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Making a U-Turn

Religion | A Richmond sports academy uses athletics to share the gospel and change lives

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

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."

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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.

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