He was an All-American at UCLA and later won three NBA world championships with the Boston Celtics. After his illustrious sports career, he came to understand his mother’s teachings about faith in a whole new way through a fresh encounter with God.
“My mother was an ambassador for Jesus Christ,” says Willie Naulls, the founder of Willie Naulls Ministries, a Christ-centered mission promoting a balanced awareness of academic, physical, and spiritual achievement. Naulls spent the early part of his childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Dallas, Texas at a time when segregation still held its grip on the city. “It was very oppressive,” he recalls.
Despite the harsh racial atmosphere, his mother’s strong faith encouraged him to see his uniqueness as a child of God. “I was taught not to hate the people who hated me because of the color of my skin, but to pray for them and God would work it out.”
A work ethic that included careful preparation for any assignment and discipline in-the-task was encouraged. “She taught me that nothing is worth having unless you work for it,” he notes. “She was totally against welfare unless people couldn’t work.” As a result, seven-year-old Naulls got his first job delivering ice blocks in the days when many homes still had iceboxes rather than electric refrigerators.
He was large for his age, but his boss overestimated the boy’s strength by allowing him to haul a 50-pound block on his back. As a horrified woman watched in her kitchen, Willie’s knees buckled at an inopportune moment, which sent the ice careening across her linoleum floor. The resulting crash took out a wood burning heater in a cloud of soot. His feet never moved so fast as the panicked youngster raced home.
Naulls provides a colorful account of this incident in his book, “Levitation’s View: Lessons Voiced from an Extraordinary Journey.”
On Saturdays, work took priority over playtime. “We had to shine our own shoes, iron our own clothes, and fold them up before we could go out to play.” It was part of the weekly ritual to prepare for the Baptist church on Sunday morning and school the following day.
When he was nine, the family moved to Los Angeles and settled in a government housing project filled with shipyard workers in San Pedro. This “re-integrated” melting pot provided emotional breathing room for Naulls to form his identity. “Within a few months, my life’s course and destiny were shifted from oppression and the influence of people not wishing me well to that of people who let me be me.”
“I know there was still racism in San Pedro, but they didn’t drive around at night looking for a nigger to lynch,” he says.
Naulls felt distanced from his father, which only got worse after the elder Naulls accused his wife of unfaithfulness during the time he was away from home serving in World War II. One night 12-year-old Naulls awakened to screams by his mother. When he raced out of his bedroom, he witnessed his father pounding his mother with both fists.
Dad saw the children’s faces, barked at them in a menacing fashion, and they retreated to their room. Later young Naulls was haunted by his inaction. “Why didn’t I give my life to protect mom from him?” he wondered. “How can I ever forgive myself? I’ll get even one of these days,” he told himself.
Alarmed neighbors called police, and Willie watched as two officers hauled his father to jail. It was the kind of scene that would leave its imprint for many years. Eventually his parents found reconciliation and forgiveness in Christ and their marriage survived.
A rising star
The first sign of his athletic ability emerged at age 11 in dodge ball. Then he became an all-city baseball pitcher for San Pedro High School. During high school, he thought football was his best sport.
But a basketball scholarship to UCLA – and the influence of legendary coach John Wooden — changed his athletic path and the course of his life. “A lot of Coach Wooden’s one-liners were ones I had heard from my mother,” he notes.
“‘It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that counts…Do your best… Compete against yourself alone…Nothing is worth having unless you work for it,” – in these maxims Naulls heard the echoes of his mother coming from the Wizard of Westwood, the much-lauded coach who eventually won 10 NCAA championships over a 12-year period.
Naulls captained his team at UCLA, became its most valuable player, and then earned an All-American selection in 1956. As his college athletic career soared, his spiritual life sputtered at low altitude.
“At UCLA, I never went to church,” he admits, even as he assumed he was a Christian because of his mother’s influence.