My love for the game of basketball started early in life as I was growing up in Union City, New Jersey. My love for God would start much later in my life. Little did I know that those two passions would join together and give birth to S.L.A.M. (Saving Lives Athletic Ministry)
Today, S.L.A.M. is a tri-county interdenominational basketball league/ministry which is home based at the Miami Vineyard and hosts as many as 80 teams (over 800 participants) of all ages during any given season. Many of the participants have come to know Christ during a half time message or from their constant contact with a caring volunteer coach/mentor.
To see where S.L.A.M. is today and how God has moved in it, I would like to take you back to its’ humble beginnings.
As I mentioned earlier, my love for basketball preceded my love for God. I remember getting in trouble at least a couple of times a week for being late for dinner only because I couldn’t pull myself away from the school yard court. Nothing could keep us away. I was addicted to the sound of those rusty iron nets every time I made a basket.
In my early teens we moved to Miami because of family problems. By my late teens I was pulling away from basketball and found myself fully immersed in a worldly lifestyle which included working as a bouncer in one of Miami’s busiest nightclubs in the early eighties. This definitely was not part of God’s plan for my life. Or was it ?
My involvement in this life-style led to life threatening situations which eventually became life or death. I chose life, which meant I had to choose God. I decided to trust him for the impossible.
God stepped into my life and I never looked back. I stumbled quite a few times, like we all do, but I accepted Jesus and let Him do the rest. One day while in prayer, God gave me a vision of a black-top basketball court (like the ones I grew up playing on in New Jersey) on the grounds of the church I was attending. God showed me kids coming from all over onto the church grounds just to play basketball on this court, and then there I was—preaching on the court to these kids, and telling them about Jesus and how He had changed my life! It was so clear and so vivid.
I shared this vision with my pastor and being sports minded, he seemed to take to the idea and told me to start looking into the legalities, costs and other issues that would pertain to a project like this. My excitement was short-lived as my pastor suffered a massive heart attack which put him in a wheel chair and he eventually was promoted to be with the Lord. The church leadership changed dramatically and did away with the plans.
We eventually felt God moving us, and after much prayer started praying for a new church home. My vision had faded but not died, and I had decided to put it on hold. But that was me, not God. He had other plans.
We visited a new church with a neighbor and there was a visiting pastor from Houston, Texas. Almost immediately after the service had started, he approached me and laid hands on me and began to speak. It was as if God had given him the key to my heart and inner most thoughts. It felt as though he ministered to me for an hour, my wife would tell me later it was more like minutes, but as I sobbed (not knowing why) and tears ran down my face I could hear him say to me “I don’t know if you know this yet my brother, but you are a preacher. God wants to use you but not in a conventional way. He does not want you inside four walls. He wants you to use your past experiences and the gifts he has given you to work with youth and to use that plan that you have in your heart to bring them to Christ.” Needless to say, no one at that church knew me. But God did.
That night I couldn’t sleep. As I spoke with God, I felt He revealed to me the one and only name we have ever used for the ministry—S.L.A.M., an acronym which stands for, Saving Lives Athletic Ministry. The following Friday night I visited that church’s youth group which consisted of 3 boys and about 6 or 7 girls and talked to them a little about the vision of S.L.A.M. The following week one of the boys who didn’t even play basketball showed up with 10 friends to youth group all looking to play basketball, thus the beginning of S.L.A.M. There was no turning back now.
Before this encounter I had already returned to basketball as a coach, not only coaching my older son in optimist leagues but also working as a high school basketball coach. Those experiences made it more evident just how much God was lacking in those venues and what an impact it would be if somehow we could connect God with basketball. It also made me think of all the inner city kids that loved the sport but could not participate because of the high registration fees charged by most of the leagues.
The first year of S.L.A.M. was challenging. First of all, there was no funding and in reality no game plan other than get these youth on the court and introduce them to Jesus. After a season of bumps and bruises, some of them spiritual, I returned to the drawing board.
The next fall, I started reaching out to some youth pastors and a handful of them met with me (where else) at a Dunkin Donuts and right there on a napkin we planned out the re-birth of S.L.A.M.
We figured we needed the help of local churches to be able to reach kids from all parts of the inner city. Our focus was the unreachable—the churches would help sponsor the teams so that we could make it available at no cost to all the kids wanting to participate. We wanted to provide them a safe haven where they could play basketball and also hear the word of God right on the court.
Our first full season of S.L.A.M. consisted of 23 teams with 3 divisions including a a girls division. No one had ever expected the Holy Spirit to move in such a powerful way. In the first message we ever delivered at the Miami Rescue Mission Gym more than 40 young men, many teary eyed, stood up, raised their hands and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
The Spirit of God hasn’t stopped moving since. In our 2nd season, the league grew to 35 teams. In our third season we added three more age divisions. In our 4th season, one of our coaches went to serve the Lord in the Bahamas and started S.L.A.M. there (another miraculous story in itself).
Today, S.L.A.M. consistently fields anywhere from 60 to 80 teams throughout a tri-county area. Every season brings enormous challenges, especially when it comes to funding the league, but every single season for the last 12 years, God has delivered a different miracle and let us know whose league it really is.
In the past 12 years we have seen thousands of youth from the inner city, those who are usually forgotten or given up on, give their lives to Christ. We have heard countless testimonies from youth pastors on how their youth groups have grown from 10 to 50 after just one season in S.L.A.M.
Every season has its’ own share of God stories. I remember Jessie Patterson, today a good friend of mine who when we met during our first season was a recovering crack addict who had been homeless for years. Jessie had recently accepted Christ and God led me to empower Jessie to coach a team of 13 to 15 year olds from a very rough area of town. Jessie not only flourished as a coach, but at the end of the season during our awards ceremony brought his whole team to Christ. Today Jessie is happily married, has two beautiful kids, goes to college and works and provides for his family.
I can think of more than one family that has come to the Lord because their child brought Jesus back home from the basketball court. I am reminded of the times that we (totally trusting in God) visited street gangs to request the release of some of their members and we were not even met with any opposition!
I remember how a young 17 year old Tommy Diego, a S.L.A.M. Miami team member, was touched by the Spirit and preached such a powerful word in the slums of the Bahamas that as many adults gave their lives to Christ that day as did youth. Today, Tommy Diego is a Youth Pastor at a local church with a group of over 300 youth.
We still talk about the friendships that were built between a team of tough inner city kids and a team of kids from the suburbs who had never been in that part of town. After two overtime games and a couple of playoff battles, they not only developed respect for each other, but became such good friends that they would cheer for each other during other games.
Many of our coach volunteers have taken it upon themselves to make sure their players are doing good in school and the stories of youth obtaining scholarships abound because of the dedication of those coaches. One Chavez Grant, defensive back for the University of Miami comes to mind, a former S.L.A.M. player for the Miami Rescue Mission Team.
It brings joy to my heart when every weekend kids and adult from all races, cultures and denominations come together as His children to expand the Kingdom.
S.L.A.M. eventually led me to the Miami Vineyard where God has now allowed me to also preach within the walls. I am also serving as the youth pastor and S.L.A.M. has finally found its home. This season we have 10 teams in the league from our church and we continue to see new faces coming to church as a result of it.
For more info visit: www.slambasketballministry.com