ORU Basketball Fans Know to ‘Expect a Miracle’

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The team behind this year’s most impressive March Madness upset carries on Oral Roberts’s legacy of embracing sports as Christian witness.

When Oral Roberts toppled Florida last Sunday, the charismatic Christian school entered rare company as the second 15-seed in the history of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. Yet if there’s a miraculous element surrounding the small school from Tulsa, there’s also familiarity. There are five other Christian schools joining ORU in the Sweet Sixteen this year. What’s more, ORU has been here before—in fact, it’s gone even further.

While the school’s particular brand of Christianity might make it an oddity in major college sports, its involvement in basketball is part of a much longer story of Christian engagement with the game.

That story can be traced all the way back to 1891 when James Naismith invented the sport at a Christian college: the YMCA International Training School. Those origins, along with Naismith’s description of the task of a YMCA physical director—“to win men for the Master through the gym”—are often cited by Christian basketball fans as evidence of the evangelistic roots of the sport.

Naismith, though, aligned his life’s work less with saving souls and more with character formation. His basic goal was to “do good to men and serve God” and “leave the world a little better than I found it.” The sport quickly developed a life of its own, taking root in communities that crossed boundaries of race, region, religion, gender, and nationality.

Still, Christian affinities remained strong, particularly among Christian colleges. While football was the unquestioned king of college sports, the resources needed to thrive on the gridiron made it cost prohibitive for many smaller schools. …

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