Basketball Player and Model Willie Briscoe
From Basketball Player and Model to Mentor: Willie Briscoe
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Many kids enter the world of sports and decide they want to be a professional player. It’s a dream that the largest percentage never come close to attaining. But Willie Briscoe was different. His entry came about as a means to keep him out of trouble. Not only did he have no desire to play basketball, he didn’t even know the game. But as a young boy, a teacher saw his potential which could offer Briscoe a path for an education and profession. At 6’6”, he went on to excel in high school and later played in college, but a change in heart made him leave the sport, not returning for ten years. But what happened during that decade of non-play? As a model double for such NBA players as Michael Jordon, David Robinson and others, Briscoe launched into a different career. Risen sat down with this talented guy to talk about his take on the game, family, faith and his current foundation that focuses on mentoring disadvantaged youth.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: How did your love for sports, and especially basketball, develop?
Willie Briscoe: In sixth grade I was running around, and I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was running around with kids that were bad. We got in trouble one day after school and the other two guys I was with got suspended. But the teacher said he saw something in me and that he had a different plan for me. He saw that I was tall and gangly and he said that he was going to start a basketball team. He said, “You’re poor…“, I was on free/reduced lunch and welfare and everything. And he said, “You’re going to go grow and basketball is going to be the way you pay your way through college.” Instead of getting in trouble, I got put on a basketball team. He was a Polish teacher that I called Mr. S. That’s where my love for basketball started. I didn’t know how to shoot; I didn’t know rules of the basketball court; I didn’t know any of that. I was laughed at pr obably my first two years of playing, but I kept growing.
Then I went to a prestigious basketball high school where A.C. Green [3-time NBA Champion] and Richard Washington [NBA Player] went. Guys a lot older than you and I, but A.C. Green really left a basketball and spiritual legacy at the high school. Benson [Polytechnic in Portland, Oregon] is the high school that I went to.
I got cut as a freshman. The coach said, “If you get cut, come and talk to me and I’ll tell you why so you can work on it and try to make it next year.” I went and talked to him. He looked at me, he looked at my feet – I had big feet – and was kind of tall and he says, “I didn’t mean to cut you.” We had twenty five players on the freshman team and I was on the fifth string. I was still horrible as a basketball player. The Lakers won the national championship that year and at the end of the school year, A.C. Green and Magic Johnson came back to talk to our high school team. Magic challenged us and said, “Make goals.” So I made a goal to start varsity my sophomore year after being a fifth-string freshman. All summer long I just busted it – shooting and playing into the night light in Portland, Oregon. [When the weather got colder, I had] a little sheltered place where I just worked on my game and three games into my sophomore year, I was starting as a sophomore on varsity.
I continued to grow and so did my love for basketball, but I wasn’t a Christian, so I had a love/hate relationship. I played because I was tall, I played because I was good, but I didn’t really have real passion for playing. I had a successful high school career, but didn’t have good grades, so I was what they called a “Prop 48 Student” and I decided to go the junior college route. I played two years of junior college ball in Salem, Oregon and won a championship. The first thought that came in my mind was, “I’m so glad I don’t have practice tomorrow.” It just so happened that I left basketball for ten years.
Risen Magazine: So you lead your junior college to a championship in 1989, you are feeling burned out on the sport, but why take 10 years off? And what did you do with yourself during that decade gap?
Willie Briscoe: Between the ten years apart, I made money being an athletic model for Nike, for Powerade. I guess the highlight is that I was Michael Jordan’s double for Nike. Did that, made a lot of money, had a lot of fun.
I was still recruited for those ten years and at age thirty came back to play at Point Loma Nazarene University [in San Diego, California]. A professor at Point Loma saw a poster that I had autographed for someone of me and Michael Jordan playing basketball. The coach at Point Loma contacted me. I took one look at the campus and said, “Yeah.” I was in Portland and I came back down and played. I had a really successful two years at Point Loma at age thirty. A lot of pain, but we had a lot of success.
