RICHMOND, Va.- Sunshine streams through the bay doors of the U-Turn Sports Performance Academy, but inside it's raining three-pointers. Maurice Carter and Tim Black are honing their jumpers at the newly converted warehouse on the north side of Richmond, Va., draining shot after shot as U-Turn coach Mike Davis eyes them critically from mid-court. "Don't pull back, Mo," he calls. Carter nods and on the next shot holds his follow-through a little longer.
The players were both standout point guards in college. Last year Carter started for the Pittsburgh Explosion of the American Basketball Association and Black played his third season in Germany, his 23 points per game leading the Paderborn Baskets to a 30-0 record and a 50-game win streak. They both hope against long odds for a free-agent tryout with an NBA club. "I see some of those guys who are drafted, and I think, 'If he can make it, I can definitely make it,'" says Carter.
They have both trained at U-Turn since high school. When Carter was a freshman at Robert Morris University, he asked U-Turn founder (and tennis coach) Paul Manning about getting a tattoo. "He said, 'It's not the tattoo on your arm,'" says Carter, "It's, 'Are you willing to let God tattoo your heart?'" Carter is now marked in both places-his entire right bicep is covered by a picture of Jesus holding the cross and the words, "All Things Through Christ Jesus."
Through its impact on players, from professionals like Carter to elementary school children, U-Turn is redefining the boundaries of "sports ministry." It is unusual in that it uses the lure of year-round high-performance training to draw athletes and parents into contact with the gospel. Its programs emphasize the bond between commitment, discipline, excellence, and faith, and they reach between 250 and 600 youths per quarter from both inner-city schools and upper-income suburbs. U-Turn athletes have earned scholarships to colleges all over the country in tennis, basketball, and volleyball, and the organization has big plans for football and other sports.
When Manning, 39, wants to make a point, he looks you right in the eye and touches your arm. He laughs easily and can get misty-eyed over a really good backhand slice. He constantly combines sports metaphors with biblical references, as in: When Paul urged Timothy to fight the good fight, "Paul was wondering, 'Is this guy going to compete?'"
Manning grew up in inner-city Richmond. In his sophomore year at Virginia Tech, 1986, he became a Christian through the ministry of Campus Crusade. He read the Scriptures voraciously and spent so much time holding Bible studies with campus athletes that he left the school's tennis team.
In late 1991 he heard how a couple of high-school basketball teammates, caught in the drug culture, had murdered a neighbor. A few weeks later a Campus Crusade conference speaker inspired him to "make a difference" with his life. The burning question on his mind became, "How do I make disciples?" he says, and the answer was through sports. "Coaches do it worldwide. They get athletes to come to practice for two hours, four or five times a week."
So starting in the summer of 1992, after work (he was an electrical engineer) Manning would head down to the public tennis courts with his 1984 Toyota Supra loaded with rackets, two hampers of balls, some Bibles, and a broom to sweep away the broken glass. He found inner-city kids who wanted to play, needed direction, and would listen afterward as he taught the Scriptures.
Eighteen months later his players' tournament results had earned them state and Mid-Atlantic rankings. "I pushed those kids because if they didn't believe they could succeed there, they wouldn't believe they could succeed [in other areas of life]," he says. "They needed to conquer something."
His breakout player was Chris Oliver, an 11-year-old with "pretty strokes." Manning took him to a 1994 tournament at the Country Club of Virginia. "He wasn't going, 'Hey, I'm the only black kid here,' because he was taught first to walk in relationship to Jesus Christ," recalls Manning. In basketball sneakers and with a single donated racket, Chris "totally waxed" a kid decked out in expensive gear.
Chris lost in the semis, but some parents approached Manning to find out what club he was from and if their children could join. Soon they were bringing their children to Manning as he coached his way around Richmond from court to court. One even sponsored some inner-city kids, providing equipment and sending them to tournaments.
After a few more years of coaching and organizing events, he recruited a board of directors and incorporated U-Turn in April 1996. He quit his job that November (living off his savings to start) and registered as a nonprofit the following April. In the spring of 1998 U-Turn opened the doors on a warehouse leased for $1 per year from a local Christian businessman. U-Turn soon added basketball and strength training, and later other sports and eventually built its annual operating budget to $600,000.
