Anticipation hung thick in the air. The crowd in the bleachers chattered excitedly as they picked their favorite players on the opposing teams. As the athletes moved into position, everyone waited for the display of raw talent and humorous antics they knew was coming. As the basketball slammed through the net in the first high-flying dunk, the crowd jumped to their feet clapping and cheering.
The evening, October 4, was a special one at the Alberni Athletic Hall in Port Alberni, British Columbia. The court is where locals gather for pickup games, but that night players from around the world faced off at the center circle. A team of firefighters, local TV and radio personalities and other public servants donned black T-shirts and shorts to compete against a team in red and white uniforms comprised of international celebrities, professional athletes, actors and artists. What did they all have in common? They’re all friends of Harold “Lefty” Williams, youth pastor of Jericho Road Church and former Harlem Globetrotter, who organized the first-ever Unity Celebrity Game to raise money for youth programs and service clubs in the community. Lefty also lent his showmanship and magnetic personality to “Team Lefty.”
“I wanted to give our people something they’ve never seen before,” he says. “All these celebrities came for free out of love for me and what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
As the game progressed, the teams slam dunked, dribbled, defended and performed hilarious stunts in front of the sold-out crowd of 1,100. Attendees also had a chance to win a variety of fun games and prizes. But for Lefty, the highlight of the evening was being able to preach to an attentive audience in his natural setting—a basketball court—and talk candidly about grace, mercy, forgiveness and building bridges to the community.
“We were being the church,” he says. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
That opportunity to share the Gospel followed a year of intensive planning and avid fundraising through ticket sales and sponsorships. Lefty planned the event with the help of others in his church and community, recruiting all the players and knocking on more than 100 doors to find the event’s 35 sponsors. He chose Alberni Athletic Hall because he wanted to connect with the locals who play there and let them know the church cares about them. That love was clear as the event raised almost $14,000 to donate to community youth organizations.
“The whole thing was a ‘good crazy,’” he says. “I’ve always been on the basketball side but for this event, I was on the administrative side. We spent countless hours working on making this a reality. When I approached people, I was just transparent with them and let them know what we were doing. This fundraiser was a natural fit for the community and for me in terms of what I’ve been doing—basketball.”
Lefty knows firsthand the power of sports in reaching young people and creating relationships and trust. Growing up one of eight kids in the projects of Jersey City, New Jersey, he was mentally and physically abused by his father and picked up a basketball because he needed a way out. After drawing attention in high school and college for his skill on the basketball court, he was offered a role as the first left-handed showman in the history of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters. He traveled the world with them for three years, playing professionally for seven, and visited 24 countries, 50 states and seven Provinces of Canada.
But God was calling Lefty to even more influence. While playing his beloved game, he pursued a second career as a motivational speaker at schools and events nationwide, encouraging kids to stay in school while speaking out against bullies and drugs. With an inspiring and interactive message, Lefty became a role model for kids struggling with their home life and a belief in their own ability to succeed.
“I’m trying to teach kids to Dare 2 Dream,” he says. “Dreams can come true, and my life is proof. In the natural, I’m not supposed to be in the position I’m in—it’s the grace, handiwork and favor of God.”
When Lefty heard God calling him to fulltime youth ministry, he accepted the job as youth pastor at Jericho Road Church in 2012, working alongside the Rev. John Cox and the Rev. Dave DeJong. The church and community quickly embraced the servant-hearted basketball star as one of their own. His own dream, the inaugural Unity Celebrity Game, drew out many people who would never set foot in a church, and showed Port Alberni the church’s priority is reaching kids for Christ.
After the big game, Lefty continues to inspire the kids he works with to dream big for their futures. He especially wants them to know that a dream delayed is not a dream denied.
Oftentimes we don’t understand doors closed in our face, so we retreat and abort the dream,” he says. “But instead, we have to write it down, have faith, and it will shortly come to pass. Be patient, know Christ is with you, wait for the ‘aha’ moment. I want kids to know they’re right where they need to be.”