When she entered high school, it was pretty much expected that Jenny would play for her school basketball team. Always in the back of her mind was the cloud of conflict that games would inevitably be scheduled on the Sabbath. That time came when she entered her sophomore year at Clark County High School, located about 45 miles from Lexington, Kentucky—the home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats.
Some say that’s the heart of basketball country. Jenny was a rising star in a sport that made her name a household word in her community. But the dreaded conflict reached Jenny, and she made a decision she believed was irrevocable. She quit the sport she loved. She decided faith and family were more important than basketball, even in Kentucky. Following is an account of the tough decisions and why she did what she did through high school and into college.
When her junior year in high school began, Jenny’s coach asked her to return to the team. He was willing to work around her religious beliefs. He would not bench her for missing Friday night games. Miraculously, Jenny was again playing the game she loved. The local newspaper, The Winchester Sun, wrote glowingly of her achievements.
“Stewart missed Friday night’s game because of her faith. The religion she practices observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and it proscribes such activities during that time as basketball…
“Very few people in Norton Gym Monday night would have known that Stewart’s 23-point performance against the Montgomery County High School Lady Indians in the opening round of the district tournament would be the last time she ever played on her home floor in a Lady Cardinal uniform.
“And it was classic Jenny Stewart Monday night, her patented stop-and-poppers, her leaning, floating one-handed jumpers in the lane, her graceful layups on fast breaks.
“The Lady Cardinals could have used Stewart’s services Friday but it was no problem. They knew it was something Jenny had to do, and they respected that.”
After the game Clark coach Larry Allison said, “It’s never been a problem. It’s an understood fact. As a coach I’ve always told my players that basketball and athletics are great parallels in life. And as a coach there are two things that come before basketball and that’s faith and family. I know how much Jenny loves the game of basketball. She knows she’s missing a game for a reason. She is doing what she thinks is right. And I don’t know if coaching her has made me a better coach, but it sure has made me a better person.”
You hear a lot about talented athletes. Their stories and pictures appear with regularity in the local newspaper and on the evening news. Sometimes you hear about people with character. But when talent and character come together in one person, a leader emerges. Jenny didn’t go to school to change anyone else. She just wanted to obey God and play basketball. When a conflict arose, she chose obedience to God. And then the coach learned something about life from the student.
Jenny’s senior year in high school (2000-01), she was nominated for the Wendy’s High School Heisman Award, as well as several state and county honors. On April 28, she sat at a table in the school lobby surrounded by family, coaches and her high school principal. As cameras clicked, she signed a letter-of-intent to play basketball for Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky.
Interview with Jenny
After Jenny’s first year on the Alice Lloyd College team, she gave up her scholarship to play for a larger school at a more challenging level. Jenny enrolled at Morehead State University and became a “walk-on” her first year. She has also carried a 4.0 GPA through her first two years of college.
Are you still playing collegiate basketball?
No, I’m not playing for Morehead State anymore or probably anywhere else.
The coach told me that they weren’t going to have any walk-ons this year. She mentioned that the schedule was a problem (meaning that the Sabbath was too inconvenient to work around).
Were many games scheduled on the Sabbath?
Some, but the bigger problem was the games on Saturday night. The team practiced on the Sabbath before the Saturday night games and the coach didn’t like it when I missed the “shoot around” prior to the game.
What was the rest of the team like? Were they supportive?
Most everyone on the team was religious. They would pray before each game and the coach was a religious person. One of the assistant coaches would even fast once a week. One of the team members was president of the BSU [Baptist Student Union]. She conducted some of the meetings for BSU. They were all nice girls, but they felt a little bit condemned because I was keeping the Sabbath.
This has been a trial for you for several years.
This has been a trial almost my whole life. I started playing in a “knothole” league in the fourth grade and began playing on a school team in the seventh grade.
There is nothing in this physical, material life that is worth giving up your salvation. I always went to church. I always listened. But until this happened, I never realized how important the truth is and how important it is to live a life that’s pleasing to God.
What did you learn from the experience?
I learned that I could live without basketball. When I was in high school, I thought there was no life beyond basketball. I would shoot hundreds of shots a day and progressed to shooting a thousand shots a day. It was the most important thing to me. Now I realize that the people who play only get to play so long. The physical things, they just pass.
What have you learned about self-denial?
It was a small sacrifice. It was a game. In my mind it was big, but other people have given up their lives for the truth. Denying yourself makes you a stronger person and increases your faith. It will all come out good in the end.
Are you glad you’ve played high school and college ball?
Oh sure! Some of my best memories have been playing ball. I was given this talent, and I was able to meet a lot of people and overcome my shyness by excelling in a sport.
What would you recommend for other teens wanting to play ball for their school or college? What about your younger brother? How would you advise him?
That’s a tough question. Giving it up caused a lot of heartache. Hopefully he would make the right decision for himself. My parents told me what was right and I knew what was right. After that you have to make your own decision for your own conscience. My dad always encouraged me, but he told me there would come a day that I would have to confront this dilemma.
Basketball teaches you how to work with other people and it teaches you how to become a team player, but you have to know that the decision time will come when you have to choose between what’s right and what’s wrong.
Is it worth it?
It is worth it if you make the right decision, but it’s not worth it if you make the wrong one! VT