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November 14, 2011
Discouraged for religious reasons from playing basketball, a young Jehovah's Witness who would soon be 7 feet tall had to decide whether to follow his mother's ardent beliefs or his own heart
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November 14, 2011

Dewayne Dedmon's Leap Of Faith

Discouraged for religious reasons from playing basketball, a young Jehovah's Witness who would soon be 7 feet tall had to decide whether to follow his mother's ardent beliefs or his own heart

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It wasn't the first time he'd had to. Dewayne was a gentle boy with a big heart, but he struggled to contain an independent streak. When he spoke disrespectfully to an adult, or used a bad word, he would retreat to his room. There he'd look through his Bible until he found a relevant scripture and carefully copy the passage. In moments such as these, Gail knew her decision had been the right one.

She'd joined the Truth four years earlier, in 1995. At the time she'd needed structure—for herself and for the three young children she was raising alone on her income as a receptionist in a doctor's office. She took Dewayne and his older sisters, Sabrina and Marina, to Kingdom Hall for an hour of Bible study on Tuesday, two hours of ministry school on Thursday and a two-hour public meeting on Sunday. On Saturday they all performed their most important duty as Jehovah's Witnesses: spreading the word. If the people whose doors they knocked on sometimes looked at them scornfully, Gail felt only pity for them.

She knew her family was on the right side of the Lord, along with so many others. She could recite the stats: There were several million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, and over a million in more than 10,000 congregations in the U.S. Like Gail, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that we are living in the end days of a wicked world, and that when the Apocalypse comes, only true believers will be granted eternal life. They recognize not the Holy Trinity but only the Father, and they take the Bible as his literal word. You can serve only one master, the Bible says; allegiance to anyone or anything but Jehovah is forbidden. So like all Witnesses, Gail was expected not to vote in elections or salute the flag. She could not run for public office or serve in the armed forces. Her family celebrated neither birthdays nor holidays. Gail could not receive a blood transfusion, even if refusing one could be fatal, because the Bible says one must "abstain from blood."

Then there was the matter of sports. Though not expressly forbidden, playing on a team encouraged children to show allegiance to something other than Jehovah and challenged their other priorities: Afternoons were for meetings, not practices, and weekends for service, not games. Even though Gail had been a talented volleyball player and quite a dancer, she knew sports were not right for her children now.

So, in a country in which parents put basketballs in their sons' cribs, in which fathers such as Earl Woods and Marv Marinovich trained their offspring to be sports stars from birth, Gail Lewis did the opposite. She forbade her tall, athletic son to play sports.

On Tuesday, Horton walked into the Antelope Valley gym at 2:30 p.m. He was on his way to work out in the dingy weight room, which housed rusted dumbbells and ancient Nautilus equipment. AVC, founded in 1929 in a sprawling desert populated by alfalfa farmers, had grown from a tiny adjunct to a high school into an institution with a student body of more than 12,000. Like many other California schools, AVC struggled with funding. Its classrooms were cramped and facilities outdated. The locker room was so small that during football season the players lined up around a corner to use the shower. That the basketball program had enjoyed so much success in such conditions was something of which Horton and his predecessor, Newton Chelette, were rightly proud.

As Horton hurried across the warped gym floor, he noticed someone watching him. Later it would strike him as unusual that the boy had arrived 30 minutes early. At the time, though, Horton was just surprised to see Dedmon at all.

Well, the coach figured, he's here. He grabbed a ball and passed it to Dedmon. "O.K., let's go," he said. "Start with Mikan drills."

Dedmon stared back at him.

"You know what those are, right?" Horton said.

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