There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that’s first place. . . . [A] second place bowl game . . . is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.”1 Grace Daley, of Tulane’s Green Wave, and the WNBA, knew how to win, and win, and win. Then, at the top of her game, she walked away from professional basketball to experience a closer walk with Jesus.
In her high school years she was a first team all-state, as well as a Nike and Parade All-American. Basketball honors were not the only ones. She won the state 800-meter championship in her freshman year, and held the state high school record for the distance. Always in the top 10 of her academic class, she went to Tulane University on a full basketball scholarship.
College and Pro Ball
At Tulane her career really took off. Over her four years she poured in 2,249 points, making her still, more than a decade after her departure, the school’s all-time leading scorer—male or female. She was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2006. She led Tulane’s Green Wave to two Conference-USA [C-USA] regular season championships, three C-USA tournament championships, and four straight NCAA tournament berths. In 1999 C-USA named her tournament MVP, and she won nearly every award the conference handed out.
The Minnesota Lynx drafted her to the WNBA in the first round, and her professional career spanned four WNBA teams and four European countries—Spain, Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. She played in Europe because it allowed her to play year-round, while America’s WNBA season lasts only through the summer. The fierce competition in the European leagues allowed no more than two Americans on any European team. If you’re one of the two good enough to make it, your wallet shows. Daley was good enough. In the European leagues she dominated again. She led the Italy Pro League in scoring in 2002-2003. They named her MVP of the French Pro League in 2005-2006. They selected her to the European All-Star team, and picked her to play in the International Basketball Federation competition.
Then, suddenly, at the peak of a career studded with gilded accomplishments, something happened in Daley’s head one day, and she did the unthinkable. She quit. Why quit when the coaches are raving about you, the crowds are roaring for you, and the dough is rolling in for you? How could you walk away just when you’re making all the plays, winning all the awards, posing for all the photographs, and raking in the bucks? That is no time to quit, unless you’ve had an encounter with Christ; except if all you ever wanted to do was shoot for the stars, and now, suddenly and unmistakably, you get it. You see, with the blinding clarity of Paul bound for Damascus, how you get to those stars you had only been dreaming about.
Daley had always lived in a Christian environment. Her parents were faithful Christians whose hearts thrilled when their little 8-year-old gave her heart to Jesus and was baptized into His body. Eight years later, when she was 16, her family left the Baptist Communion and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Daley said, “I thought it was as simple as changing the day we went to church and everything else could remain the same.” The change did not affect her sports career.
Daley Meets a Friend
In the summer of 2007 she needed to see a doctor. Her parents recommended Dr. Don Bovell, a physician who attended their church. Daley could not know it, but she was about to meet her game changer. Don would play his part. But it was Ann, his delightfully extroverted wife, a builder and designer, who would engage Daley’s attention, win her affection, lead her into the Word of God, and accompany her through the radical changes that must follow an authentic confrontation with Jesus Christ.
As they chatted together in Ann’s home, Daley discovered that they shared common interests, such as studying God’s Word and exercising. That led to group exercise classes at the local YMCA. It also led to Bible studies together. The pair concentrated on a set of Adult Bible Study Guides that focused on a new topic each week of a given quarter, with sections for study on each day of the week. That quarter’s lesson was entitled “The Christian Life.” Daley had never turned her powerful mind and will to these lessons before. But now God was speaking to her directly through the studies, and through her friend Ann.
The studies progressed to the topic of rest and the Sabbath. Suddenly, everything was different. As Daley reports it, she became immediately convicted and immediately determined to end her professional basketball career. She neither hesitated, nor temporized, nor negotiated. She came to the astonishing and singular conclusion that God’s gift to her was not basketball. It was His Word. “Contained in His Word,” she says, “are His commandments . . . ; and contained in His commandments is the Sabbath.” She had rediscovered Jesus and His truth. She continues, “My goals were once centered on maximizing my basketball potential and helping my teams win games. Now my goals are centered on maximizing both spiritual and physical potential as a player on Jesus’ team, and helping win souls for His kingdom.” Ann, her guide and teacher, was blown away by the instantaneousness and totality of her decision. She accepted the Bible Sabbath, joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church by profession of faith, and brought an unceremonious end to her lucrative basketball career.
