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Wednesday, January 11, 2006
A night of hoops with Jerry Falwell

By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell isn't in the mood to talk basketball right now.

He doesn't want to talk about religion or politics, either. His favorite team, the Liberty Flames, is being killed on the glass and is staring up from an 11-0 hole as the visiting Marist Red Foxes have blitzed the home squad in the first five minutes of this nonconference tilt. Falwell's clearly concerned and irritated, his brow sharply furrowed. The small talk, mostly about families and weather, comes out of the 72-year-old pastor's mouth in short, gruff growls.

It isn't until the home team gets on the board and begins keeping pace that Falwell finally allows himself a relieved smile. He finally divulges why he's sitting courtside for a nonconference game in the cavernous Vines Center, an arena that's one-ninth full tonight (the students are on break), as well as why he sat through the entire women's game that preceded it.

"I love all sports," Falwell says in his familiar, honey-thick Southern accent. "Basketball, football, baseball, track ... I'm here for everything. I can't travel on the road with them, but I'm here for the home games."

It doesn't matter what you think of the man, whether you stand with him or against him on the moral issues and campaigns he pursues so passionately. It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with his 1991 comment that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuals, or where you stand on his 2002 comments about Islam and terrorism. It doesn't matter which side you took in the landmark Supreme Court libel case of Hustler vs. Falwell. Minus all the publicity, controversy and criticism, he's just a human being made in God's image, just like you. He likes his hot dogs with mustard, and he dearly loves the game of college basketball.

But Falwell has his own Division I university to root for, and you don't.

Liberty University's wide and sweeping campus lies at the foot of the Hill City of Lynchburg, greeting northbound travelers on winding U.S. Highway 29. It's a collection of oversized brick buildings with giant Greek columns that serves 7,700 students now, but it was founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College, a tiny school with an enrollment of only 154. In 1988, LU had a D-I independent basketball program. Three years later, the program was a full-fledged Big South member. The Flames have won the league title twice, in 1994 and 2004.

But this year has been tough -- just four wins in Liberty's first 13 games -- and the school's founder and chancellor knows it. The Flames are led by two-time All-Big South guard Larry Blair (21.5 ppg), a streaky shooter with a sweet touch, but there are few on the very young Liberty roster who are ready to help him.

"They're rebuilding this year, but they're doing well," says the man with twin membership in the Moral Majority and Mid-Majority. "Stick with 'em. They're all freshmen and sophomores, no seniors on the team. They've gotta go get another year to come of age."

When the halftime buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 37-28. But out of the break, the Flames staged a furious run, with Blair slashing through a Marist zone for a layup to cut the lead to two at 16:33. As the Red Foxes called a 30-second timeout, the tiny but loud congregation came to its feet. Falwell stood up from his courtside seat, stretched his portly frame, smiled broadly and pointed up at the scoreboard on the far end of the arena.

"Never thought I'd see that," he said enthusiastically. "Not after the start we had."

As the crowd cheered, Falwell turned to a sweatshirted teenage boy seated with friends across the aisle.

"Can you make that play Blair just made, son?"

It's Matt Dunton, son of Liberty coach Randy Dunton. Matt is a junior point guard for local Brookville High who dropped 28 points in his game the other night.

"Yes sir, I can," comes the respectful reply.

Falwell beckoned him over, summoned him close. He wrapped the young man's hand in his.

"I hope you consider coming to LU," the master recruiter whispered. "We've got a place for you."

"He's doing AAU, and in this summer he'll be in all the camps," the Flames' coach would say after the game. "He'll look at his options, and we'll see if he wants to come play for Dad. I'd certainly love to coach him."

And Falwell does know point guards. He was one himself, back in high school.

"I was average," he says. "Average outside shot, wasn't much of a ballplayer."

The mind reels with the possible alternate realities, what could have happened if the Rev. Falwell had developed his shot instead: He might have made the NBA, and Liberty's campus would still be unadorned rolling hills. Out on the court, the Flames were losing their composure -- a sophomore guard named Evan Risher (5.1 ppg) drew a technical for uttering a very un-Christian word unto the referee after a hand-check foul.

The barrage of free throws allowed Marist to balloon the lead from four to seven, and over the final four minutes of garbage time, the Red Foxes pushed the final margin to 14 and sent Liberty to its 10th loss. As during the beginning of the game, the Reverend fell quiet.

"[Losing] makes you better," he mused before pausing. "But winning is preferable."

But before he faded away into the southern Virginia night, one last question: Is there anything about this game that's spiritual? Is hoops, as Phil Jackson would argue, inherently sacred?

"We believe that sports and music are the two platforms that can reach youth -- any kid, anywhere in the world," Dr. Falwell intoned with his trademark quaver. "They may not know Billy Graham, but they know Michael Jordan. We use basketball to attract kids who otherwise would not come, and we ask God to give them the message of the gospels.

"That's how we look at it, not that the game is spiritual, it's what it does, it attracts kids. After 35 years, we're the largest Christian school in the world."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.