From missed shot to basketball missionary

Former Pleasure Ridge Park and Asbury University star Phil Morrison eyes a free throw while shooting around at Little Flock Baptist Church near Shepherdsville. He sank this shot but two missed free throws started a journey that has resulted in his basketball ministry.

Former PRP star Phil Morrison takes the gospel to the hardwood

By John Herndon,

SHEPHERDSVILLE, Ky. — It only takes a few moments watching Phil Morrison in action to see the passion he has for basketball.

On a Saturday afternoon, he’s working with some 10- to 12-year-old kids in the gym at Little Flock Baptist Church. The future stars listen intently as Morrison, a former college All-American, takes young players through ball-handling drills that end with a jump shot, encouraging them to elevate their games.

And while the sport Morrison loves provided the vehicle for a college education and playing for pay overseas, it’s no longer who he is. And that’s the basic message Morrison conveys through Hoops for Christ.

“For most of my life, my identity was as a basketball player,” Morrison says a few moments after his last student leaves. “Once I found my identity in Christ, it put basketball in a place where it was my worship. It was a blessing rather than my identity. I was free to play my best basketball but, also, I used the gym as my sanctuary. I always say that when I am in the gym, I feel closer to the Lord. That’s where I feel I am using my gifts and fulfilling my purpose.”

Morrison believes God has directed his journey from the outset.

It may have begun during the second game of Morrison’s sophomore season at Pleasure Ridge Park High School. The Panthers were on the road at arch-rival Fairdale was assessed a technical foul. 

Phil Morrison eyes a jump shot following some private instruction sessions at Little Flock Baptist Church near Shepherdsville, Ky. (Photos by John Herndon)

“For some reason, we needed somebody to come in and shoot the technical. So (assistant coach Larry) Kihnley says, ‘Let’s put Phil in. He can shoot free throws.’ I had never played varsity ball and it was my first time out there. I will never forget. I jumped off the bench and ran to the scorer’s table,” Morrison laughs.

“Right in front of the bench, Coach (Dale) Mabrey grabbed my shirt and said, ‘Phil, you are going to shoot these free throws and you had better not miss them.’ So I go to the line and am nervous. I bricked the first one and I could feel Coach Mabrey’s eyes. So I am thinking I have to make the next one, but I missed the next one, in and out. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, I will never play again. This is the end of my career and it just started!’”

Redemption came quickly.

“We had the ball with a second or two left and they threw the ball in to me and I just threw it up and made a half-court shot at the buzzer. Those were the first varsity points I made. I missed two free throws and then made a half-court shot.”

KIhnley, now the head coach at PRP, remembers the sequence. “The rest is history!” he says.

According to the KHSAA website, PRP went on to an 81-65 win and would win 24 games before falling in the Sixth Region final. The following year, PRP won 27 games but lost in the regional semifinals. As a senior, Morrison led PRP to a 26-7 record and a regional title. The Panthers made it to the second round of the Sweet 16 before losing to Covington Catholic. 

Opened doors, pro career

It was the type of career that opened doors. Not blessed with great size — “I’m 6-foot on a good day,” Morrison laughs — the standout guard had options nonetheless. He chose to attend Olivet Nazarene University, near Chicago, but things did not completely mesh so Morrison found himself back in the Louisville area. 

“Looking back in hindsight, I see God’s hand in my journey,” he says. “I came back home and actually took two years off, but it was during that time I actually became a Christian. That’s when things shifted for me. I decided to go back to school and Asbury ended up being the one I chose. They had actually recruited me out of high school. I look back and see God’s providence at work.”

Coach Jim Aller had inked Morrison, but by the start of the fall semester, Asbury had brought former player Will Shouse in as head coach. Morrison and the new coach quickly bonded.

“Phil was a very good player for us,” Shouse remembers. “He was a (National Christian College Athletic Association) all American and KIAC all conference player. He scored over 1,000 points in three years here. He was a very heady point guard who could play off the ball if needed. He was a coach’s dream: Worked hard, loved Jesus, and loved the school.”

Phil Morrison’s jersey from his days of pro basketball in Singapore hangs in the basketball office at Asbury University. He was the first former Eagle to play for pay. (Photo courtesy Coach Will Shouse.)

Morrison remembers, “When I was at Asbury, it was a perfect fit. Coach Shouse would pray for us and it was just a big step in my development. It was during those three years that I figured out what my development would be.”

After returning to PRP as an assistant coach for a year-and-a-half, Morrison had the opportunity to become the first Eagle alum to play professional basketball overseas.“I played four years in six different countries: Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia,” he says. 

“My end goal was to be in the Philippines in the PBA, which is the second-longest running league in the world behind the NBA. It is like the NBA of Asia. People don’t realize how big that league is. My first game was in front of 54,000 people in a soccer stadium. Our home was called The Big Dome and it is where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were for the Thrilla in Manila.”