A New Career
But Daley still had a life to live, and a lot of witness to bear. From motivating teammates to win games and championships, she turned her prodigious teaching and leadership skills to the shaping of young minds and characters at an elementary school in Ocala, Florida. As before, her impact was immediate. The PE room became Coach Daley’s “Place of Grace,” where children in her physical education classes learned not just about being fit, but about thinking right and behaving well. She was chosen Rookie Teacher of the Year after her first “season.” In 2010 she was nominated again. In this school district, a new teacher is considered a rookie during the first three years. It was a testimony to the power of her witness, and a humbling honor to be recognized by her peers as deserving of such a nomination for two consecutive years.
The Bovells have become her new teammates in an enterprise called the B.E. S.M.A.R.T. TEAM.2 One day a week Ann volunteers in her classroom to help teach the kids good health through plant-based nutrition, fitness, discipline, honesty, and integrity. Beyond that, and their “Lighten Up!” health seminars in forums across America, the three work together for United Hands, a volunteer nonprofit organization that provides short-term ministry opportunities for medical and health professionals (see sidebar).
Looking Back, Driving Forward
Daley must continually answer at least one question: Would you go back? Her response is an unhesitating “No.” She continues, “I don’t want to gain the whole world and lose my soul. Whatever you desire to be should be in alignment with God’s Word. In professional athletics you will have to practice on the Sabbath, and the big games are usually scheduled on the Sabbath. The most important thing in life is being obedient to God. Choose a profession in which you can keep God’s schedule, since that is the team you are on. No one can serve two masters.”
Grace Daley is shooting for eternal glory now. She is on Jesus’ team. She plays, she says, with two philosophies, one tersely summed up in seven words: “Jesus gave His all. So will I.” And the other is even more stark and graphic: “Everything Matters!” Diet matters, devotion matters, discipline matters. For her, physical, mental, and spiritual fitness demand a plant-based diet, the best diet on the planet, God-given from the Garden of Eden, and the one that guarantees us the most in terms of physical energy and mental clarity. She drinks only water, the only beverage her body needs. By 10:00 p.m. she is in bed, to sleep for seven to eight hours. She cherishes the outdoors, the sunshine, at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, and Sabbath rest.
She loves the word “relentless” as a self-descriptor. Her public play was relentless. So was her private practice. She counseled prospective athletes, that you play as you practice. She practiced at 100 percent. Now she’s determined to witness for Jesus Christ at 100 percent. Knowing that He spent most of His ministry on earth healing people, she has a passion to spread the health message so that people can be drawn closer to God as they experience His miraculous restoration. Her witness includes a free daily after-school exercise class for the faculty, as well as a short daily e-mail with interesting information about basic health principles.
Winning With Jesus
Daley says, “I love the Christ-centered life I am living now. Playing on Jesus’ team is way more fun and exciting than playing on any other team in the world!” Sharing her life’s story with others reminds her of what God has done for her. She may have won, and won, and won before. But as she tells her new story and lives her new life, she is focusing on a prize greater than any she has ever won before.
Long before her time another heard, answered God’s call, turned around, and never looked back. With him, and with a myriad others who have fixed their eyes on the cross of Calvary, Daley is pressing forward for the prize that matters supremely and will never fade away, a prize we all can win, the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (see Phil. 3:14).
2 B—believe the good news; E—eat the right stuff; get enough S—sunshine; practice M—moderation—even in your right doing; include regular A—action—in your day’s routine; but don’t neglect to R—rest—?adequately; make sure you T—tell—the good news to everyone possible, both the good health news and the gospel of salvation that is its basis.
Lael Caesar, an associate editor of Adventist Review, is glad to be on the same team as Grace. This article was published March 8, 2012.