When Dwayne Turner and the "Midwest Finest" arrived in Washington yesterday, the 19-year-old bartender and his basketball team thought that they were simply playing in a tournament sponsored by a group of NBA players.
So they were surprised when Chicago Bulls center Andrew Lang preached from a stage on Pennsylvania Avenue NW: "If you haven't accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you better do it before it's too late."
Slam dunks and three-point shots were not enough to impress the NBA stars who converted one of the nation's most famous thoroughfares into a huge basketball venue to scout young talent for Jesus.
Jammin' Against the Darkness, a two-day event sponsored by some professional basketball players, local companies and Washington area churches, was an effort to the spread the gospel through sports and entertainment.
"We came to win, but it's all good," said Willie Pitchford, 19, another member of Midwest Finest who played in a tournament with about 200 teams from the Washington area. There were many local three-on-three teams with big hoop dreams and names such as the Hyattsville "Jammers" and "All Saints." Then there were families like Timothy and Cynthia Johnson of King George, Va., who were just glad to have a day in the sun with their four children.
In addition to the basketball tournament, organizers held a basketball exhibition and concert at U.S. Airways Arena on Friday night, where stadium officials said 12,000 screaming people were on hand.
Former University of Maryland hoopster Adrian Branch and NBA players Calbert Cheaney, Hersey Hawkins and Armon Gilliam were among the stars who dazzled the crowd. Fred Hammond and the Radicals for Christ exploded onto the stage with a heavy metal brand of gospel that had teenagers out of their seats and dancing. But then the music died down, the NBA stars changed into business suits and Pastor Steve Jamison took the stage with his Bible, turning the arena into a sanctuary.
"Our vision is to reach young people on a level with what interests them most, sports and music," said Jamison, 39, a Washington state pastor who worked with former San Antonio Spurs player David Wood to start Jammin' Against the Darkness. The first Jammin' event, which drew 10,000 people, was held in the Spurs' arena in 1993.
Wood, who has played on eight different NBA teams in the past 12 years, told the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday, "I got more frequent flyer miles than dollars in the bank, but my foundation is hoping in the Lord Jesus Christ."
Jammin' was held in Portland, Ore., in 1994 and 1995, then moved to several other basketball cities. Last year it came to MCI Center, playing to a sold-out audience.
The local event was sponsored by an ecumenical group of pastors, co-chaired by the Rev. John K. Jenkins, of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, and Bill Roberts, pastor of Christ Chapel in Woodbridge.
Miriam Collins, 12, of District Heights, was among the many youths who took part in a mass prayer meeting lead by the NBA stars. "I think this is good that these athletes don't think that they are too big to be saved," she said.