Risen Magazine: I’m curious about your goal setting. Was your personality always the type that if you set a goal, you would try to achieve it? Like as a sophomore starting for the varsity team, or was that more isolated to sports?
Willie Briscoe: No, I think unfortunately I am motivated by negative reinforcement. I was raised by a single black mom with four kids in the 60s and 70s. Negative reinforcement, being told I couldn’t do something or I wasn’t able to succeed at something, drove me to really work ten times harder than the guy next to me.
Starting this ministry, Hope Leadership Foundation (HLF), has been that same challenge. I started it with my last $1,500 in my account. There have been a lot of challenges that would have caused me to give up, but it’s worth it. It’s worth pushing through. But yes, that’s probably, to a fault, my personality to be ignited by “against the odds” or negative reinforcement. Growing up without a father, not having many voices around me other than the voice in my head, which would be God.
David Robinson was autographing basketballs with Scriptures. He was so busy, so then the kids would run to me and then I would pull out my Bible and share the actual verse and read it to them and tell them what it meant.
Risen Magazine: You had mentioned earlier in your basketball career, in your first stint, that you weren’t a believer. How did you come to know the Lord and make that a real part of your life?
Willie Briscoe: When I was away from basketball for almost ten years, at age twenty-eight, right after I got saved, I began to have a burdened heart and a strong desire to play basketball. I had completely left the athletic modeling world and all of a sudden I get a call to do a job. I kept getting the same call; it was a direct booking. They wanted me, so I finally took the job… and it was to be David Robinson’s double.
So I’m fasting and praying and the Lord begins to tell me that I’m going to play basketball again. I’m living in Orange County, and I go up to Los Angeles to UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to shoot a Gillette Foam commercial. Tim Duncan’s rookie year, or sophomore year, and David Robinson and we’re shooting a “rookie versus the veteran” commercial. I’m David Robinson. I come out of my RV and David Robinson comes out of his RV and we’re dressed head to toe alike. Here’s the only guy that I knew as a Christian basketball player and the Lord says to me, “You’re going to play basketball again.”
Finally playing basketball, and having a heart for playing basketball, matched up because I had a purpose of playing to glorify God as opposed to glorifying myself. It would only be within weeks that I would get the call from Point Loma because someone saw the poster up on the wall. It blows me away to this day to think about.
I was double for several NBA players – Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and several Portland Trail Blazers. But I had left the field all together and my phone just kept blowing up to take this one last job. And God confirmed that I was going to be playing basketball again.
Risen Magazine: Did you ever get a chance to talk with any of those Christian NBA players outside of working with them? Was there any encouragement or conversation, or was the way they led their lives impressionable enough?
Willie Briscoe: Just the way David led his life. I remember on the set that couple of days, David Robinson was autographing basketballs with Scriptures. He was so busy, so then the kids would run to me and then I would pull out my Bible and share the actual verse and read it to them and tell them what it meant. Plus growing up on the same city block and going to the same high school as A.C. Green, you knew what he stood for. It was a legacy that he left.
The only person I really had a lot of time to talk about faith in basketball with was probably Meadowlark Lemon [Basketball Hall-of-Famer]; long car drives or just sitting at meals and being able to soak up a man who’s been around the world a few times and shared the Gospel with a lot of people.
Risen Magazine: When you were doing the commercial and print work, I imagine that would be a pretty enticing field. Were there times where you would get caught up in thinking you were like the professional athletes?
Willie Briscoe: Right after college I got invited to the Portland Trail Blazers training camp but I didn’t want to play basketball for awhile. I was in the camp and playing at a high level with Hall-of-Famer’s like Clyde Drexler and Danny Ainge. But I was so twisted in my thinking, not being a Christian yet and management was asking me who my agent was and who represented me and I lied and said, “I’m going back to college and so I can’t talk to you about playing professionally.” When in reality, I had no desire to go back to college. But the idea of playing eighty-two basketball games a year, and playing when I didn’t have my priorities right, and I wasn’t playing for the Lord – it seemed like a nightmare to me. I wanted to play, I liked playing and I liked being good at basketball, but I didn’t have the passion at that season of my life. I wish I would’ve had Christ because I might’ve had a different passion and played for a different reason, then I might have pursued playing professionally.
