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F a i t h   A t   P l a y


By Bethany Bradsher

When Dr. Joel Freeman first entertained the idea of becoming a chaplain in the NBA, he was a minister with almost no interest in basketball. He had grown up in the hockey-mad region of Alberta, Canada, in a small town of 2,000 -- with nine hockey rinks. His only connection with the NBA was an acquaintance who was a chaplain for the Boston Celtics.

Little could Freeman have imagined, when he agreed to lead chapel services for the Washington Bullets in the late ‘70s, that his 19 years of friendships with professional athletes would be a springboard to an extraordinary range of experiences -- leading seminars for leaders of Granada and Nigeria, advising business and entertainment executives and becoming an insightful outside observer of the African-American experience.

“I learned a lot about human nature during that time,” said Freeman, who now runs a Maryland organization called The Freeman Institute. “We talk about down-and-outers. What about the up-and-outers? What about the person who, it seems, has the tiger by the tail, but internally is not able to handle the emotional pressure of success?”

According to all accounts, Freeman was only the second person to take a chaplain’s role in the history of the NBA, and there were times in the early years when he wondered why he had volunteered at all, he said. After the initial excitement of rubbing elbows with famous athletes wore off, he had a period where he became disillusioned, viewing some of the players as inconsistent, spoiled and shallow -- and he wondered whether his presence could make a difference. Was he wasting his time? This, he says, is a predictable phase any pro sports chaplain goes through in developing a genuine ministry.
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By about his third or fourth year with the team, something had changed within Freeman and  the way the players viewed him. They became more trusting, and he persisted in just spending time with them and giving them something invaluable -- a confidant who put no conditions on them and didn’t try to sponge off of their celebrity status.

“The players, they can instantly tell if someone is a fan or a genuine friend with no strings attached,” he said. “I really fell in love with the guys, just with their hearts and enjoyed helping them work through the things they were dealing with.”

The truth, Freeman said, is that NBA players are often lonely and desperate for meaning beyond basketball. Unlike football and baseball, where most of the players are of average size and are absorbed by dozens of teammates -- professional basketball players, because of their stature and their status, can never be anonymous. "They can draw a crowd wherever they go, but what do they say once the crowd is assembled?" Freeman's passion is to help athletes to develop deeper reservoirs of mental, emotional and spiritual wisdom so that they have something of value to communicate when called upon.

While he was still serving the team that is now the Wizards, Freeman started leading seminars about teamwork and leadership and providing conflict resolution and support to leaders in government, business and entertainment. He retired as chaplain in 1998 so that he could focus on tasks like his recent trip to Nigeria, where he spoke to lawmakers and other groups about leadership and the unique role of the black man in society.

The racial emphasis of Freeman’s work has taken much of his energy lately because of his fifth book, “Return to Glory.” Sales have been brisk for the book, subtitled “The Powerful Stirring of the Black Man,” despite critics who thought that a white Canadian couldn’t possibly unearth the African-American experience.

Endorsed by the likes of Bill Cosby, Julius Erving and Ben Carson, the book, which was co-written by black business executive Don Griffin, is being made into a 52-minute film narrated by former Los Angeles Laker Adrian Branch and has served as the inspiration for M.C. Hammer’s latest album. Freeman and his associates hope to donate the film to every juvenile detention center, prison and school in America, because they think that young black men, in particular, and all kids, will benefit from the film’s analysis of African achievements and its prescription for racial healing in communities still broken by prejudice and misunderstanding.

For more information about Dr. Joel Freeman’s work, visit  or

Article in The York Daily Record -- York, Pennsylvania (February 20, 2002)

Courtesy of The Freeman Institute

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