National champs take on prisoners
By Jeff Febus
After winning the NCAA Division III national championship last year, the Calvin menís basketball team proved it could overcome many obstacles and challenges. This past summer, the team also proved it could win the respect of one of the toughest crowds it would ever face.
Calvin won that respect during a series of summer basketball games played against inmates at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. Not only did the Knights win the respect of the inmates they played on the court, but also the respect of the hundreds of inmates who watched the games from the stands.
The experience was like no other said senior co-captain Brian Krosschell of Grand Rapids. "When we were asked to do it (play the prisoners), I did not know what to expect," said Krosschell. "Looking back now, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done."
The Calvin players were approached about the possibility of playing the prisoners by Cal Alderink, a retired furniture executive who now serves as a volunteer program coordinator at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. Alderink originally contacted Calvin coach Kevin Vande Streek who referred him to graduated player Aaron Winkle who was still in town and in contact with the current group of players.
Winkle was able to organize the players together and with the work of Alderink, a series of games against MCF "All-Star" teams were scheduled.
Calvinís first visit to the prison left the players wide-eyed. "I was expecting to play in a pick-up game in a gym," said Krosschell. "When we got there, we were led outside to an outdoor court surrounded by hundreds of prisoners sitting in bleachers. I thought I had walked into the movie The Shawshank Redemption.
With heavy rap tunes filling the air and a steady rhythm of trash-talk billowing down on them from the stands during warm-ups, the Calvin players could have been intimidated. Instead they grabbed the opportunity and earned the respect of the inmates with their play on the court.
"It was an intimidating atmosphere when we first walked in but our goal was to let our play on the court do the talking for us," said Calvin senior Nate Burgess of Byron Center, Mich., who will share co-captain duties with Krosschell this year. "Once we showed them we could really play, we completely earned their respect. It was a very cool experience."
Calvin would win every game during its summer "prison-tour" but found itself pushed during a game in late August against a team from the highest level of security it had faced up until that point. Hanging to a slim one-point lead with five minutes to go in front of a large and vocal crowd of prisoners, the Knights came up with several big plays down the stretch to secure an 83-67 victory.
"We got pushed to the limit in that game but thatís the way you want it," said Burgess. "It might have been the best game we played all summer in any of the leagues we play in."
The real reward of the games against the prisoners was the fellowship shared between the two parties. After every game, the Calvin players signed autographs and and passed out copies of the Spark featuring the team on its cover and on the inside pages. The magazine proved to be a hot item as hundreds of issues were passed out after each game. After signing autographs and passing out the magazines, the Calvin players joined the prisoners for cookies and punch in a gymnasium where they sat together in the stands conversing.
Whether the conversation revolved around the game just played, prison life or the reason for the prisonerís incarceration, the conversation was always meaningful. "Talking to the guys was so awesome," said Krosschell. "You could just see the light in their eyes and how eager they were to talk to someone from outside the prison. I wish I could have had the time to talk to every one of them."
"I talked with one prisoner who had a life-sentence for drugs and murder," said Winkle. "To talk to someone who knows he will be inside a jail for the rest of his life really hit me hard."
It also left the players realizing how blessed they were. "The whole experience has been jaw-dropping," said junior Rob Dykstra from Byron Center, Mich. "You realize how blessed you are when you come to a place like this. We take so many of the simple things in life for granted."
Having the opportunity to play against the defending national champions was not something the prisoners took lightly, according to activities supervisor Randy Martinus. "This is something that the prisoners have looked forward to for a long time and something that they will talk about for the rest of the year," said Martinus. "Thereís a real sense of excitement for the guys knowing that the national champs are coming in for a visit."
The excitement created by the Calvin team is one of the hooks that Alderink uses to share Christ with the prisoners. "Activities like this benefit the prisoners in so many ways," said Alderink. "Basketball is one of the few activities that we can use to get their attention and create another interest. Weíll follow with prison outreach and fellowship and use it to help them build a relationship with Christ."
Those benefits were also extended to the Calvin players. "We gained so many benefits out of this," said Krosschell. "Itís something Iíll never forget and something I canít wait to do again."