
Last spring, when he threw out those CDs, his mother asked, 'Why don't you give them to some friends of yours who still listen to that stuff, as gifts?'
'He looked at me and said, 'Why would I want to say, 'I'm not going to listen to this anymore, but then give it to them to listen to?' ' Cherry Powell says. 'And you know what? He was right. It would be like giving you a bottle of wine and saying, 'But my body is clean.' '
Powell's body is clean. His mind, too. And he has no intention of changing that any time soon.
'On my own, this would be hard,' Powell says. 'But when God came into it? It all got so easy. It wasn't hard to give up those things I used to do because God was there to help me. There's a lot of disbelief out there, but I know God exists because I felt him working in me.'
It's that faith — hardly newfound, but certainly changed — that makes Powell believe he can remain true to his calling.
'I tell him there are going to be people who question this,' Cherry Powell says. 'I told him, 'If you can defeat all the glitz and the glamour of the lifestyle and the fast women, you can defeat somebody coming up to you saying, 'Why would you want to do something so stupid like going and joining the ministry?' ' '
As a high school kid, Powell took part in school plays and musicals. Last spring, he put his name in the NBA draft after finishing as his team's third-leading scorer, a power forward trapped in the ideal body of an NBA swingman.
He isn't the sort to worry what other people think of him.
A few days after that ride to TGIFriday's, you see Powell again, this time dressed for a photo shoot. He smiles for the camera, and, surprised to have wrapped up so quickly he asks, 'You want to go get lunch again?'
You wish that you could but tell him, regretfully, that you can't. You have a deadline. You are expecting phone calls.
'No, that's cool,' Powell says. 'I can go eat by myself.'
With that, and a friendly handshake, he slips into that Chrysler of his and drives off, a man clearly comfortable with going his own way.