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Church League balances competition with fun

It's almost easy to excuse Jonathan Myers for giggling as his basketball team, Countryside Christian Church, endured a 40-point loss this week. Resigned to the blowout long before the game's final minutes, what other choice did he have?

But players engaging referees in jokes as the officials run the sidelines? Pats on the backside after hard fouls in an intense overtime game? Those things can only happen in a league where the central message is harmony, even among players whose central emotion is competitiveness.

That league is the Men's Competitive Church Basketball League, started five years ago by friends Eric Wilson, 34, and 36-year-old Adam Thomsen, who weren't coworkers at Koch Industries for very long before they found they had several similar interests.

The league has grown from 49 players on six teams in its first season to 165 players on 17 teams this year. An evening of basketball at Immanuel Baptist Church starts with prayer and ends with players maintaining the friendships the league has allowed them to forge.

The league's growth was evident Monday, when former Kansas All-American and born-again Christian Wayne Simien spoke to the league's players and their relatives and friends.

"Like me and Eric have said together, 'Let's do this more than just basketball,' " Thomsen said. "That's the way we've kind of led it."

Myers' Countryside team was overmatched Monday by Metropolitan Baptist, but Myers and his teammates never seemed to lose their joy.

After making a three-pointer late in the game, Myers smiled and said, "I'm 1 for 7," an indication that he takes it seriously because he keeps track of his statistics, but that the goal to have fun isn't lost on him.

Myers said he sometimes has to catch himself before unleashing his overly competitive side, but when he remembers why he's there and who he's playing for, he snaps out of it.

"We're in a church and technically it's a Christian league," Myers said. "Right off the bat we pray for our attitudes to be kept in check. Keep it fun. It's really competitive, but somehow we're able to keep our attitudes somewhat in check, and I have a lot of fun doing it."

The game on the other side of the curtain is significantly more intense, with Heartland Community Church and St. Mark United Methodist locked in a triple-overtime battle.

Robert Howard, a St. Mark player, is upset minutes after losing the playoff game. He got his complaints about officiating off his chest before extolling the virtues of the league.

"It's hard, I was just a little heated a minute ago myself. I was mad," Howard said."... The (officials) are having fun. Even he was having fun, he was laughing at every call he made. Other than that, yeah, this is a nice league. This is a church, you have to remember that. Respect the church, respect God, respect the facility, all the people."

Wilson and Thomsen said temper flare-ups happen every season, usually in the middle of the schedule as teams duel for playoff position and games become more competitive. But they said such incidents have been less frequent this season.

One person in charge of minimizing them is former Wichita State and Butler basketball coach Randy Smithson, one of the league's officials. Smithson said the league allows him to get much-needed exercise while helping him remain closer to the game he loves.

"It gives me my basketball fix without having to take it home, per se," Smithson said. "It's a good, honest league."

That was the idea when Wilson and Thomsen started the league. It keeps them away from their families many nights as they keep up with clerical work, but the reward is in allowing players to find fellowship and build their faith through an athletic pursuit.

"Over the years, God's just given me a heart to use it as a ministry and an encouragement to other guys of similar faith," Wilson said. "It's a good way to network and just connect."

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