It’s the last practice before the playoffs. McKay Anderson cuts to the basket and sneaks around a defender. He takes a pass from the wing and shoots a fader from outside the key. Swish. A perfect basket.
“What I love most about basketball is the feel for the ball, really," Anderson said. "It sounds kind of weird, just kind of feeling the ball before the game or just looking at it, just picturing yourself doing well.”
Anderson, 18, is a senior at La Verne Lutheran High School, which is about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Ever since he could walk he has played basketball. Every drop of sweat and every three-hour practice are what keep him going.
So, to friends and family, it seemed as if he had only one place to go: the court of a division one basketball program. But as he looks to the future, there is something else calling out to him.
Anderson is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he wants to serve a two-year mission preaching the gospel of his church.
“I have always wanted to go on a mission,” he said.
So why would a young kid want to give up so many things?
"It just seems like the right thing to do, even though it may seem like I’m leaving behind a lot of things -- my friends, social life, family, whatever the case may be,” he said. “But it will be very important for me to take two years and serve a church mission.”
In the Mormon church there is a long history of sending out missionaries. At a recent service, Anderson’s congregation sang a traditional Mormon hymn about missionary work.
His father and both his brothers already have served missions all over the world. Many members, Anderson included, feel it is their duty to share what they believe with others.
“Not too many people have the experience or the opportunity to really read the ‘Book of Mormon,’ " he said. "It’s just an opportunity to try and convert people and help them kind of gain a different perspective.”
Anderson said he wants to do his part because the church has done so much for him.
"On the basketball court you have to help one another and help each other succeed," he said. "So, I think what I love most about my religion is just everyone is so close. It seems as if we are one big ward family, church family, and it just seems as if there is chemistry on and off the court, and especially when it comes to my religion."
But he had a decision to make. Should he delay his college basketball career and go now, or should he disrupt it after a year or two on the court
Anderson's older brother, Rhett, played college basketball at Yale University. He decided to go on his mission before he began college, right after high school. So, that's what Anderson thought he might do.
On the one hand, Anderson worried that the other recruits would have an advantage over him if he waited to play. But he also wondered …
“Would it be good to go on a mission and come back and mature a little bit more physically, mentally and spiritually, so I would be ready to play basketball and be more studious?”
But then one day something happened that put things in perspective.
In a tournament last summer, Anderson broke his leg. His doctors assured him he would make a full recovery, but all of the coaches that had been recruiting him disappeared.
All but one: Coach Nick Robinson of Southern Utah University.
“I really liked his aggressiveness," Robinson said, recalling when he first watched Anderson play before his injury. "We felt it was in our best interest to continue to recruit him as if he hadn't broken his leg.”
Robinson offered Anderson a scholarship – to be used right after high school or two years later -- and he accepted and eventually made it back onto the court. Feeling more grateful than ever for the ability to play, Anderson had to decide which would come first: basketball or missionary work.
“Well, I think it’s very important to, No. 1, have it in your mind the fact that you are going on a mission. That’s the most important thing,” said the basketball player’s father, Roger Anderson.
But Anderson’s parents and siblings all gave him the same advice: to do what felt right to him.
In the meantime, Anderson had to lead his team on a run for the playoffs. As a small team — there are only eight guys on the roster — La Verne Lutheran wasn't expected to go far in the playoffs this season. But game after game they pulled off wins, each more exciting than the other.
And Anderson decided he didn't want to take a break from the thrill of the game just yet.
“I made up my mind that I wanted to play (at Southern Utah University) for a year and then go on my mission," Anderson said. "I did pray about it and it did feel good, and I knew it was the right decision for me.”
Anderson will head up to Cedar City, Utah, where the school is located, in July for basketball camp. He’ll play for one year before submitting his missionary application in the summer of 2014. He won’t know where he’s going until he gets the call.
Anderson's team made it all the way to the CIF championship of their division, exceeding all expectations. They lost the game, but Anderson isn't looking back. He's got more ball to play.
Our story was produced in collaboration with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
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