Parker is, without a doubt, the most popular boy amongst the neighborhood basketball crowd.  When he walks into the gym, everyone’s attention shifts to him.  He’s hard not to pay attention to.  He’s 6’7’’ and nothing but muscle and tattoos. 

He’s played with us for each of the last three years we’ve had our Summer Hoops program.  In that period he has gone from high school basketball star to scholarship athlete at Western Kentucky to doing nothing. 

I don’t know exactly how he lost his scholarship, but I knew that he was disappointed and perhaps ashamed.  Right now he works at IHOP and hopes to become a fireman. 

I must admit when Parker first started playing with us, I was quite intimidated.  He would come in with his entourage of equally intimidating young men.  Nobody messed with them, especially not the pastor (me). 

Week after week, I led a halftime devotional never knowing if anyone was paying attention.  Parker and company often disappeared when I spoke.  This last summer was different, though. 

When Parker first arrived to the gym, I was shocked and touched when he greeted me with a hug.  “Hey, Pastor Paul.  Good to see you.”  This became his weekly greeting.  When I would call the boys to attention for devotional, it was Parker that gathered them up. He particularly paid attention to the younger boys.  If they were getting picked on, he was right there to stop it.  He could stop it with a look. 

After we play, we have dinner together.  Before we line up at the kitchen counter, we pray.  We hold hands and bow our heads and I pray for thanks but also for their lives and their families and their futures.

One week I gathered us up for prayer and started to pray when Parker spoke up, “I got this one, Pastor Paul.”  I was taken aback!  Usually when I pray, I have to pepper the prayer with half a dozen “Quiet please!”s, but not when Parker prayed.  The gym and the 35 young men and women were silent and respectful. 

His prayer was strong and full of thanks and respect.  I don’t remember much of the words, but I remember how he began, “Father God…” 

As his words rang out, I remembered that Parker doesn’t know his father.  He changed before my eyes from a street tough player to a boy without a dad. 

I understood his hug.