Crossfire’s 6-9 Sam Smithson celebrates making a basket for West Falcons versus North Knights, in 2007. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
National runner-up North Carolina Tar Heel all-America power forward Brice Johnson and star guard Marcus Paige are among six UNC players who verbally committed to play in the 27th contest. This series showcases some NBA-bound talent. Yet the local Christian former players have held their own, winning 11 times compared to 15 for ACC seniors.
Johnson, a sleek 6-foot-10, became the first UNC player to ever surpass 30 points (with 39) and 20 rebounds (with 23) in a game. He did that against Florida State, in January. He averaged 17 points and 10.4 rebounds this season. He shot .614 from the field, and 78 percent at the foul line.
Paige is first-team academic all-America. The 6-1 guard averaged 17.5 points as a sophomore, and 13.1 in four UNC seasons. Erratic as a senior, the sparkplug was clutch in the championship loss to Villanova April 4. He hit an amazing off-balance, double-pump three-pointer to tie it in the final seconds, before Nova’s Kris Jenkins’ long shot won it.
Marshall Plumlee (8.6 rpg. 8.3 ppg., 1.6 bpg.), the third Plumlee brother to play post for local Christ School then Duke, ensures the Blue Devil also has his due in this Classic. The seven-footer declared he will go into the Army. Wake Forest’s 6-9 Devin Thomas (15.6 ppg., 10.2 rpg.) and 6-3 Codi Miller-McIntyre are among expected ACC players. Asheville is the last stop on their area tour.
Crossfire has a ringer to contend with Johnson, Thomas and Plumlee up front. He is charismatic star center Matt Costello of Michigan State’s heralded program.
Crossfire’s big men also include 6-9 Sam Smithson. He averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds for West Henderson as a senior, in 2006-07. He was well-grounded in longtime West Coach Rick Wood’s team-oriented, self-actualizing values. Smithson played for Western Carolina University through 2012. He made the Southern Conference scholar-athlete Honors Court.
Matt Dickey, 6-1 former UNC driving point guard, triggers Crossfire. Big South Player of the Year Dickey (16.1 ppg.) led UNCA to regular-season and tourney titles in 2012. Now 26, he played in the NBA’s Developmental League in 2012-13, then traveled with Crossfire to Honduras.
The Classic raises money for Randy Shepherd and Jamie Johnson’s non-profit Crossfire Ministries, which began in 1993. The venue is UNC-Asheville’s Kimmel Arena. The game starts at 4 p.m. The free autograph session starts by 3 p.m. Halftime includes sermons. Some players will compete in post-game dunk and three-point shooting contests.
Crossfire and its two founding leaders are newly honored with the prestigious Naismith Legacy Award, for using the sport to advance values of “honor, respect and integrity.” A press release cites such other values as “service and faith.” Duke’s “Coach K” and UNC’s hallowed Coach Dean Smith area among prior recipients.
“When you’re a kid, you hope that as a grown man you’ll be recognized for what you do for Christ,” Johnson said. “We’re glad they like our using basketball to share Christ.” Shepherd noted “Dr. (James) Naismith invited basketball as a Christian sport. His grandson (Jim Naismith) called us, and said we do what Dr. Naismith envisions” with a play and preach way to reach young people.
Jim Naismith will present the award at halftime of the game. Crossfire’s play and preach approach follows Naismith’s intent. In 1891, he devised basketball as winter indoors training in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Training School that evolved into Springfield (Mass.) College.
Naismith, orphaned at 10, turned his life around then helped others do so. He was a rugged teen lumberjack in Canada. He gave up his heavy drinking, embraced his faith and athletics, and returned to school. He became a medical doctor. He was the University of Kansas Physical Education head for 40 years, until dying in 1939.“You can’t separate God from basketball, Naismith’s late grandson Ian Naismith once said, “because God was always a major part of Dr. Naismith’s life.” Ian’s brother Jim, who will present the award, said Crossfire has “everything” to do with Dr. Naismith’s molding of character, for “spiritual and physical growth.”Shepherd said Crossfire uses basketball to “share the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Crossfire has done so in 65 countries and 45 of the 50 states in 23 years, with 19 trips to Israel. They said as a result, several thousands of people have accepted Christ as savior.
Johnson said “the Bible teaches we give God our first fruits —not sloppy seconds. To me, it’s a daily passion to honor him.” Applying values to work, it means to be “honorable, and fair with the company’s money. Don’t cheat people. Go the extra mile, in business dealings. At the end of the day, as boss, I know that I took care of my staff.”Core values advance one in sports and chances for a college scholarship, Johnson noted. “It means give all I’ve got. Get there on time. Don’t cut corners. Commit, sacrifice. Coaches notice when a guy busts it in practice and games. That’s also what God wants. So when the game’s over, I can process it in the shower — and say ‘I did my best.’”Ministers, Christian athletes and other role models can make their public persona second-nature by being as noble when not observed, Johnson emphasized. “My dad said if what I do in secret is proper, then more than likely it’s what I’ll do in public.”The Dynamic Duo is two days apart in age, at 51. They still play with the lads. Shepherd is a skilled shooting guard. He was a four-year UNCA starter. Johnson morphed from wing slasher into long-range shooter, by now. “I don’t have to bang inside the paint, as I did” for Montreat then Gardner-Webb. “I let the young guys do that. It’s not about me. I feed them the rock.”The founders set example to “ don’t ever quit to stay in shape, and take care of yourself,” he added.
The Classic has been at UNCA for a half-decade. It debuted at Asheville High in 1994 with Duke’s Grant Hill the marquee draw, then moved to the big Civic Center. The game drew more than 2,500 fans to UNCA a year ago, Shepherd said. He said ticket sales may near the capacity of over 3200.
MSU’s Costello (6-9, 245), averaged nearly a double-double as a senior. He and pro star Draymond Green are the only Spartans to average a double-double in a Big Ten season. Costello scored 21 points in his finale. The second-team all-Big 10 center is sixth all-time in Spartan shot-blocking.
He plays in the Classic for free, detouring from a speaking tour with fellow Spartan Denzel Valentine who is A.P. national player of the year. Costello met Shepherd at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) breakfast, at the recent Final Four in Houston, Tex. (FCA and Clark Communications co-sponsor the Classic.)Costello also impressed Johnson, who is convinced “he’s definitely for real. He said he is not a partier. He’s a Christ follower. He said ‘I want to use my talent to share about Christ.’ He said he’s cut from same cloth. He likes what Crossfire is doing.”Costello is navigating the Christian athlete’s challenge of approaching more “searching” teammates about faith, Johnson said. Johnson said he and non-believer teammates “respected each other,” and he picked spots to “share the Lord with them.” He said athletics is a good arena for sharing faith, since players rising to levels face greater competition and stress, pressure for success and peer partying, and various “crises of life.”Crossfire summer basketball camps begin June 13-17, 1-4:30 p.m., at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville. This is for boys and girls, ages six to 12.Tickets for Crossfire-ACC are $10 each. Ticket outlets include Kimmel’s box office, and Leicester Carpet Sales in Hendersonville and Asheville. For more information including about the ACC game or to register for camps, check crossfireministry.com.