WACO, Texas – Baylor coach Scott Drew stood outside the media interview room at the Ferrell Center collecting his thoughts.
It was Feb. 4 and his team had just suffered its seventh loss in eight games, this one by 17 points to Kansas as part of a 2-8 start in Big 12 play.
Before Drew entered the room to answer questions about what wasn’t working, why and what he could do to fix it after plummeting out of the top 10 of the polls, he saw Scott Brewer, one of the Bears’ two team chaplains.
Drew grabbed Brewer as he passed by in the hall.
"We may not win another game this year, and I may be a horrible coach," Drew told him, "but if any of these guys leave without knowing Christ, that will be the real loss."
The sentiment has been one that’s summed up Drew’s approach to coaching his team, but this season has been one marked by life change more than any of Baylor’s 24 wins or 11 losses.
Later that month, Drew watched five of his players make public pronouncements of faith by being baptized. Two of those five had recently committed their lives to Jesus Christ for the first time.
The Bears face Nebraska on Friday in San Antonio in the NCAA Tournament, but regardless of the result, those five have defined what the season means for Baylor.
"It’s been extraordinary," team chaplain Mark Wible said.
Kenny Chery’s life changed in the lobby of an Oklahoma hotel.
Baylor’s starting point guard sat down with shooting guard Brady Heslip and assistant coach Tim Maloney.
The conversation quickly turned to faith.
Chery was struggling to play through an injured ankle and the next day, Oklahoma handed Baylor its eighth loss in 10 games. His mother had also been battling diabetes.
His spirits were low.
Chery’s first year as a Bear is Heslip’s fourth, and he’s played at least 26 minutes a game in all three seasons after sitting out his first year to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. Heslip had felt like Chery did then, and shared the story of his first year that helped Heslip gain perspective as he played out his career at Baylor.
Heslip is originally from Canada, but went to prep school in New Hampshire and spent his freshman year at Boston College before transferring more than 1,800 miles to Baylor.
"People aren’t open about their faith at all there, but I was always curious about it," Heslip said. "I believed in God, but I didn’t know what it meant."
Unlike many of his Texan teammates, Heslip didn’t grow up going to church, and lacked much of the biblical knowledge that can come with growing up in the Bible Belt.
Being at a private, Baptist school where his team is allowed to pray before and after each practice and sits down for weekly Bible study was new and had a quick impact on the sharpshooter.
Wible, an associate pastor at Highland Baptist Church, has been a part of coach Scott Drew’s program since he arrived in 2003. He helped Heslip understand that being a Christian meant believing more than just a supernatural being was out there somewhere.
Heslip spent time talking with Wible, his teammate Jacob Neubert and assistant coach Tim Maloney while sitting out the 2010-11 season, and told them on Jan. 30, 2011 that he wanted to become a believer in Jesus Christ.
"He just told me God sent his only son here, in that he created a path for our eternal life," Heslip said of Maloney. "When you (believe in that), you know you’re going to heaven."
The conversation with Chery wouldn’t have happened without Heslip’s spiritual growth in the years that followed his own profession of belief.
"Brady has been one who has been continuing to grow in his depth of following the Lord," Wible said. "This year, he’s really begun to see the need to impart that to others. I think that’s why he and Kenny have such a bond."
So in that hotel lobby, Heslip, Chery and Maloney talked and answered some of Chery’s questions. Like Heslip, Chery came from Canada, where the climate toward faith is much colder than Texas. Heslip spent his summer leading a Bible study for his teammates on the Canadian national team and felt at ease speaking openly about his faith. Maloney, a native of New York, stepped aside and let Heslip explain what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
It wasn’t about going to church, believing God simply existed or being born to a mother who called herself a Christian.
"I felt like it was the time for me to believe in Christ and let him rule my life," Chery said. "That conversation was one I’ll remember the rest of my life. I’d said those words before, but that was the first time I really meant it, without my mom being around or my brothers being around. It was my personal decision."
Heslip had never seen anyone else choose to believe Christ before his conversation with Chery, which added its own weight.
"I felt like I was a new person," Chery said. "I felt like everything I’ve done bad in the past is gone. I’m starting new. I’ve accepted God into my life. The next morning I woke up, thanked God for waking me up, and I just had a whole new outlook."
After a Tuesday practice on Feb. 25 — 17 days after the loss to Kansas — Drew and his team boarded a charter bus bound for Highland Baptist Church in Waco before traveling to face Texas on Feb. 26. Wible stepped into the baptistry waters at Highland Baptist in front of Baylor players, coaches, support staff and various others around the program. In front of about 50 people, he baptized Chery and teammates Gary Franklin, Royce O’Neale, Ish Wainright and Taurean Prince.
Brewer, who works for an organization called Nations of Coaches that seeks to minister to coaches and players at various programs, is in his first year working full-time with Baylor. He spends four days on campus and about 20-30 hours a week with the team, despite living in north Fort Worth, almost 100 miles from Waco. He encouraged the five Bears to go through with being baptized.
His duties include organizing and leading separate Bible studies for players and coaches. He and Wible work together to minister to Baylor players, but Wible’s duties as a full-time associate pastor at Highland Baptist limit how much time he can be with the team.
One at a time, Wible dunked the players under the water to symbolize their death and lifted them out of the water as a symbol of their new life as believers in Christ.
