My Identity

I started playing basketball in 2nd grade and fell in love with it right away. Pretty soon after I started playing, I became the best player at my school, Victory Christian School and I started dreaming. Watching Michael Jordan play, my favorite player growing up, only made me dream even more. By 3rd grade, I had my whole career planned out. I was going to play in the NBA.

Los Angeles Clippers v Golden State Warriors
Photo By Jed Jacobson/Getty Images

Around the same time I started playing basketball, my parents introduced me to Jesus and I accepted him as my personal Lord and Savior. I had ups and downs throughout my relationship with Jesus, but one thing is for sure, my identity growing up was not in the fact that I was a child of God and had a relationship with the creator. My identity was wrapped up in basketball. I saw viewed myself as a basketball player first and I figured that’s how everyone else around me viewed me.

When Kevin Garnett got drafted from high school and people started rapping about it, I realized getting drafted from high school was a thing. That meant this thing needed to be added to my plans for my career, especially since my dad insisted that I go to the NBA from high school.

Here’s what was not in my plans for my career;  going undrafted after 3 years of college,

2005 NCAA 2nd Round: Kentucy Wildcats v Cincinnati Bearcats
Photo By: Elsa/Getty Images

playing in the NBA D-league (now called the G-League) for about a season before getting called up to the NBA by the Golden State Warriors,  having knee issues all through my college and professional career,  rupturing my patella tendon in my left knee in 2009,  and having my career end after 7 seasons because of that knee injury.

All of those things happened. It’s safe to say that my career didn’t go according to my plan.

During my senior year in high school, I decided to take this Christianity thing more seriously. I started to dig into the Bible more and began to view myself differently. I began to see myself first as a child of God and someone who lived for Jesus Christ. Basketball was just a talent God gave me and something I do for Him.  I realized that if my identity was in basketball, I would be up and down with the ups and downs of my basketball career. But if my identity was in Jesus and not in basketball, I would have peace, and I could always be happy no matter what is happening with my career. That changed everything for me. I continued to grow in that notion year after year with the help of my family and accountability partners.

Because my identity was in Jesus, his words started to carry more weight in my life. I took verses like Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future – NIV) to heart especially after the first few disappointments with my career plan happened. Proverbs 3:5-6 (Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight – NIV) also became one of my favorite verses.

I finally decided to lay down my plans for my career and surrender to God’s plan. I also decided to trust God when I was disappointed or I didn’t understand why something was happening one way when I wanted to happen a different way. I have found peace in knowing that I don’t have to understand why something was happening. All of this is why I wasn’t totally devastated when my career ended before I thought it would. After all my identity wasn’t in basketball or in how good people thought I was at it, or in how long I played in the NBA. My identity was in Jesus and what he thinks about me.

Another verse that has always stuck with me is Romans 8:28 (And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.-KJV). Maybe God had originally planned for me to play 20 years in the NBA, and somehow I screwed that up with decisions I made or going to the wrong surgeon for my knee surgery. Maybe his plan all along was to have me play 7 seasons and move on to something else he had for me. I don’t know. I do know Romans 8:28 doesn’t say, “Only things that aren’t your fault work together for good to them that love God.” Thank God the verse says “All things.” God can make anything work out for your good. That has definitely been my experience.

I have gotten even closer to the Lord since my career ended. I’m having so much fun now as a TV Analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area and the Golden State Warriors.

kelenna steph
Photo Courtesy of Kelenna Azubuike

I know a lot of athletes struggle with having their identity wrapped up in their sport like I did. God has given me so many opportunities to share my experiences with people and athletes of all ages and hopefully encourage them, and I cherish those opportunities and thank God for all of them. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I know I can trust in God and his plans!

– KELENNA AZUBUIKE