MATTHEW VANTRYON | SPORTS EDITOR
Kellen Dunham sat in a room with eight other college basketball players from across the country this summer and listened to his coaches, something he has done hundreds and thousands of times. However, the topic at hand was far from the hardwood. Instead, the emphasis was spiritual growth.
For Dunham, it was a new experience.
“I am in one of our meetings and we’re going through scripture and I’m thinking, ‘When is basketball practice? What am I doing here?’” Dunham said. “It was the first time in my life where I put God first and basketball took a way back seat.”
Dunham was one of nine college basketball players from across the United States who participated in the missions trip to the Philippines with Athletes in Action, an organization with the mission “to build spiritual movements everywhere through the platform of sports so that everyone knows someone who truly follows Jesus,” according to its website.
Dunham first heard about Athletes in Action through Morris Michalski, basketball specialist for the Athletes in Action team. Michalski first saw Dunham at Butler’s Crossroads Classic game against Indiana University in 2012, and then again in the Bulldogs’ win over Gonzaga University.
Despite the fact that Dunham was only a freshman, Michalski knew he was watching someone special.
“There was just something about Kellen that caught my eye, and this past season I didn’t want to forget what I thought I might be seeing,” Michalski said. “I saw him as a basketball player, but I had a hunch that there was more to him, that there was more he wanted to be.”
Michalski met with Dunham in mid-March, and pitched the idea of taking the trip over the summer. He said the most impressive thing about the sophomore was his yearning to grow and develop, on—and off—the basketball court.
“What is critical is his interest in growing,” Michalski said. “Growing as a man, an interest in growing as a player, an interest in growing as a soul and achieving life balance beyond just basketball.”
Dunham and the rest of the team spent a week together in the United States before going overseas. The group spent time training–physically, spiritually and culturally-.
Dunham said the bonds he developed with his new teammates proved crucial when it came time to execute on the court.
“The coolest part about it was we didn’t have a whole lot of time to practice together, so the bonds we made off the courts helped us execute and communicate inside the lines,” he said.
On the court, Dunham’s team was rarely challenged – it won its first five games by 50 or more points. Still, Michalski said the coaching staff forced Dunham to perform outside of his comfort zone.
“We made him play all over the floor, and many times when he worked inside-out he would have to screen for others and not just accept others to screen for him,” Michalski said.
Dunham said he noticed a difference in his performance.
“I was asked to create for my teammates, as well as myself,” he said. “A lot of our sets allowed me to work inside-out, and we got a lot of transition baskets. When I was running the floor, I was able to break free.”
Michalski said Dunham became a constant threat on the floor.
“I think he was ablaze right from the get-go. He was so teachable, he wanted more and he wanted to be better,” Michalski said. “He didn’t stop. He was dialed in. He was on fire. The only way to stop him was to call 911. That was it.”
In addition to growing his basketball skills, Dunham grew in leadership as well.
“I think you aren’t born with leadership. You develop it as you grow as a person,” Dunham said. “I think I picked up on that and can help our team win this year using that skill.”
While Dunham may be known as one to keep to himself, Michalski said Dunham’s experience during the trip may cause him to be more vocal.
“I think he is going to have a much harder time shutting up,” Michalski said. “When you are more confident in who you belong to and what you are about, you see the world as bigger than basketball, and you understand basketball isn’t about strategy. It is about people.”
More important for Dunham than the basketball and leadership opportunities were the lessons learned from replacing X’s and O’s with chapters and verses from scripture.
“Carrying Jesus with you to give you strength and playing just for him instead of for the fans and hype that will come and go–I really enjoyed that part of the trip and I think that was the most impactful,” he said.