Guideposts Classics: Otis Birdsong on Faith in Tough Times

In this story from April 1982, the former collegiate and professional basketball star recalls how faith and a mother's love saw him through a bad slump.

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- Posted on Mar 14, 2018

Former collegiate and professional basketball star Otis Birdsong

It’s a funny thing about slumps. We all go through them at some time in life, the days, even weeks when the whole world seems stacked against us. We fret, we worry, we scramble for solutions, and still the slump goes on. I’ve been through a slump like that—and licked it in a way that took me by surprise.

During the 1979-80 basketball season, I was stuck in what had to be the worst dry spell of my career, and so was the team I played for then, the Kansas City Kings. I had been named to the All-Star team, and our team had won the Midwest Division of the NBA the year before, and everyone expected the same again. But we got off to a miserable start, winning only five of 14, falling seven games off the lead.

In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader

Nothing I did on the court was going right. After averaging 22 points per game the year before, even good shots were now rolling off the rim. Passes would slip through my hands, causing critical turnovers; opponents I’d be covering on defense would easily get by me. I watched endless films with our coaches, analyzing every move I made on the court, looking for some fundamental skill gone sour. I even prayed about it, every day, but the situation just got worse.

One afternoon I was pacing in my apartment, about as low as I’d ever been. I should have been thinking about the game that night, but frankly, I didn’t even want to play. My confidence was totally shot. It just wasn’t fun being embarrassed night after night.

On impulse I picked up the telephone and began dialing. One-eight-one-three… Even the ring of the phone sounded gloomy.

“Hi, Mom,” I said when a voice came on the other end of the line.

“Otis, what’s the matter? You sound glum.”

“Well, Mom, things still aren’t going so well. I’m still not playing well, and…”

“You’re not injured, are you?”

“No.”

“How about the rest of the team? Is everyone healthy?”

“Well, yeah.”

“You’ve been praying, and keeping up on your Bible reading?”

“Sure have.”

“Then I don’t see what the problem is. Otis, you know what I’ve always told you when you’ve had problems, don’t you?”

“Of course. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart…’ But, Mom, this is a really bad slump—I’m playing terrible. I’ve been praying about it for ten games now, and it’s only gotten worse.”

“Listen, Otis, I’ve been through tough times myself, and as a matter of fact, you were the cause of some of them.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. All of those years of trying to bring you up right. Now that was tough!”

Mom laughed, and so did I. She said, “Otis, you’re not trusting in the Lord. You’re doubting Him. Come on, son, get back to believing!”

When I hung up the phone, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the thought that I was one of my mother’s worst problems. But I probably was.

My father, Nathaniel Birdsong, died when I was nine, leaving Mom to raise 12 children in our little house in Winter Haven, Florida. Soon after Dad died, she sat us all down in the living room. “All right, we’re on our own now,” she said. “That means we’ll have to pull together; it’ll mean chipping in the money you make picking grapefruit in the grove. But you’re going to have a good home and get a good education. We’re going to trust in the Lord for that.”

Mom was always after me to study my books more, but I just wanted to play ball. About every day, my brother Norris and I would be out back, shooting basketballs through the old barrel hoop tacked up to a telephone pole. Every day, that is, except Sunday. That was the day Mom had every one of the Birdsongs in church, whether we wanted to be there or not.

Mom and I didn’t always see eye to eye on that. I loved to stay out late on Saturday nights with my friends, and the last thing I wanted was to get up early on Sunday morning for church and Sunday school. But Mom’s rule was ironclad: “If you can stay out late on Saturday, you surely can get up early on Sunday for church.”

She did a lot of talking to us about the Lord, and to the Lord about us. Life wasn’t easy for her—she had to go out and work in other people’s homes, all the while trying to keep the 12 of us in school and out of trouble. I caused her a lot of grief, like the night she told me to stay home but I went riding on my bicycle anyway, then fell and broke my wrist. When we did things like that, Mom would sit down with us and read to us from the Bible. We knew then she was disappointed in us.

Eventually that old basketball hoop in the backyard paid off in ways that surprised even Mom. I won a basketball scholarship to the University of Houston. One night before I left for Texas, Mom handed me a box. “For you,” she said, “from the lady I work for. It’s your birthday present.”

Carefully I tore the end off the brown cardboard box, and pulled out a beautiful Bible.

“When you’re away at school—I want you to read this,” Mom said. “It’s the best present you’ll ever receive. Ever.”

I paged through that same Bible now, dog-eared and worn from the years of use I’d given it since then. “Come on, son,” Mom had said, “get back to believing.” Mom was right. I knew I had talent as a player. I had strong health. I just had to go on believing in myself—and in Him.

That night, against Detroit, I went into the game feeling different. I got the opening tip-off from our center, Sam Lacey, and quickly dribbled up the right side of the floor. Fifteen feet from the basket, a Piston guard challenged me, cutting off my route to the hoop. I pulled up and let go with a jump shot. Swish!

Quickly I backpedaled on defense, and when we forced a Detroit player to take a bad shot and got the rebound, I raced up the floor again. Phil Ford hit me with a perfect pass on the run—it was an easy lay-up. All night long my shots continued to fall, even the off-balance one I threw up in the third quarter. My passing was crisp and true—no more of those costly turnovers. On defense I seemed to have regained that lost step; opponents weren’t getting the easy shot off me.

I scored 35 points that night, one of the best games of my pro career. The next night I got 32 points against Boston, and had a 36-point game the next week in a win over San Diego. And the team started winning, too—24 of 31 during one stretch. I beat the slump, and went on that season to earn All-Pro honors.

It’s a funny thing about moms. They don’t have to know a thing about jump shots and zone defenses to know a lot about slumps. And the faith that sees you through them.

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