Risen Magazine: Once you became a Christian, how did you see yourself change because you had a relationship with Christ?
Willie Briscoe: That was interesting. The baseball player Heath Bell and I talk about this. I used to play angry, like I said, with negative reinforcement. I used to pick out guys in the city that people said were better than me and I would just envision myself working twice as hard in the weight room, and on the court, or whatever. For twenty plus years I played angry and I played with something to prove.
When I came back at age thirty to basketball, I was searching for a motivation that would get me to that height. I had a hard time finding it. I wasn’t mad at anybody anymore. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t compete hard and you’re not tough, but it took me awhile to figure that out. It took a lot of prayer and a lot finding how to play for the Lord. That was the biggest transition because it used to be me against the world and now it wasn’t against the world anymore. What is going to be my target? What is going to be my focal point? I used to be fueled by negative emotions and now it’s like, how do you go out and be dominant and love?
But I was able to understand that God wants us to do our best, which is something I would try to instill in kids – whatever you’re doing, God wants us to do our best. He wants us to try our hardest and put our best effort on the floor every time in practice and games. That was able to motivate me. But it did take a shift in thinking, a big shift in thinking.
My priority is my relationship with Jesus, my wife, and then my children, and then my vocation and ministry.
Risen Magazine: Speaking of kids, did you always know that once you finally stepped off the court for the final time that you would start a foundation?
Willie Briscoe: I used to be very sad about not having a clear, natural calling if it wasn’t athletics. Some people are gifted at music. I did a lot of jobs, even during that ten years out, I did a lot of jobs and I excelled and did well in all of them. I didn’t know that ten years of doing those types of jobs in the non-profit world, and my athletic background, would come together to form Hope Leadership Foundation. I used to look at it as a negative that I didn’t have a clear burning desire to be a doctor. But then all of my life experiences came together in creating the ministry of Hope Leadership Foundation – I was a drug and alcohol counselor for a few years, I worked with kids in the youth prison systems, I worked in prevention – which is kind of like what we do at HLF, we try to prevent kids from going down that road. I worked in all these different areas and I did well in them, but I didn’t want to be a “lifer” in any one of those jobs. It all came together when God began to give me the vision of Hope Leadership Foundation.
Risen Magazine: Hope Leadership has different aspects to it, like mentorship, events, after school activities, and sports. How did it develop to where it is now?
Willie Briscoe: The two aspects of HLF are outreach, and the Academy. Outreach is how we introduce ourselves to the community and it’s how we do our largest evangelistic aspects. Our outreaches can be from 50 kids to more than 3,500 kids. It could be anything from a basketball or baseball camp, to a backpack drive, or free football physicals for kids. We’ve done a lot of different things and what we want is to be a blessing in the community. It’s also to provide a place for single parents to drop their kids off, especially in summer and spring breaks. It’s a larger net that helps us grab a hold of kids and also direct them towards the Academy.
The Academy is our bread and butter. It took us four years to get that off the ground. There was a lot of pain and a lot of heartache, but that’s where we’re actually really getting the ability to put our hands around a kid and have several hours a week to impact them. We help them in tutoring for their education and giving them a mindset that’s outside of the square block that they live in – giving them hope for their future. Most of these kids will be first generation college graduates that we work with and probably 75 percent come out of fatherless homes, so they don’t have much positive male interaction. All of our kids come out of homes that live below the poverty line.
I hate to say it, but most of these kids’ parents either clean someone’s house or they cut someone’s yard for a living. We want them to dream bigger than that, maybe be a business owner one day. But most importantly, that they would know the Lord and their calling for their life, and that they wouldn’t have an excuse for not fulfilling their calling in their life.
