Final Four ghosts in long story on Kentucky’s Julius Randle

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While in Arlington, Texas, on Monday for my beloved Rangers’ season opener at the newly named Globe Life Park, I noticed a big banner outside the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium next door.

Apparently, Jerry Jones’ gigantic shrine to losing football is hosting some sort of college basketball tournament this weekend. If I understand correctly, it’s called the NCAA Men’s Final Four and involves a malady known as “March Madness.”  Hopefully, there’s a cure, but everyone involved probably would appreciate our prayers.

Speaking of the aforementioned tournament, The Dallas Morning News has a big profile — 2,000-plus words — out today on one of the teams’ players. Julius Randle, who played high school hoops in Texas, is a big star for the Kentucky Wildcats and, it seems, could win a lottery ticket from the NBA. (I’m not endorsing gambling. I’m just reporting what I read.)

In all seriousness, there’s a lot to recommend about the Morning News’ profile, headlined “How a Dallas billionaire helped Plano’s Julius Randle become Kentucky’s biggest star.” On one level, the writer does an excellent job of digging below the surface and helping readers understand the unique path that Randle has taken to tonight’s big stage:

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Visibly drained, Julius Randle ambled into Kentucky’s $30 million basketball facility. Reporters awaited. Randle knew the drill.

Towering above his inquisitors, he leaned his 6-9, 250-pound frame against a wall, the one facing eight national championship banners. It
was a surreal contrast from his very first interview, with his hometown Dallas Morning News.

Back then he was 6 foot, 145 pounds. He was 11.

“Yeah, I remember,” he said with a soft laugh.

On Saturday night, the local kid will re-emerge in North Texas as a 19-year-old man in the grandest possible basketball homecoming, with Kentucky facing Wisconsin in the Final Four semifinals before an expected crowd of 80,000 at AT&T Stadium.

A national TV audience no doubt will be reminded that Randle is the only locally produced player among a Final Four of out-of-state teams, having led Plano Prestonwood Christian to three TAPPS state titles, the most recent in March 2013.

Later that month, having already signed with Kentucky, he attended the South Regional at AT&T Stadium, watched Michigan beat Florida to make the Final Four and visualized himself playing in the vast stadium this year.

But as I read the otherwise compelling piece, I found myself frustrated by the religion ghosts (if you have no clue what a religion ghost is, check out GetReligion’s primer on “Why We’re Here”).

In keeping with the theme, I’ll rank my Final Four ghosts:

No. 4 seed:  Mention of Plano Prestonwood Christian.

Yes, it’s entirely possible that an extremely talented basketball player would be recruited to play at a Christian school and that there would be no real religion angle. But Randle’s association with a school that’s a ministry of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch, made me wonder.

A quick Google search might even turn up this Baptist Press headline:

Randle takes ‘solid’ faith into Final Four

– No. 3 seed: Mention of billionaire Kenny Troutt’s vision going beyond basketball:

Troutt, too, was raised in modest circumstances by a single mother in the Mount Vernon, Ill., housing projects.

Troutt worked his way through Southern Illinois University by selling life insurance and years later founded Excel Communications, which he sold in 1998 for $3.5 billion.

“Great guy. Big influence on my life,” Randle said. “Just seeing where he came from, how he’s ended up today and where he’s at. And all the hard work he’s put in in his life.

“And just to see how he is. A father to his family. A godly man. You couldn’t ask for a better person or a better role model than him.”

Randle and his grade-school teammates couldn’t have comprehended it at the time, but Troutt’s vision was for the Titans organization to ingrain attributes that went well beyond basketball.

Could those attributes involve faith and religion (especially since Troutt is described as “a godly man”)?

– No. 2 seed: Mention of God by Randle’s mother, Carolyn Kyles, in discussing Kentucky’s up-and-down season:

On Thursday, Kyles drove to her hometown of Newton in East Texas and picked up her 79-year-old mother, Annie Page, who on Saturday will get to see her grandson play a college game in person for the first time.

“I’m just so proud of Julius,” Kyles said. “This year has been a struggle. They were placed on a pedestal that was too high, coming in as a bunch of freshmen.

“It was a lot of days of crying and praying, ‘God, please get them through this.’ And now my tears are tears of joy.”

Again, the story hints at a potential faith and religion angle.

– No. 1 seed: Mention of a B-word other than basketball in describing Randle’s training:

Yes, Troutt provided individual skills instructors, which proved invaluable for Randle, whose ball-handling became guard-like and remained so while his body morphed to NBA size.

Titans players also were given media training, etiquette classes and daily Bible study.

Daily Bible study!? Whoa. Did anybody at the Morning News consider elaborating on that little nugget?

How did the Bible study affect Randle? What did he learn? Is he a Christian? Does faith play any role in his character or how he approaches the game?

All those questions seem like slam dunks. But the Morning News fails to put up the easy shots. And a good story that could have been much better bounces off the rim.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bill Norton

    Mr. Ross,
    If you were working that story for the DMN, how would you have reported out the nuggets you found?

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for the question.

      I would have started by attempting to answer the obvious questions mentioned in the post:

      How did the Bible study affect Randle? What did he learn? Is he a Christian? Does faith play any role in his character or how he approaches the game?


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