Slam dunk for Upward Basketball

On any given winter Saturday, the sounds of dribbling basketballs and swooshing nets are likely to be emanating from the gymnasium at Tunnel United Methodist Church.

For 11 years, the church has hosted an Upward Basketball league with Warren Township resident Bruce Wunderlich serving as both league director and one of the many league coaches.

This year, around 150 children ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade participated in the program, which wrapped up its 2014 season Saturday with a full day of games and an award ceremony.

The Upward program combines scriptural teachings with sports, giving children an opportunity to learn about Christ in a fun, youth-friendly atmosphere, said Wunderlich.

“Our mission statement is to introduce children to Jesus Christ by creating opportunities to serve through sports,” he explained.

Before helping form the church’s Upward program, Wunderlich, 55, spent 20 years coaching the softball team for Tunnel and its sister church, Warren Chapel.

Question: For those unfamiliar, what is Upward Basketball?

Answer: It’s a national program, started in 1986 by a youth director in Spartanburg, S.C. By 1995, the program was so big they couldn’t handle all the kids and that’s when they launched the nationwide program. This year, Upward Basketball was played in 47 states and Canada. Nearly 500,000 kids participated.

Q: How did Upward Basketball get started at Tunnel?

A: Actually, one of the members of the church had a grandchild that was playing Upward Basketball in Athens and that’s how we found out about it. In addition to ours, there are five local churches that are doing some form of Upward sports.

Q: How did you become involved in Tunnel’s Upward Basketball program?

That’s a long story. I’ve been preparing for it for a long time. In 1980, Sharon Rhonemus (then pastor of Tunnel and its sister church Warren Chapel United Methodist) wanted me to organize a softball team where both churches would play together. She asked me to coach. And soon after I got involved, I became an officer in the church softball league in Marietta. And soon after that I became president. It really prepared me for this, doing things like making schedules and the like.

Q: How does the scriptural teaching come into play in Upward Basketball?

A: We have a one-hour practice every week and an hour game on Saturday. During that one-hour practice, halfway through the practice, coaches stop and have a short devotional with the kids. This year we had three things we focused on: honesty, patience and kindness.

Q: What are your responsibilities with the program?

A: I’ve been league director for all 11 seasons and I’ve coached all of those seasons. Most years I’ve coached kindergarten. The last few years I’ve gotten to coach some older kids. This year I have one boy’s team and one girl’s team.

Q: What does being league director entail?

A: Well, I do all the scheduling, all the recruiting for coaches, all the cancellations for snow, and this year we had a lot of them. I organize an evaluation night where we evaluate all the kids. We try to draft the teams as equal as possible.

Q: When does that all take place?

A: We start planning in October, but we don’t actually start practices until the first full week of January. Actual season is like 11 weeks from first practice to last game. Then we have a big awards night following the season. Every kid gets a prize.

Q: How has Upward Basketball grown or changed in the past 11 years?

A: When we started, we had 70 kids. The second year we had 90. Our largest season was 208 kids. I don’t remember exactly what year that was. Now it’s started to even out a little and we’ve been in the 150 range for a while.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: Probably my No. 1 hobby right now is my photography. And I like to play golf…and bowling. Don’t forget bowling.

Q: Anything else you want to add?

A: There’s a lot of other people that help make Upward possible. Chris Coffman is my referee commissioner. He referees almost all day long most days and coaches a team. Mike King has always been a big help too. It’s a lot of volunteers, more than our church can provide.

Jasmine Rogers conducted this interview.