One of the first staff coaches was Brigid Blair, a 6'2" forward from Oral Roberts University who later tried out for the WNBA's Washington Mystics. Everybody calls her Jam for "Jesus and me." She turned down a $60,000/year job as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Minnesota to come to U-Turn. "Paul called and said, 'My dream's come true,' and when I got here, it was just this shell of a building, barely a court, one Wal-Mart basket that was leaning, no heat, no kids, no clients, no money."
Since then Blair has coached and mentored and shared Christ with hundreds of young players, some of whom have gone on to stellar college careers. "I just live it out," she says. "Either I'm the truth in their eyes or I'm a liar, and for nine years my prayer has been that they see Christ in me."
Today the core of the U-Turn program is its Next Level training sessions for youth from age 8 up. For $40 per week (need-based scholarships available), athletes get two sport-specific group coaching sessions plus weight room time with a strength coach. All athletes must sit through a 15-minute devotional with every U-Turn training session.
U-Turn also has several elite "Warrior" teams. Don Gresham is the staff volleyball director. He is a retired banker and has coached the U.S. junior national women's team for 20 years besides his U-Turn team. Every one of his players in that time has been offered a college scholarship. He tells his high-school Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, "If you think you're going to make it, you aren't working hard enough."
The success of the U-Turn Warrior program has attracted at least one whole team, complete with coaches. The current girls 13-and-under basketball team joined U-Turn a year ago as the defending state AAU Division I champions, and they won again this year.
Team manager Tina Harris-Cunningham says the team wanted an organization that was "heavily into AAU and would really promote our girls." U-Turn's Christian emphasis "really didn't play into [the decision to join], but we respect their values." And having the girls sit through the devotionals? "Oh, it's not a problem," she says.
Occasionally it is, for some. U-Turn is up-front about the spiritual part of the program, but families from other religions have pulled their children when they realize what that means. If that happens, according to Manning, "we've done our job. We've brought that parent to the cross." Mike Davis, the director of basketball and a Virginia Tech point guard from 1991-1994, adds that "many kids leave because they come in and hear what they don't want to hear. The Bible cuts to the heart."
Talmech Williams, a former All-American linebacker at Rutgers University, supervises one of several programs U-Turn operates with state and local authorities, such as Richmond's Department of Juvenile Justice. This past year U-Turn staff went to Green Elementary School on a pilot program sponsored by the office of Virginia's Attorney General. Once per week for an hour with each third-grade class (75 students in all), they taught respect and teamwork along with sports. "We had our work cut out for us," recalls Williams. "The first day, 25 jumping jacks had these kids bent over double, going, 'Can I have some water? My back hurts.'"
The program showed, he says, a strong correlation between the physical activity and improved grades and behavior. Over the first three quarters, the number of students teachers rated as having "below average" academic and behavioral skills went from 15 (academic) and 25 (behavioral) to four and zero.
Monday to Friday kids from the Alternative Education System (they have been tossed from the Richmond public schools) come in to U-Turn to play football or basketball as gym class. Most live in group homes and have behavioral problems. "They're like ice cream cones with those chocolate shells," says Rob Webster, a former rugby player at Old Dominion University and U-Turn's AES supervisor. "Hard on the outside, soft on the inside."
Webster says he, too, was once a "knucklehead" and put himself through college selling marijuana. The other week one teen, when asked about his strengths during a Bible study, replied, "Putting food on the table." That means, says Webster, "he's hustling," dealing drugs or stealing things to support his family. But there are small victories as well. Recently the same youth who strutted onto the basketball court and demanded, "Gimme the [expletive] ball" also offered during Bible study to pray when the group heard a classmate's friend was in a car accident. (For the state-sponsored programs, the Bible studies are informal and for kids who want to remain after the state-sponsored program time ends.)
Last month U-Turn moved from a dingy old ex-warehouse, with plastic sports floors and uncertain lighting, across the street to a massive, newly renovated ex-warehouse with four brand new hardwood basketball courts, plus courts for volleyball and tennis, artificial turf for football, new weight room equipment, parents' lounge, snack bar, and other amenities. They're still deciding what to do with the thousands of undeveloped square feet upstairs, and working on a $5.6 million fund-raising campaign to help pay for it all. Given all the different opportunities the new building opens up, "I think now our challenge is to understand them," says Tom Chewning, chairman of U-Turn's board.
Carter, for his part, understands that he wouldn't have been an All-Conference player without his faith. Some people misunderstood his tattoo at first because they didn't look at it, he says, "but it's pretty self-explanatory: If you put Christ first and put your heart into Him, anything can be accomplished."