Seed sown for hoops ministry

But it was also in the Philippines that the seed for Hoops for Christ was sown. Morrison was praying that God would connect him with someone who could help him grow in the faith. It would turn out to be Steven Siebert, a former American college player who had played overseas. Siebert had become a missionary to the Philippines and founded the Salvation Teams, a basketball ministry.

“He would partner with a pastor or a church and would go in and run free basketball camps,” Morrison says. “We would give the kids Bibles and hand out shirts. The majority of these kids were street children.

“God really used that to change the whole course of my life and my mindset of using basketball to share the gospel, so when I came home, that’s what I did.”

Morrison returned to the Louisville area to start Hoops for Christ in 2015. Since then, the ministry has grown to six full-time workers, including Morrison. The ministry has offices in Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort and Brisbane, Australia. 

The ministry conducts camps and provides individual basketball training, partnering with churches in Kentucky and southern Indiana for outreach. 

The Brisbane office is run by Jeremy Kendle, a former Bellarmine University All-American and a member of the school’s 2011 NCAA Division II champion. Kendle has been playing in Austrailia since 2015 but had trained with Morrison in Louisville. Kendle met his wife in Australia and has made his home there.

“What we do is partner with them for charity and church events. Some of the churches support our prison basketball team. We have one-on-one private training,clinics and camps.” Morrison explains.

Outside the box evangelism

It’s through Hoops for Christ that Morrison is thinking outside the traditional box of evangelism. He uses what has become the enormous platform of the growing youth sports culture to convey the gospel message.

“There’s been an increase in youth sports and a decrease in church attendance,” Morrison explains. “What I realized is that youth sports is the vehicle that fills that gap. I can get people to come into a gym at a church who would not come to a sanctuary on Sunday. This might be the only time they hear the gospel. 

Morrison says his role is more of a basketball missionary than a trainer or coach. “My trade is a trainer,” he continues. “I have been hired to train people all over the country. But the way I look at it is it is the gift God gave me and a platform to share in my life. When the door opens, I try to be faithful and share the gospel.”

He’s come to understand that sports are now playing a huge role in the lives of teens and young adults. “What I realized is when a child commits to travel ball, the family commits,” Morrison says. “They have to pay the fees. They have to be there for support. It’s not just parents but grandparents too. You have to look at it that the church is now competing in a sense where Sunday is no longer sacred. The church can sit back and see its numbers decline or it can look outside the walls.”

Morrison helps players get better on the floor. He’s trained players who have played college basketball at various levels and some even made the jump to pro ball overseas. And he’s trained young people who were not good enough to make their high school team. That perspective constantly reminds Morrison that his ministry really must be Hoops FOR CHRIST.

“That’s why I always focus on the life skill behind it, the work ethic, the discipline and preparation. Not only does that help the young person on the basketball court, but it gives them the tools to be able to be successful when they make that transition, whether they make that transition in high school, in college or after college.”

Morrison is sometimes invited to work with high school or college teams and never forgets that the message is ultimately about Jesus Christ, not 3-pointers or dunks and that the Holy Spirit is working when he has a receptive basketball audience. 

Phil Morrison follows through on a jump shot.

“Jesus says to let your light shine before men so that when they see your good works, they will give glory to your father in heaven,” Morrison says. “I want to use that talent or light for the glory of Christ. If you have an opportunity to use your sport or whatever you do, you never know when it will be a blessing. 

“I have had parents and coaches tell me that our voices are stronger than we may know. The way I look at it is Phillippians 2:13 (‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose’). When I am in the gym, I look at it that my voice is an instrument God is going to use to make some kind of influence or impact on their lives.”

Hoops for Christ Prison Ministry

While in the Philippines, Morrison was also introduced to prison ministry. 

“My wife came back home and I was in the Philippines for the holidays,” he says. “I was playing basketball but had some time on my hands. I wanted to be productive about it.”

He met someone in the country’s immigration office who also had a prison ministry. Morrison was invited to give his testimony, but it wasn’t until after he was in the prison gate that he learned he was in one of the largest maximum security prisons in the world and that most of the prisoners were awaiting the death penalty or were serving life sentences. 

“He said, ‘I am really glad you came because most people when I brought them here turn away at the gate. They get nervous.’ And I am like, ‘You choose to tell me now?’” Morrison laughs.

Despite the apprehension, Morrison went in. While there, he talked with a man who had been a hit man. “He said he had killed 200 people,” Morrison remembers. “He said the reason he was in prison was he had killed the wrong person, a politician’s daughter. He said he had been converted in prison. “hat planted a seed that when I came back to Louisville to do a prison basketball game.”

Morrison gathered some college and pro players from the Louisville area and started going into prisons to play basketball and share the gospel.

“We have never lost, but have come close,” he smiles.

But by hearing the gospel, there’s no question that those in prison have really won. 

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