Basketball as Mission: A Discussion with Tony McGinnis
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
Recently, a website that covers Alabama news reported that twelve athletes have been elected to the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame. One of these athletes is Tony McGinnis, whose impressive history and stats as a basketball player and coach are listed in the article at https://www.al.com/sports/index.ssf/2013/01/twelve_new_members_for_huntsvi.html
Since McGinnis coaches part-time at Oakwood University and is also Executive Director for the local Harris Home for Children, Adventist Today wanted to know whether and how the two related.
“Basketball has been part of my life for a long time,” McGinnis said. “I started playing in the second grade.” He described with humor how, having been exposed only to football so far in his short life, he “had no clue” about basketball. He was a member of the boys’ and girls’ club, and since he was tall, “they thought I could play. I scored maybe two points that whole first season, and that was the highlight of my life!”
As he grew older and more skilled, he began to see basketball as a possible way out of his life in government housing. The only other option he could see was selling drugs. He chose the ball. Throughout his high school and college career, he was a star, and eventually he became a semi-pro player, shooting baskets in such diverse places as Slovenia and Australia. According to the al.com article, he “finished his career as the No. 12 scorer in [Texas A&M] Aggie history (1,240 points).”
It was in Australia that a new turn was introduced into his life. His parents and grandparents were Adventist, but McGinnis had begun playing ball on Sabbath in high school, “thinking I didn’t have a choice.” In Australia, feeling alone in a strange place, he discovered there was an Adventist church just down the street, and attended there. He reports that he saw Christianity and Adventism on a whole new level. He was deeply moved by the experience of being in a church with people who didn’t look like him or talk like him, and yet the service was mostly familiar. “Even some of the hymns were the same.” For the first time, he began to think seriously about his own relationship with God and with the church.
Back in the U. S., he broke his foot at a church game. “I thought I was in the prime of my basketball endeavors; that basketball was my life. I was 25 years old, just back from Australia, and between jobs. With a broken foot, I couldn’t very well run down a court!” He had been working part time with local boys’ and girls’ clubs, and that summer he committed to spending his entire time working with them. It was at that moment that his agent called with an opportunity to play in the Philippines. In what can’t have been an easy decision, McGinnis told his coach that he had committed himself to the children, and turned down the job offer. “Little did I know that would be my last opportunity.”
Struggling with what to do next, he began to feel called in a different direction. “Free from basketball, I could use my skills in a different way.” He took a job with the Housing Authority, was a youth director, worked with inner city kids. . . “That’s really where I got my vocation of working with kids. I began investing more and more time with them.”
In 2009, McGinnis was surprised to receive a call from Oakwood to come and work with their basketball team. “I thought, ‘Wow, where’d that come from! I could do basketball without compromising Sabbath. I’d always thought that would be great, but never followed up on it.’” So he took them up on their offer. He says the first two years were good, (they made it to the Nationals) but “the third year, something special happened. We won the national championship. That, for me, out of all the things I’ve done as far as playing basketball overseas, playing in college at a high level—that was the highlight of my career. Player, student of the game, coach—it all came together and I realized the work I was doing with those young people meant something. We all had to work together and make sacrifices to get where we were.”
McGinnis says one of his sacrifices is “burning the midnight oil” as Executive Director at the Harris Home, in charge of total operations: fund raising, managing staff, working with the children (though not as much as he would like) and being the public face of the organization in the community. Having grown up in difficult circumstances himself, he feels a bond with the youth with whom he works. Most of the teenagers who come to the Harris Home are there only temporarily during some kind of crisis. They used to try to find foster homes for them, but it’s so hard to place teens, especially troubled ones, that they stopped doing that and now create programs where “we can give them that stability and nurture ourselves.” Some kids have lived with them as long as seven years and still “call home” and report in. [To learn more about the home, visit www.harrishomeforchildren.org]
McGinnis also feels athleticism is key. “There’s a respect factor—a recognition factor. I’ve been able to utilize my knowledge of the game and of sports to be able to work in the community in ways that I never could have. I have a master’s degree, but I still feel it was basketball that got me in the door. People saw me as an athlete first, and learned I am a hard worker and good citizen afterwards.” In fact, he has written book called The Game is Deep, which shows the challenges and joys of basketball, and how it can affect a life. [Learn more at www.tonymcginnis.com]
He believes the sports program at Oakwood plays an important role. “Kids know that OU has a basketball team that travels over the country. They may even be new to Adventism as well as to college. I have a child on my team right now that had no clue what Oakwood was, what Seventh-day Adventism was, but his next-door neighbor was SDA. He’d go there when he had troubles and they were kind to him. They began to teach him, and then took him to play. I’ve had several who came in to the church through basketball. Some could take basketball scholarships at another college, but they don’t want to compromise Sabbath.”
McGinnis says that the teamwork and discipline that youth learn through various sports, not to mention the physical strength and fitness, will stand them in good stead all their lives. “This,” he states firmly, “is a ministry.”