Player on NBA's first all-Black starting team stands tall for Jesus


LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — He was an All-American at the University of California, Los Angeles and later won three NBA world championships with the Boston Celtics. After his illustrious sports career, he came to understand his mother's teachings about faith in a whole new way through a fresh encounter with God.

"My mother was an ambassador for Jesus Christ," said Willie Naulls, the founder of Willie Naulls Ministries, a Christ-centered mission promoting a balanced awareness of academic, physical and spiritual achievement. Naulls spent the early part of his childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Dallas at a time when segregation still held its grip on the city.

"It was very oppressive," he recalls.

Despite the harsh racial atmosphere, his mother's strong faith encouraged him to see his uniqueness as a child of God.

"I was taught not to hate the people who hated me because of the color of my skin, but to pray for them and God would work it out," he said.

A work ethic that included careful preparation for any assignment and discipline in-the-task was encouraged.

"She taught me that nothing is worth having unless you work for it," he said. "She was totally against welfare unless people couldn't work."

As a result, 7-year-old Naulls got his first job delivering ice blocks. At 9, his family moved to Los Angeles and settled in a government housing project filled with shipyard workers in San Pedro. This "re-integrated" melting pot provided emotional breathing room for Naulls to form his identity.

"Within a few months, my life's course and destiny were shifted from oppression and the influence of people not wishing me well to that of people who let me be me."

It wasn't perfect, but he felt safe.

"I know there was still racism in San Pedro, but they didn't drive around at night looking for a nigger to lynch," he said.

Dodge ball to hoops
The first sign of his athletic ability emerged at age 11 in dodge ball. Later he became an all-city baseball pitcher for San Pedro High School.

But a basketball scholarship to UCLA—and the influence of legendary coach John Wooden—changed his athletic path and the course of his life.

"A lot of Coach Wooden's one-liners were ones I had heard from my mother," he said.

"'It's what you learn after you think you know it all that counts…Do your best… Compete against yourself alone…Nothing is worth having unless you work for it"—in these maxims Naulls heard the echoes of his mother coming from the Wizard of Westwood, the much-lauded coach who eventually won 10 NCAA championships over a 12-year period.

Naulls captained his team at UCLA, became its most valuable player, and then earned an All-American selection in 1956. As his college athletic career soared, his spiritual life sputtered at low altitude.

"At UCLA, I never went to church," he admits, even as he assumed he was a Christian because of his mother's influence.

After college, Naulls played for the New York Knicks in six-plus stand-out seasons. He earned four NBA All-Star berths and became the first African-American team captain in the history of integrated professional sports. In 1963 he headed to the Celtics until his 1966 retirement.

After his professional basketball career ended, Naulls went into business in Beverly Hills and followed the same upward trajectory that brought him great success in the sports world.

New spiritual eyes
One day Rosey Grier, the former L.A. Rams football player—soon to be ordained as a Christian minister—invited Naulls to lunch.

"You should go to church with me," Grier chided his friend.

"I don't want to go," Naulls replied. "I'm a good person…people who go to church are not very upwardly mobile."

He admitted he was leery of the segregated Sunday experience and with what he considered hypocritical people who left bad memories.

Grier nodded his head slightly. He knew where Naulls was coming from.

"I can't believe anything I can't see," Naulls added.

"That's your biggest problem," Grier told him plainly.

"What do you mean?

"Seeing is not believing," Grier replied. "You have to believe to see."

The words lingered in Naulls' mind, because he was forced to consider a new challenge—to consider something beyond the physical limits imposed by his own mind in order to embrace the spiritual realm.

He went to church with Grier on Easter 1983 at the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles and heard Dr. Fred Price preach.

Attracted and intrigued by what he saw and heard, Naulls went back, taking three of his four children.

At the end of Price's message about faith, the children stood up at the invitation. Then God grabbed Naulls' heart and he stood. They made their way to a prayer room.

"Do you want to receive Jesus as your Savior and Lord?" a counselor asked the former athlete.

"I've always believed in Jesus," Naulls said.

"Believing is not in the mind, it's in the heart," the man replied. "Do you believe in your heart?

Naulls pondered the question.

"Have you confessed Him as Lord?" the counselor added.

Passion turns to his faith
The eyes of his heart began to open. For the first time, Naulls owned his faith. It was no longer his mother's faith or anyone else's faith. He believed in Jesus at the core of his innermost being and was born-again.

Now he wonders why this simple, straightforward message eluded him.

"I attended churches where there were emotional sermons, normally on thematic topics, but they never got down to the basics of asking people, 'Do you believe in your heart and then confess with your mouth?'"

After his all-consuming focus on sports and business, Naulls started to devour God's Word with laser-like intensity. He also began to attend Bible studies regularly.

"By the grace of God I wasn't killed before I made the conscious confession of Christ," he said. "I had walked in the words of the Lord without committing to the exclusivity of Him. When you do that, you have the option to deviate and go off and sin."