Sweet 16: Stokes' big footprint carries Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- A successful team has to be built on a solid foundation. None gets much more solid than 6-feet-8, 260-pound Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, whose size 23 shoe, basketball skill and steady off-court influence are leaving a big footprint.
Stokes is the rock of the Tennessee Volunteer basketball team, the 11th seed facing the 2nd seed Michigan Wolverines tonight in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. The winner advances to the Elite Eight.
Stokes has been the quiet, steady type all along -- just like quiet, steady head coach Cuonzo Martin likes.
"Both of them are intense competitors with calm exteriors," Vols chaplain Roger Woods noted.
Stokes is tied for first in the nation in double doubles (22 games with double-digit rebounds and points), averaging 10.7 rebounds and 15.2 points, and he and fellow post player Jeronne Maymon (also 6-8, 260) are a double-wide mismatch inside.
A senior-laden team (starters Jordan McRae, Maymon and Antonio Barton), the tone is nevertheless set by the junior Stokes.
"He is quiet and respectful but everybody knows where Jarnell stands with his faith," Woods said. "I believe it impacts the entire team. All those guys are growing and striving."
None more than Jarnell. Former Vol post player Rob Murphy mixed it up with Stokes in practice every day during Stokes' first two years at UT. Off the court, he saw a young man (17 when he played his first game for Tennessee) clearly working to honor God.
"Jarnell is a quiet guy, reserved, but he has definitely taken the steps to live a Christ-filled life," said Murphy, who graduated in 2013 and is now athletic director and basketball coach at Concord Christian School in Knoxville. "He attends church consistently, and I can see his faith by how he lives his life day to day, how he deals with his girlfriend and the way he treats people around him. He has really invested in living a life that glorifies the Lord."
Coach Martin is a big part of that effort. In Martin's first phone call to Stokes, the coach spoke of his faith in God. "It was a very engaging conversation," Stokes told Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Mike Griffin in a video shortly after arriving at Tennessee in December 2011. "He said he worked hard but he said he worked hard because of God. I said to myself, 'I need to check this situation out.'"
Stokes had been recruited from age 14 and had risen to the state's top prospect. A shy young man, he said recruiting "was a long hard process. With prayer comes answers. In beginning, I was thinking 'Cuonzo Martin? This guy from Missouri State? You serious?' But I walk by faith, not by sight, and I thought Tennessee was the right fit."
For Stokes, that meant mixing basketball and faith in God -- and having a godly leader.
"Coach Martin makes it very clear that he is a Christian," Murphy said. "He's very up-front about his faith, and I think that has impacted Jarnell very much. Coach Martin is careful and smart about it -- he has to be in a public institution. He gives players the option to leave before we have chapel, but we have them consistently. We have team prayer. The presence of the Lord is always around the program. Coach Martin brings glory to the Lord."
Stokes' faith has garnered attention of late as he openly -- but briefly and with poise -- voiced praise to God on nationally televised interviews after NCAA tournament games.
"He does it on his own," Woods said. "He just wants to make sure before he says anything else that he honors the Lord. He is living Matthew 6:33, 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God....' So he just says that before anything else. It's not rehearsed or stated, it's from the heart."
And it's from conviction, which he spoke of in the video more than two years ago.
"I think there should be more guys out there trying to bring faith in Jesus and not so worried about what others think about them," Stokes said. "Like Tim Tebow, who has the faith to say, 'I work hard, but God gets me where I am now.'"
Stokes earns respect when he speaks because of his work ethic. He is much improved this season, a big reason Tennessee made the tournament and has won three games so far.
"You can really see a difference in the quality of his play," Murphy said. "His fundamental base is much better. He has gotten away from some moves he used in high school that he figured out didn't work in college. His passes, his moves -- everything he does with the ball -- are at a more advanced level."
While every hard-working and successful athlete is not a Christian, Murphy said he believes Stokes' faith stokes his effort.
"I think it is impossible to be a Christian and not have it affect your work ethic," Murphy said. "He works like a man who is doing everything unto the Lord."
The work ethic extends to academics and faith. His father Willie pushed him to honors classes in high school, and the discipline positioned Stokes to graduate early and begin his college career in what should have been his high school senior year. As for faith, he learns from some of the best in Woods and Sevier Heights Baptist Church's Tim Miller. Miller leads "Inside the Walk" each Wednesday night at 9. Stokes is regularly there.
"He's been classy," Miller said. "He comes across as an extremely shy guy, but he's always made himself available to students. He always stays afterward and mingles with the crowd. He's always a gentleman in how he handles himself, even though a lot of people want to approach him.
"There is a quiet confidence about him. He has never wanted to be the center of attention. I've admired that from a distance."
The quiet confidence and low-key demeanor came through long talks and discipline from his father and some humbling experiences as an early teen.
"I was the first one to read every article that came out about Jarnell Stokes," Stokes said upon arriving at Tennessee. "I think I let it get to my head. My game started falling. I stopped doing what I was asked.
"I grew up as always the underdog. I was this big kid with the afro. I never made friends ... guys didn't like me; they said I was garbage. That adversity has pushed me through a lot. My faith in God has helped me get to where I am right now. I want to thank my dad for the long nights we talked about basketball, and the discipline. Now I appreciate it."
He has been molded by God, parents and coaches into a winner. He has influenced teammates to be winners. Stokes had a goal when he arrived. He said in December 2011:
"I've never been a loser. I know they [Tennessee basketball] are down right now. But I plan on winning."
Mission accomplished. On and off the court.
Victor Lee is a writer based in Knoxville, Tenn. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).