March 2009 Nick Dunn Shalee Lehning Belle of the Ball Kansas State University Wildcats
"How would Jesus play basketball?"
It's a question we sometimes have trouble answering. How would Jesus behave in some of the activities of today's world, the different tasks we do on a day-to-day basis? What would He be like in a classroom? How would He work in an office setting? How would He operate a forklift, perform open-heart surgery or fly an airplane?
At FCA, the question applies more specifically to sports. What style of play would Jesus have on the basketball court? What exactly would that look like?
Shalee Lehning #5
|School: Kansas State University|
Birthdate: Oct. 27, 1986
Hometown: Sublette, Kan.
• All-Big 12 first-team
• Kansas City Star Co-Big 12 Player of the Year
• Academic All-Big 12 first-team
• Currently fourth all-time in NCAA history with four career triple-doubles
• Has been involved with FCA and Navigators campus ministries at Kansas State
It's a difficult question, obviously, but it's probably safe to assume that He'd give it everything He had every time He stepped on the court. He'd be the hardest-working player on His team and a leader for those around Him. Jesus would so perfectly reflect His Father that you couldn't help but know it when you watched Him play. No man or woman on Earth would be able to replicate His perfect on-court style and the glory that would be revealed. But, still, Kansas State's Shalee Lehning is giving it her best shot.
Watch any highlight reel of Lehning — Kansas State's sparkplug point guard who currently leads the nation in assists and triple-doubles — and it's easy to see why she's been called "one of the best point guards in America" and "a stat-sheet stuffer" by college basketball analysts. She flies around the court, diving for loose balls, setting her teammates up for layups and snatching rebounds from opponents almost a foot taller than she is.
To get an idea of how feisty this senior can be when she gets in a groove, just know this: In the seventh game of her collegiate career, she tied a K-State record with 20 rebounds.
Twenty rebounds for a girl who is only 5'9".
For Lehning, it's the only way she's ever known how to play the game. As a kid growing up in Sublette, Kan., a tiny town of about 1,600 in the southwest corner of the state, she spent three or four hours a day working on her game. And she always made sure to play with boys.
"They didn't give me any slack," she said. "They didn't care that I was a girl. They'd knock me down and tell me to get up. If I'd start bleeding, they'd tell me to shake it off."
Soon, Lehning was using the hard-earned lessons from those rec-center pickup games to manhandle her Kansas high school competition. In her last two seasons, she led Sublette High School to two state titles and a perfect 52-0 mark. Her senior-year stats could make even LeBron James jealous: 30.6 points, 15 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 5.3 steals per game.
Such a sparkling high school résumé made college an easy choice for Lehning. She had "bled purple" since she could barely walk, and she jumped at the chance to play for Coach Deb Patterson at Kansas State.
So the rural Kansas basketball phenom went to play at the school she'd rooted for since she was 3 years old. Sounds like smooth sailing from there, right?
Back in Sublette, Lehning had gone to church every Sunday. She said her prayers every day, but, as she put it, her faith was more of a routine, little more than repetition.
When she arrived in Manhattan, Kan., as a freshman in 2005, that began to change. Through the friendship of some older players, she realized she was in need of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. She needed to be reading the Word every day, growing and learning from her Father. Finally, one Sunday at church, Lehning accepted Christ into her life.
"Shalee competes at a world-class level. It's extraordinary. It's special. It's that thing you never want to miss in life because it's so rare."
-- Deb Patterson
"It was a big step for me," she said. "I was surrounded by such amazing people, (Coach Patterson) and my teammates. I could see and learn from them, and that's really when my faith took off."
As Lehning's faith matured, her game on the court grew, as well. She took over the starting point guard spot early in her freshman season, but, more importantly, she began to see how she could use the sport she loved to glorify God.
No longer was basketball something she did just for fun. It was a way she could worship God and allow her status as a Division-I athlete to be a tremendous platform to reach others. Now, when she stepped on the court, it wasn't about her. There was a bigger purpose behind it.
"It was a complete 180 for me," she said. "I have a different passion now. I'm not playing for my own individual desires. I'm playing for Him. Once I accepted Him in, everything changed. Now it is a blessing to work hard. It's a blessing every time I get to step on the floor."
It's a common thought that God teaches us the most during the times when it seems the darkest. For Lehning, her darkest — or most educational — days were still to come.
For years, all Lehning knew was winning. When she showed up at K-State, she was the "belle of the ball and could do no wrong," as Patterson put it. She never (really) had to deal with losing, and that continued in her freshman season with the Wildcats, who, as a young team, won the 2006 WNIT Championship.
Entering 2006-07, there was a great deal of hope among Wildcat fans that the young team would build on its success. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. A knee injury to star center Marlies Gipson forced a spiral finish to the season in which the Wildcats lost 12 of their last 14 regular-season games.
Shalee Lehning is fourth all-time in NCAA history with four career triple-doubles.
All of the losing got to Lehning. Fortunately, as Patterson said, her faith in Christ gave her the strength to handle it.
"[In college], her newfound faith helped her learn how to be a person that dealt with adversity, difficulty and failures," Patterson said. "We lost a lot of games her sophomore year, and yet, she taught the people around her how to never give up."
Lehning gives a lot of the credit to Patterson, to whom she has grown close and come to respect because of Patterson's own unwavering faith through difficult times.
"'Coach P' came into the gym positive every day," Lehning said of Patterson, who was chosen for the Kansas FCA Coaches Hall of Fame in 2008. "It was neat to see that because it would've been very easy for her to be a different way."
Lehning was also able to use Patterson's example to examine her own attitude.
"Individually, I grew the most my sophomore year," she said. "I think God truly challenged me in a lot of different ways, in my comfort zones and in my leadership."
Eventually, Lehning realized God was using those challenges to motivate her. He was breaking her down so that He could build her back up to give her more focus and desire.
Lehning had always been a hard worker, but with the new motivation and the fresh taste of losing in her mouth, she worked harder than ever. Combined with her work ethic, her faith soon helped her become a higher-caliber of leader than she had been in high school.
Lehning's fire and intensity spread to her teammates, and it showed up in the next season. Picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 in 2007-08, Kansas State shocked everyone and won the Big 12 Championship, becoming the first men's or women's team in Big 12 history to go from last to first in successive seasons.
Patterson, who coached the likes of Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Nykesha Sales as an assistant for Team USA, said Lehning is every bit the competitor and leader of those legends.
"She taught the people around her how to never
give up," Patterson (right) said of Lehning.
"Shalee competes at a world-class level," she said. "It's extraordinary. It's special. It's that thing that you never want to miss in life because it's so rare."
The determination and perseverance that Lehning developed in her sophomore season has helped her become one of the best point guards and leaders in the country. Her team feeds off her energy, and the bond they have through their mutual faith (a majority of the players are Christian) only helps their on-court chemistry.
"I want to love Jesus, and I want to love my teammates," Lehning said. "I want them to know, without a doubt, that I'm going to step on that floor and be right by their side. No matter what's going on, win or lose, I'm going to be running through a wall for them."
At press time, the Wildcats were 18-2 and ranked No. 18 in the nation looking to defend their Big 12 crown, and Lehning led the nation with 8.6 assists per game. But it's more than the stats that tell the story with her. It's those plays that don't show up in the box score, when she'll dive out of bounds for a loose ball and throw it off an opponent or step in the lane to take a charge. Those are the plays that define the type of leader she is, and the type of person she's become.
"If something's not broken, then I'm fine. Just get up and keep playing," she said. "I like having to play my game and be confident in who I am. The rest will take care of itself."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Scott Weaver.