Shooting some hoops: Annual UMC youth basketball tourney

Longtime organizer Bob Fowler also honored as he steps into retirement

By Jessica Brodie

SUMMERVILLE—When hundreds of United Methodist teens gathered last month for the annual S.C. Conference Youth Basketball Tournament, the experience was a little bittersweet.

It was a time of fellowship and fun, of good-natured Christian competition while playing a game they love. But it was also a time to bid farewell to the man who’d organized the tournament for decades: Bob Fowler.

Fowler, who retired from the tournament this year after helping (and later chairing) the event since 1978, was honored throughout the celebration for his dedication, support and leadership—and most of all, his passion for helping kids have access to Christian fellowship on the court.

This year’s tournament was held Jan. 23-25 in the Summerville-Charleston area, with Bethany United Methodist Church, Summerville, as host church. Teams played all Friday evening and all day Saturday in church and school gyms around the area, with winners advancing to the finals Sunday for junior boys, junior girls, senior boys and senior girls. The weekend also included two opportunities for worship, with a communion service Saturday morning at Bethany and a mass worship Sunday led by South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston prior to the championship games.

“It was another fine weekend, a true success,” said Chris Lynch, congregational specialist for youth ministries and member of the event’s leadership team.

And the winners are…

While the teams celebrate the tournament division winners, the weekend’s chief “win” is the team that receives the Mitch Milford Sportsmanship Award, which recognizes the best spirit of sportsmanship. This year’s Milford Award went to the Buncombe Street UMC (Greenville) Senior Boys #3 Team. That team, after learning one of their competitors from Manning UMC couldn’t attend the tournament, decided to reach out in brotherly love. They crafted a big card and got all the teams in the division to sign it.

“That really reminds you there’s more to this than just basketball,” Lynch said. “There’s camaraderie and relationships being formed across our conference, even through basketball teams and a tournament.”

Championship games were all played Sunday at Pinewood Preparatory School, with Bethany prevailing as junior boys champions; Canaan-Sand Hill Charge, Ridgeville, as junior girls champions; Stallsville UMC, Summerville, as senior boys champions; and Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, as senior girls champions.

An honorable sendoff

But peppered throughout the weekend were times to celebrate and honor the man who made it all possible this year and for so many years prior: Fowler.

Tournament volunteers surprised Fowler with a special commemorative video shown Saturday morning at the communion service. Then on Sunday, Bishop Holston recognized Fowler for his efforts and prayed a special blessing for him. Fowler also received a plaque.

Most touching to Fowler was that volunteers set up the Robert “Bob” F. Fowler Recreational Activities Fund at Epworth Children’s Home to honor his dedication to conference youth through his enthusiastic leadership of the basketball tournament. Donations to this fund will be used to help pay expenses for Epworth children to participate in recreational activities such as the basketball tournament and or other recreational activities that build a spirit of leadership, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for joyful living. Donations can be sent directly to Epworth and should indicate that the donation is to be directed to this fund.

Fowler called the creation of the fund “a unique honor,” and he is moved by the great outpouring of appreciation he felt as he stepped down.

“I will miss being part of all of this,” Fowler told the Advocate. “I love seeing young people handle their challenges of playing a sport. In this basketball tournament, I have watched players growing into adulthood, raising a family and having their own child also play in our tournament. As I have finished my time with this program, I have seen three generations of the same family run up and down the court. My joy has been watching that unfold. But for me the time has come for someone else to enjoy all this. I have other places to be and more things to learn. I will look back and know that, for me, God has been good.”

Lynch said Fowler will be missed.

“His passion and heart for this tournament is unquestionable,” Lynch said. “He’s given so much time and so much effort and truly has kept this thing going a lot of times. He’s a big part of what this tournament has been for the last many years, and we are very thankful for his time with us.”

Lessons on the court

Parents say they appreciate that their kids can play the sport they love among fellow Christians.

Alison Pitt, whose son, Jack, played the tournament for the first time on the junior boys team, said it’s fun and exciting, as well as a great way to encourage fellowship.

“It’s great to give kids a different level in a Christian environment,” said Pitts, a member of Buncombe Street.

Cheryl Morgan, whose daughter played on the combined Union/Epworth team, said she likes that her daughter got to play with girls outside her normal realm of school and church: “Here, they have the chance to fellowship with girls they’d not normally get the chance to see.”

This is the 10th time at the tournament for Brad Bylenga, also a member of Buncombe Street, whose daughter played on the junior girls team; her older brother and sister played before her.

“It’s bringing parents together, too,” Bylenga said. “You see people together on Sundays, but here it’s the whole weekend. You go to dinner together, breakfast. The services are exceptional, and they’re attuned to teenagers, which is refreshing to me.”

Fowler said that’s the spirit of the tournament: coming together in the name of God to have fun and learn a sport that teaches broader life lessons, too.

“How do we feel about ourselves even though we have lost a game we wanted to win? How do we handle winning when the other team is handling a loss? How do we react to a call the referee has made against us when we think we did nothing wrong? Basketball teaches a great lesson,” Fowler said. “We cannot negotiate with the referee over his call. Talking back will not make things go our way. The call is the call, and we have to adjust and handle that. No team can negotiate a game their way. As our young people grow into adulthood, their lives will be confronted with actions just like that throughout. They will win, lose and be given decisions they will not like. None of us can negotiate life. Learning to adjust is the gift that sports teaches.”

Into the future

Organizers are already beginning work on next year’s tournament. While no dates have been set, it is expected to be held in January 2016. Lynch said leadership of the tournament will now fall to a design team, much like other youth events such as Immerse and Revolution. Chris Conley, the youth pastor at Union UMC, Irmo, will be the point person for now, along with Lynch. A full design team will form soon.

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