Illini Wonk
Friday, February 17, 2006
  Of Faith and Hoops
With Ron Artest and Terrell Owens occupying much of last year's media spotlight, you could be excused for thinking that faith and professional athletics were mutually exclusive. But not for Roger Powell Jr. He can't talk about one without mentioning the other.

Ask him about basketball and he'll tell you about his faith. How it was a "blessing" playing for Illinois last season and that his favorite moment of the season was "being able to share my faith on national TV after the Louisville game." He attributes all his success to Jesus Christ, saying "Playing for him gives me focus."

Ask him about his plans for RPJ Ministries and he'll tell you that he wants to hold basketball camps for high school kids, preparing them "to be bold witnesses" while they're in college.

For Roger Powell, Jr., faith and professional sports aren't mutually exclusive. They're two sides of the same coin. They're both part of his everyday life.

It wasn't always that way. In an interview with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Powell said he was having trouble living out his faith when he first arrived at the University of Illinois. He became bolder with his faith after attending an FCA team Bible study initiated by former Fighting Illini and current Los Angeles Laker Brian Cook.

Powell was in Sioux Falls with the Rockford Lightning for two games against the Skyforce. The Lightning dropped both games, but Illini Wonk got a chance to sit down with Powell before the games.

Powell talked a lot about his last season with the Illini (because Wonk asked a lot of questions about it). He said midway through his junior year he knew that the 2004-05 Illini were going to be a special team. "Even in my sophomore season you could see visions of a great team," he said. "I knew that staying together for three years, we'd be special."

His favorite game in an Illinois jersey was against Louisville in the national semifinal. It was Illinois' first and only win in the Final Four and it stood out for Powell because "it took us to the National Championship game." Few Illinois fans will ever forget that game or the performance Powell had in the second half, scoring 18 points, two of which came on a tip-dunk of his own missed three-pointer. A close second for Powell's most memorable game was the game immediately before Louisville against Arizona.

Powell said that there was a "family atmosphere" among the Illinois teammates last year and that he stays in touch with most of his college teammates. He keeps in especially close contact with Luther Head, who attending Powell's wedding this fall along with Jack Ingram.

In the two games against the Skyforce, Powell averaged 22.5 points and seven rebounds. He was 8 for 14 from the floor both nights. Among CBA leaders, Powell is third in scoring with a 21.6 average, third in offensive rebounds at 3.4 per game and fifth in field goal percentage at 57 percent.

Almost as strong as his belief in God is Powell's belief that he'll join three college teammates (Cook, Head and Deron Williams) in the NBA soon. He maintains that the CBA has been good for him. "I've been getting a lot of playing time," Powell said. "I've been playing well and winning a lot. It's also allowed me to play on the perimeter, which is where I'll be in the NBA. At Illinois, I played the four.

Powell said that, despite being waived by Seattle, he gained a lot of confidence while he was there. "The GM paid me a big compliment," Powell said. "He said I wasn't a tweener, but a guy that could play three positions."

Powell will get flashbacks of his last season of college basketball next Tuesday. That's when the Rockford Lighting host the conference-leading Gary Steelheads for University of Illinois Fighting Illini Night. But isn't that the night the Illini take on the Michigan Wolverines? Never fear. The college game starts at 6:00 p.m. and you can watch the game on big screen TV's from the MetroCentre before the Lightning tip off at 7:05. Rumor has it that Kenny Battle will be there.

Whether or not Powell earns a spot in the NBA, he'll always hold a special spot in the heart of Illinois basketball fans. Don't be surprised if you see more Orange and Blue than Yellow and Blue in the Lightning stands on Tuesday.
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