When I first started this ministry, I had to struggle. Then the Lord gave me Malachi 4:6. God says, “I will give you a Prophet Elijah and that Prophet Elijah will turn the hearts of children to their fathers and fathers to their children.” And if you think about the importance of that, those were the last words spoken before 400 years of silence. Those are the last two verses of the Old Testament which shows how important fatherlessness is to God. I grew up in that situation. I know what these kids face. I wanted to provide an atmosphere where those kids would have no excuses. I could do it against a lot of odds and I can provide a road map for some of these kids to be successful in life and be eased by God Almighty.
It’s watching a bunch of little miracles happen on a daily basis and imagining what the hope is for these kids in the future.
Risen Magazine: When it comes to your background, are you open with the kids about it? Meaning do they know that you were in a similar situation as them and God has been able to lead you to where you are at today?
Willie Briscoe: I share with the kids a lot of my story and that’s a whole other story. My father left when I was probably four or five years old. I reconnected with my father twenty-four hours before I got married, thirty years later. He was in my wedding. And I’m good friends with my father now after years of being apart.
Risen Magazine: Was that because you reached out or did he finally reach out to you?
Willie Briscoe: My brother and I pursued finding him. My mother had believed that he was dead. I had processed forgiveness. I had processed never being able to reconcile. I had processed that along with the Lord as a new Christian from age twenty-eight to my early thirties. Then my brother’s wife found him and located him a few months before I was getting married. We flew him and his current wife down and he and his wife were both in our wedding. I just saw him a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been in contact with him for the last ten years and we’re friends. We spend time together as often as possible.
I didn’t think I was going to share this, but my father is suffering right now from stomach cancer and I had to see him about a year and a half ago. I thought I had processed growing up without a father, healing or forgiveness or whatever. He was losing weight and they thought that he would die if he didn’t start eating and wouldn’t start recovering. They asked me if I could get him to eat. I said, “Dad, you need to eat.” He said, “I’ll eat if you do me a favor.” I said, “Well, what’s the favor?” I agreed to it. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that for you.”
He lives in Northern California, the next forty-eight hours he ate, he scarfed down food, he drank water and he got his weight up. At the end of the forty-eight hours, a few hours before I was supposed to get on the plane, he said, “I’ve done my part, now you need to do your part.” My father wanted me to shave him. He wanted to take a picture with me and he wanted me to shave him. For some reason, I had to go down to the water and pray about it for awhile. I had resistance to that closeness, that intimacy. Here’s the man who never taught me how to shave and here he was asking me to shave him and help him with the way that he looks. I shaved him and then we took a picture together. I’m glad to say he’s home now, but he still has some medical issues.
We’ve come a long, long way. There are layers of healing and I’m able to share that with these guys. A lot of these kids, their dad is across the border and some of them have never seen their dad. Mexico is fifteen minutes south of here. There’s a lot of resentment.
I had an amazing mom who raised four kids. She is my hero. That’s a huge blessing. I’ve been able to reconcile with my father, which doesn’t always happen. That’s a big part of this ministry moving forward is what we will do. We will work on the process of reconciliation with these kids after we have them in a safe environment where there’s enough support for them to deal with rejection in a healthy way.
Risen Magazine: You’re married with three kids and the family life that you’re able to provide for them looks very different than the one that you received. What do you feel are the most important components in a healthy, well-adjusted family?
Willie Briscoe: When I first started the ministry, a pastor asked me if I knew what God’s priorities were. We went through first and second Timothy [in the Bible] about being a ministry leader and I was like, “Oh sure, I know it.” And I failed in all of those priorities. My priority is my relationship with Jesus, my wife, and then my children, and then my vocation and ministry. I put ministry at the top for about eighteen months and we were doing really well – resources were flowing, we were growing and such. Then it’s like the Lord just turned off the water faucet. The brakes went on the ministry and I’m going, “What did I do?” And the Lord just showed me that I had gotten my priorities out of alignment with His priorities.
