Sunday, May 17, 2020

Bulls Flashback 1985. "Chaplain has his own game plan"

    ESPN's documentary "The Last Dance," exploring Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, particularly the 1998 season, airs the last two of its 10 episodes tonight. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd reach waaaay back into the vault for the time I spoke with Michael Jordan.
    Of course, as you will see, the chat was a complete accident. First, the backstory: I was 24, and the opinion page editor of the Wheaton Daily Journal. But I was able to also write freelance for the Sun-Times through use of that important journalistic tool called Not Asking Permission. I had met Rev. Henry Soles one Sunday in his church, where fate had put me in a pew next to Cubs great Billy Williams. He gave testimony to the role of faith in his life. 
     I interviewed Rev. Soles for the Daily Journal, and after a standard profile question—do you have any hobbies?—was surprised to learn he was the chaplain to the Chicago Bulls. If you're wondering why I wrote that story for the Sun-Times and not for the paper that employed me, the answer is easy. My thinking was: the Journal is where I am, but the Sun-Times is where I am going.
     This was the first Bulls game I ever attended. I do have a few memories of talking to Jordan: first, that he was buck naked when I met him, sorting through letters before the game—Cubs tickets come to mind— handing certain ones to an assistant with instructions. Second, that when we began talking I had no idea who he was. I asked about chapel, he replied, and I was about to say, "And you are...?" when he pulled on his jersey. Well, I can read. I jotted the name in my notebook. 
    The Rev. Soles served as Bulls chaplain for 30 years, during all their championship seasons, and died in 2018.

     The game between the Bulls and the L.A. Clippers is 90 minutes away and inside the Chicago Stadium the action is still in the stands, not on the court. Vendors are hooking soft pretzels on rotating racks. Policemen are drinking coffee and watching the LuvaBulls practice a new routine.     