"That was a highlight, one of those top 10-15 lifetime things. To be able to see the visible response of guys hearing the message, receiving the message and accepting the message," Wible said. "It wasn’t me, pastor Brewer, it was everybody. It is a consistent theme throughout the whole basketball department, that we develop them not just as basketball players, but to develop them as people and their spiritual lives as well."
It was the first time anything like that had happened in Drew’s program. Over the last 11 years, a few players have professed a newfound faith or began taking their faith more seriously by recommitting their lives to Christ.
However, Chery, Franklin, O’Neale, Wainright and Prince were the first players to be baptized as part of Wible’s ministry, and two players committing their lives to Christ in a month–or even a season–has been a rarity.
"We don’t force anyone. We had players that came from different religious backgrounds," Drew said. "Our job’s not to judge, our job is to serve. Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy. I don’t think we ever make people feel awkward or different or embarrassed that they don’t have the same beliefs or faith."
Prince was the last person in the water, and his story also helped inspire the four teammates who preceded him in baptism.
Taurean Prince’s life changed in a room usually reserved for film review.
"I was always worried about material things. I told myself I would play for my family," he said.
As February began, Prince’s minutes went down, and he went four games without scoring more than seven points.
"I don’t know if I’d say I was depressed, but I was worried about a lot of things that I didn’t have control over," Prince said. "I didn’t want to have to worry."
The weight had made life difficult, and after a practice on Feb. 14, Prince asked Brewer if the two could "chop it up" after the team’s bible study later that night.
When the study ended and the team filed out out of the film room, Prince stayed behind.
He told Brewer he was miserable and didn’t want to live according to his own plan anymore. A summer trip with the Christian basketball organization Athletes in Action had planted the idea of "playing for God" in Prince’s head, but he wasn’t sure what that meant.
The season-long theme of "One" during Wible’s team chapel messages rattled around in Prince’s head, too. One particular message emphasized that if a person was asked why they should be able to go to heaven, there was only one correct answer.
Brewer employed a basketball analogy and explained that everyone in life makes turnovers. However, the good news was that God sending his son to die meant that the punishment for those "turnovers," past, present and future, had already been accounted for.
All God wanted from Prince, Brewer explained, was obedience born out of faith and love.
"Coaches, athletes, we always try to earn everything, so it can open guys’ eyes sometimes when the they see things like Ephesians 2:8-9," Drew said, "where it says we’re saved by grace through faith, and that it’s a free gift and nothing we’ve done."
Out loud, Prince declared he didn’t want to live by his own plan anymore, and the two prayed alone in the film room.
Prince looked up at Brewer with tears in his eyes when they were done. The two shared a hug.
Brewer explained that the first step in being a believer is making a public pronouncement of your faith: a baptism.
"A’ight, when do we do it?" Prince asked.
Brewer talked with the team in the following days about what Prince’s baptism would mean, and others told the team they had never taken that step and publicly professed belief.
They started making plans, and on Feb. 25, the team celebrated the five teammates’ decisions.
"I was baptized when I was young, but I don’t remember and I wanted to do it again. Others hadn’t been baptized before, and it was great to see them give their lives to God in front of other people," Franklin said. "Especially to do it with my brothers, it was great. We held each other accountable for guys who wanted to do it, and if guys were hesitant, we encouraged each other. For me, it was truly understanding what I was doing, as opposed to being a baby or a kid doing it because your parents want you to do it."
Brewer became a Christian 21 years ago, and he’s been around long enough to know what can sometimes be thrust upon believers.
"My concern is there will be a perception that TP (Prince) will never say a cuss word," Brewer said. "There will be an expectation that all these kids will be perfect. They’re not."
Christians are called to grow daily more like the one they worship in a never-ending process called sanctification.
"Transformation is going to happen over a period of years and not in a moment," he said.
Added Franklin: "Some that are young (believers) may not have as close of a relationship (with God)."
Franklin’s own story of faith was born from a botched surgery on his left arm after breaking his humerus when he was 13. It severed a nerve and required numerous later surgeries to return the limb to full strength. It also forced him to re-assess what was important to him.
For Franklin and the rest of the team, this season is one to look back on as a year when major growth occurred, and it had very little to do with anything that took place on the court at the Ferrell Center.
"It’s about connecting with people. One of the saints said, ‘Preach, preach and sometimes use words,’" Maloney said. "As time goes on, kids ask questions. ‘Coach Maloney, why don’t you do this, or why do you do this?’ They see you with your kids, your wife, what your language is like. That leads to them asking questions."
Chery and Prince saw the way people like Drew, Maloney and Heslip handled the difficult 2-8 stretch to begin Big 12 play. Those questions led them to faith.
"If you don’t know the answers to the questions, then say you don’t know, and tell them we’re going to God’s Word to find the answer," Maloney said.
Brewer, Wible, Drew and Maloney emphasized early in the year that the energy and optimism of November will feel very different than the grind and difficulties of February on a near-annual basis.
"Kenny got hurt and then we went into the losing streak. … it all of a sudden unraveled, you could see that they were really evaluating what in the world was going on," Brewer said. "When you present truth, and you say, ‘Is your hope built on this? Is your hope built on being No. 1 in the country or playing in the NBA? That can be taken away in a second. You have to build your hope on something that isn’t temporary.’ When they were walking through that–Kenny was injured, and Taurean was losing–it began to make sense."
Drew’s message has trickled down to his staff and the rest of the team. Friday might be the last game of a rocky season on the court. It might be the first of a memorable run up I-35 to Arlington for the Final Four.
The result won’t change what’s already been, by Drew’s measure, the most successful season in Baylor history.