Upward Basketball flourishing in county
Imagine a sports league where the fans and cheerleaders support both teams during a game and the ultimate goal is to glorify God instead of hoisting a championship trophy.
That scenario is a reality for the K-6 participants of Upward Basketball, part of the worldwide Upward Unlimited program that was started in Franklin County two years by Chris Willis, whose church, Calvary Baptist Church in Russellville, serves as a host site.
Upward Unlimited is a non-denominational Christian sports ministry based in Spartanburg, S.C., that partners with more than 1,500 churches from across the country. It was started in 1986 by Caz McCaslin, a recreation minister in Spartanburg who used an $11,000 private donation to start a 27-player basketball league.
According to the organization's official Web site, the league's "mission is to introduce children to Jesus Christ by creating opportunities to serve through sports … and it is committed to doing whatever it takes to share the Gospel through the easy and powerful tool of sports."
Since then, the program has branched out to other sports, including flag football, basketball and cheerleading. Ten years ago, a total of 76,587 youth participated in at least one Upward sport, and that number grew to 489,580 by 2007.
The 14-team local league, which plays each Saturday and practices once per week, played its first game this season on Jan. 10 and will end with an awards celebration that recognizes all players and teams on March 5. The league is comprised of players from Calvary and area churches and schools, and there are currently about 100 players and 25 cheerleaders participating this year.
There are currently six other churches in the Shoals area that are also Upward host sites – First Baptist of Colbert Heights, Calvary Baptist and First United Methodist in Tuscumbia, Leighton Baptist in Leighton and Highland Baptist and Cross Point Church of Christ in Florence. Each host church is required to sign a ministry agreement that affirms that its teachings follow Christianity.
Upward Basketball players, who are evaluated before the season to make sure the competition level is balanced among the teams, aren't required to be long-distance shooters, speedy dribblers or lock-down defenders. Instead, they participate in devotional time during practice and games, and they are required to learn a memory verse each week during the season.
Courtney Wallace, a league volunteer and wife of Calvary pastor Wade Wallace, said the league provides both an exciting and positive atmosphere for children.
"Everyone cheers for both teams and the cheerleaders uses (positive) cheers for both sides," Wallace said. "They'll yell 'Go Upward,' 'Score two,' or 'Take it down the court,' and not 'Go-fight-win.
"It's a totally different atmosphere where everybody is so excited, and it doesn't matter who makes the basket because everyone is cheering for the player who made the two points.
"It's just a really encouraging atmosphere and when the kids do lose, it's okay because they've done the best they can."
Even though Upward Basketball doesn't place an emphasis on winning or scoring, players and cheerleaders can still earn recognition. For example, cheerleaders receive color-coded megaphone stickers for their leadership, effort or Christ-like behavior, while basketball players can earn jersey stars for five different categories, including best offense, best defense, sportsmanship, effort or Christ-like behavior.
Wallace said the star system's main purpose is to teach character to the participants in the league, which stresses equal participation and recognizes each player and cheerleader with a raucous introduction before each game.
"Instead of encouraging them to score points, it really teaches them to show good sportsmanship and to be Christ-like," she said. "The cheerleaders also throw out spirit sticks with candy in them after the game – they love do that – and we have a devotional at halftime with an adult or youth leading it.
"I'm just glad I'm a part of it," Wallace said. "Anybody can come and we encourage people to come and be a part of it."