     The athletes begin to arrive. Forward David Greenwood is the first to enter Gate 3 1/2. A young fan approaches, pen and paper held out in a gesture that needs no words. Greenwood signs, and moved on. Orlando Woolridge does the same, pausing to smile at the fan.
     Henry Soles, tall enough to be a basketball player but, at 49, several years too old, follows through the gate. The fan does not ask for Soles' autograph. Yet soles is also a member of the Bulls, though few would recognize him. He is the team's chaplain, and has come to perform the service that precedes almost every NBA game.
     "Everybody respects the pastor," says Bulls star forward Michael Jordan. "With the stress and pressure athletes go through, it's good to have someone you can talk to, relax with someone to take the pressure off."
     Players from both teams attend the chapel, held in a small dressing room near the lockers. It is the only chance they have to meet, other than on the court.
     On this day, seven players show up. Five are Bulls: forwards Steve Johnson, Sidney Green and Greenwood, guard Wes Matthews and center Jawann Oldam. Two Clippers attend as well—Junior Bridgeman, who is president of the NBA Players Association and Harvey Catchings. It is an average turnout.
     Those who don't attend are distracted by other pre-game activities. Jordan is talking to reporters. Woodridge is having his feet taped by trainer Mark Pfeil.
     "I know I should be going," says Woodridge. "But I've been busy with a lot of injuries this year."
     Soles asks Catchings to open with a prayer. "Most gracious heavenly father," he begins, "we pray that you will be with us as we venture out onto the court..."
     Then Soles, perched on a table with a Bible in his hand, begins the lesson. His style is informal and conversational.
     "We'll be talking tonight about meeting challenges and goals," he says, looking from payer to player. He quotes a story from the Book of Numbers about Joshua, Caleb and the 12 spies who were intimidated by race of giants.
     "They were taler than Artis," says Soles, referring to the 7-foot-2 inch ex-Bull Artis Gilmore. "These were giant guys." The players, nodding occasionally in agreement, listen intently.
     Soles' message is brief. "We can meet any challenge that comes to us as long as we feel God's presence," he says.
     In 10 minutes, the lesson is over. Soles ends the service with a prayer , the athletes bowing their heads. Then they shake hands and head upstairs to the court for their warmups.
     "I don't give them a theological treatise wrapped in jargon," Soles said. "I give a simple, but hopefully inspiring message, from a biblical as well as a practical standpoint. We pray to do our best on the field, respect teammates and opponents, play up to potential and not suffer any serious injury."
     Soles' easy-going style and zealous service to his faith has won admiration from athletes across the country. Julius Erving can be counted on to bring six or seven teammates when the Philadelphia 76ers are in town. Famed Cubs left-fielder Billy Williams attends Soles' church in west suburban Wheaton and is a good friend.
     "The word is out all around the teams," said the Bulls' Greenwood. "I think everybody in the league has tremendous amounts of respect for him."
     In addition to chapel, Soles performs baptisms and counseling for the players and attends retreats and seminars with them.
     "I know Rev. Soles outside of what he's doing here," said the Clippers' Catchings, who has attended conferences of the Pro-Basketball Fellowship with Soles. "He has really enhanced my life. He's a great human being and I have always admired him."
     Last August, Soles led a group of athletes to Africa. The athletes, including Bobby Jones of the 76ers and Gilmore, now of the San Antonia Spus, did missionary work in Kenya and served as Christian witnesses to young people.
     They did this on their own times and it wasn't publicized, but they felt it was something they should do," said Soles.
     He began his sports ministry in 1975, providing chapel for the Bears and major league baseball teams at the request of ex-Navy quarterback Bruck Bickel, then director of the Chicago Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
     In 1979, he helped form Intersport Associates, a nonprofit organization that coordinates ministry activities aimed at professional athletes, and he added the Bulls to his roster in 1981.
     "Once inside I saw a great need for spiritual help on their part," he said. "They had the professional ability, they had the plaudits of the crowd, but they had a need for spiritual direction. I felt because of my background and ability I could help them."
     Soles also is an associate minister at the DuPage A.M.E. Church in Wheaton, as is his wife, Effie.
     His association with professional athletes gives Soles a down-to-earth view of his glamorous friends. he said that while many envy the athletes for their high salaries and exciting lifestyles, they are subject to great pressures. There are long separations from families, constant media exposure, the perils of excess and the demands of the sport.
     "I don't see them as stars. I see them as individuals who have needs," he said. "They have the normal problems for people their age—women, drugs, money—but the problems are intensified by the players' high visibility. Their temptations are greater.
     "Material things are not lasting, and I try to get the athletes to understand that," he said. "Life is short, especially the professional life of a sports player, and they must start planning for retirement the day they sign on.
     "We help them to put their career in perspective. We show them there are things more important than a sports career—their family, who has to suffer their absence, and most importantly, God Himself, who gave them the ability to excel."
     On this day, the Bulls excel, beating the Clippers 117-101. After the game, Soles stops by both locker rooms. Outside, the fans press and wave, clotted around the exit. After showering and dressing, the Bulls players leave the locker room, signing autographs as they walk briskly to their cars.
     "Rod Higgins! Rod Higgins!" a young man shouts to his companion. "I'm telling you, ROD HIGGINS!!"
     Henry Soles, unnoticed, tucks his Bible under his arm and disappears into the night.
   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 3, 1985


  1. Very funny that anybody wouldn’t recognize Michael Jordan, though I guess it was his rookie year.


  2. A young, wet behind the ears Neil! What a treat. I believe you rightly take that not recognizing MJ as a badge of honor. I get it.

  3. Glad to read this older, previously unseen, column.
    My husband was a beer vendor at the Stadium back then, and I went to a number of games. I was lucky enough to somehow talk my way past security and go downstairs, regularly, to wait for him after the games were over. The room was right next to the Bulls and Hawks locker rooms, so I was able to watch the players leaving; it was fun for all the workers downstairs to greet them as they were leaving.
    On one occasion I was alone next to the wall along the path to the stairway and was asked out by a Bulls player. Of course I told him I was married, but it was a feel-good moment at the time.

  4. "and I was about to say, 'And you are...?'"

    Man, I'd love to have seen, or have you report, his demeanor had you actually asked him that!

  5. My husband and I were big Bulls fans back then. We even attended their last playoff game albeit in the nosebleed seats. Really liked reading your piece about their chaplain and pre-game inspiration. Thanks for including it on your blog.


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