From that time, I committed to my wife verbally that I will prioritize my relationship with God, her and my children first. I’ll be home for dinner. Ninety percent of the time I will not check out mentally and emotionally. The ministry is God’s. And since then, I’ve done one hundred percent better. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m better than what I was doing. I think Billy Graham said, “If I lead thousands of people to the Lord and I fail at ministering or leading my own children, then I’m a failure.” It is absolutely the best and number one job that I have; to love my wife and to love my children. And it means that I have to say “no” to people and I have to say “no” to these cute little kid faces sometimes. That’s hard, but I entrust that God will see them, because nobody can be my children’s father, nobody can be my wife’s husband. Only I can be that. But these guys can have other mentors. I can trust the Lord to do other things in their life, but I choose not to be an absentee father. I’m at all of my kids’ events. If it’s on the calendar, then I’m there. I definitely prioritize my marriage and my wife.
Risen Magazine: What are the biggest changes that you see in the kids once they’ve been involved with Hope Leadership?
Willie Briscoe: Interacting with the kids and recognizing that they’re approaching life with prayer, they’re learning the Word of God, they’re practicing principles like the Fruit of the Spirit. I can tie in behavior positively, or negatively, to the Word of God. To see them get it, to see them not simply just memorize Scripture, but to live it out is the biggest change and to watch their lives start to be changed by the Word of God because they’re reading the Word of God. They ask for a copy of the Bible so they can read it at home. When our kids see prayers being answered. That is making a difference in their life. It’s watching a bunch of little miracles happen on a daily basis and imagining what the hope is for these kids in the future.
I was processing like I do at the end of every year, needing the Lord to speak to me about the upcoming year. It’s simply this: by changing the hearts of these children, that is how you change the world. We’re grabbing kids in third grade before they’re thinking about abortion, before they’re runaways, picked up for child trafficking, before they’re thinking about teen sex, before they’re thinking about doing drugs… we’re preempting them with the Word of God, impacting almost all of those other ministries so hopefully in the future their [failure]numbers will be lower. There will be fewer kids that are coming into a teen pregnancy clinic, or less kids that are thinking about suicide.
The Lord really began to show me the importance of the work that He wants to do in the kid’s life and how broad of a spectrum it covers across several other ministries. In a few years these kids are going to be going on missions trips. Like we’ve talked about other parts of the world, they’re going to start in Mexico and they’re going to be going to Africa and other places. By the time they’re in high school they’ll be doing missions trips and I’m excited to see their work.
Risen Magazine: Most of your work is done in the United States and it’s so needed, but Africa has weighed heavily on your heart, so why this continent and what have you seen in your trips there?
Willie Briscoe: The same problem that plagues inner cities in America, plagues Africa – and that is fatherlessness. The breakdown of the family structure is the same challenge; a lack of positive influence at home and in the community. I have gone to Sudan two or three times and we’ve already been talking about expanding HLF to the continent of Africa. I have a huge burden for Africa. I envision HLF impacting Africa, starting off as soccer camps and basketball clinics and things like that. Then using the same model that we’ve birthed here in San Diego, we’ll have education, job training, and all the different pieces.
We’re patterned after a program in Portland that I was a part of called Self Enhancement Incorporated, SEI. SEI is about twenty-five years old. It started originally for basketball players of single parent families – just boys and trying to bring about a positive role model. It’s now a $15 million a-year inner-city program turning out top students and top athletes, graduating about ninety percent of their students in the inner-city. The only difference is that they are not outwardly faith-based, and HLF is outwardly faith-based. I meet with the president up there twice a year. There’s no reason to reinvent a lot of things. We use a lot of what they do, except for Scripture, we place Scripture and biblical curriculum into the program, like God’s Girls and Good News Club and Awanas. We believe that we can change kids’ hearts here in San Diego, other urban communities, and ultimately in Africa.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2015
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