Portland Adventist Academy Basketball Team has Law on its Side

The Sabbath-keeping men's basketball team at Campion Academy in Loveland, Colorado plays Mile High Academy at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Instead of playing state tournament games, many of which fall on Friday nights and Saturdays, the team heads to Adventist-owned Union College to play in a local championship game. [photo: courtesy Campion Academy]

The Sabbath-keeping men's basketball team at Campion Academy in Loveland, Colorado, plays Mile High Academy at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Instead of playing state tournament games, many of which fall on Friday nights and Saturdays, the team heads to Adventist-owned Union College to play in a local championship game. [photo: courtesy Campion Academy]

[March 7, 2008] Portland, Oregon, United States, Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

Susan Long cheered courtside as her son, Jeremy, scored 19 points on the Portland Adventist Academy basketball court Thursday night, February 28, helping secure his team's first Oregon state playoffs win in five years.

"I was just happy to play in the tournament no matter what the outcome. Not very many Cougars have gotten to do that," says Jeremy, a freshman guard for the team. "But I still wanted to win," he adds with an abashed laugh.

Afterward, the locker room pulsed with blue-and-yellow jersey-clad Cougars, Jeremy says -- mostly because of the win, but also in celebration of a victory in another court: a recent ruling by the state's highest court rescheduled the game so the Cougars could play.

Since 2002, the boys' basketball team at Seventh-day Adventist-owned PAA has dominated the court, but players' religious convictions led the Cougars to forfeit Class 3A boys' tournament games every season. Consistently scheduled for Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, the games conflicted with Biblical Sabbath-keeping.

In 1996, a group of Cougars' parents began working toward a legal solution. Soon thereafter, a lower court first required the Oregon State Activities Association -- which regulates high school sports for the state -- to accommodate PAA players when scheduling games.

Parents and players assumed the ruling would apply in 1997. It didn't. A similar injunction in 2002 proved equally short-lived. But because the February 15 injunction comes from the Oregon Supreme Court, Mrs. Long finds reason to believe it may require the OSAA to respect Sabbath-keeping athletes' religious convictions beyond this season. "I'm hopeful they'll make it permanent."

PAA Cougars coach for eight years, Lance Judd, is more cautious. He says after playing in the 2002 tournament, it was especially "hard to take" when the OSAA blocked the Cougars from the next postseason. He doesn't want to set his guys up for another disappointment.

If the Cougars have to drop out next year, "Sure, it'll be tough," Judd says, "but our players have always just enjoyed the game. We'll know ahead of time how far we can play into the schedule, and whatever happens, we'll enjoy it for what it is."

Jeremy's older brother, Jonathan Long, agrees, but says players never fully rebound after forfeiting a tournament. "It's gonna be worth it whether you end up going to state or not, but it's pretty disappointing to work extremely hard and then just be completely shut down," he says.

Jonathan would know -- he played for the Cougars from '02-'06 and was named Northwest League Player of the Year his senior year at PAA when the Cougars' 24-1 record ranked them undefeated in their league. Now he plays for an independent varsity basketball team at Adventist-owned Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington. He says the PAA saga, already gone far into overtime in the minds of many Cougars' players and parents, isn't likely to end this season.

"A lot of people think this is finally it, but in 2002 everyone thought the same thing." He pauses, then adds, "I desperately hope I'm wrong."

At Adventist-owned Campion Academy in Loveland, Colorado, Troy Beans, in his 18th year as athletic director and basketball coach for the school, sends his players to a championship game at Adventist-owned Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, instead of shooting legal hoops with Colorado state athletics officials.

With their 34-1 record and league sportsmanship awards for the past four years, Campion players are well-respected and probably could have worked out a solution with the Colorado High School Activities Association, Beans says. In fact, he called local high schools to find out if rescheduling games would be possible. "They were all very favorable. They said, 'Absolutely, we'll work it out. We'll make sure you don't have to play on Sabbath.'"

Academy administration bucked the idea of going to state -- the launch of baseball season and a mission trip scheduled for the tournament weekend were among the reasons. Beans respects the decision. But he's concerned by the negative stereotypes he says some church members hold toward Adventist athletes and competitive sports. "They think there's just going to be a lot of anger, rivalries and trash-talking." But Beans believes Christian coaches can use sports to ingrain some deep spiritual lessons in their players.

Beans says Campion players pray with the opposing team center court after every game. Even at public high schools, he says a hush sweeps the gym. "We might not be preaching sermons," Beans says, "but I believe we're witnessing. If you've treated somebody badly out there, your prayer's gonna come off awfully hypocritical at the end of the game."

Back at PAA, Mrs. Long says prayer also capped the Cougars' loss to Cascade Christian High School Saturday night, March 1. "You just heard this resounding 'amen' echo across the gym afterward."

Playing for PAA sharpened his character as much as his skills on the court, Jonathan says. "You have to show a lot of backbone in dealing with the Sabbath issue."

Jonathan's mom wishes some church members were more concerned by what she believes is the religious discrimination her sons and other Sabbath-keeping athletes face. "Whether you agree with competitive sports is not the issue here," she says. "This is a Sabbath issue."

Long and other PAA parents welcomed support from the Adventist world church's Office of General Counsel, which recently signed a brief filed by the American Jewish Congress on behalf of students facing Sabbath conflicts.

"Our involvement is more focused on the legal principles at stake in the case," says Robert E. Kyte, General Counsel for the Adventist Church. "We're not arguing the rightness or wrongness of competitive sports."

When the Cougars lace up their high tops next season, there are no guarantees tournament games will skirt the Sabbath hours. But for now, even disappointed former players have found something to cheer this season. "I have to say it was bittersweet to see them go to State, because I wasn't able to all those years," Jonathan says. "But it's a little easier to swallow because I have a little brother out there who got to play."

For Jeremy, "It was, like, awesome!"