Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Where They Are Today - Billy Thompson

From all places it is in the holy city, within the basketball arena of Jerusalem, where you can feel the essence of Judaism, you can still hear Billy Thompson's name echoing all over. Even today – eight years after he left Israel. Why is it so contradicting? Because "The Priest" is not only a nickname anymore for the 42 years old Thompson. For several years now, the awesome basketball player is serving as a pastor for Jesus People Proclaim International church in Boca Raton, Florida. And maybe there is no reason to be surprised. When you hear Thompson speaks, you can sense his great love for Jerusalem, Israel and Judeism – all of these became prominent motives of the church and community he's leading.

"As the head of the church, I'm officiating services in my community, goes to hospitals and pray for the sick and off course doing confessions" says Thompson, "In our church we also celebrate the Shabat. I invest a lot of discovering and studying the Jewish roots of our religion – Christianity. There are a lot of Jewish people that comes to these events and we sing together in Hebrew".

Even though priesthood had become a profession for Thompson, he isn't ready to leave the basketball behind him just yet. Thompson, who was one of the first member of the Miami Heat expansion team between 1988-91, is still loyal to the team and serve as its chaplin. "I pray with the players before games. I pray for them to take the championship", say Thompson, "It's great being with players like Shaquille ONeal and Dwyane Wade. Just to see them play and getting to achievements, make me so excited".

Even today, Thompson see Jerusalem as a significant benchmark in his current career, which started back in the campus of the University of Louisville. Thompson and his friend Milton Wagner led the way to the Cardinals' NCAA title in 1986. He himself claims it happened as a result of divine intervention. "My life turned upside-down in 1985. I would drink a lot, hanging out in parties and my life was full of sin. I detached myself from my Christian education my parents gave me. Then, all of a sudden, I had a revelation. I understood god wants me to return to the right way – religion's way. I stopped with my sins and dedicated with my Christianity studies and basketball".

- Did religion and basketball never collided?
"The two never contradict each other. On the contrary, faith gave me strength. Even in hard days, I knew god is helping, even on the basketball court and that everything is possible because of him".Even though he said he never encountered a conflict between his two loves, Thompson chose to devote himself to religion studies after 1991, when he was released from the Golden State Warriors – his last NBA team – Three years before he first came to Israel. "I started my expertise as a priest two years before I came to Israel, and then I took a break. After I left Israel, I continued with my studies for three more years, started my involvement with my current church, and after a while I became a priest".

Thompson is a believing dedicated man, but in 1994 he stopped his religion studies and went to Israel in the age of 31 to came back and play basketball. Thompson claims that this was a decision taken with god's guidance. It was the second time he revealed himself and ordered him to comeback. The opportunity to do it in Israel is nothing less than a miracle for him.

"After I stopped playing basketball and started my studies in church, I had another revelation – God told me that I need to come back and play for few more years. I told my agent to check my options overseas and it was like a miracle, because the only teams interested were from Israel. First I got an offer from Hapoel Galil Eliyon and Hapoel Tel Aviv. I wanted to play with Milt Wagner in Osishkin, but I hesitated and in the meantime they signed Buck Johnson".

"Amazingly, the next team who approached me was Hapoel Jerusalem and I took the opportunity right away, and went there to be close to Jesus. It was probably a divine intervention. It was like a dream for me, going to such a beautiful country. It was exactly like it was written in the bible and the New Testament. My fears from terror attacks were proven to be false. It safer in Jerusalem than other cities in the US. I remember my wife (Cynthia, a full partner in the church's activity) and my daughter went jogging after sunset. Today it's highly not recommended to do it where we live now".

- Beside of the emotional implications of the journey to the holy land, what was your impression of Israeli basketball?
"Fans in Israel love basketball and understand the game and that’s what makes Israeli teams the best in the world outside the USA. It's amazing that Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague twice in a raw and Hapoel Jerusalem won ULEB cup. That what proves god support in them".

Thompson also welcomes Pini Gershon, who coached him in Jerusalem, to the family of believers. "I'm happy to hear Pini found god. He always talked a lot and was joking all the time and I love him very much. I also love Doron Shefa and Adi Gordon – I think god connected us and made us a winning team. I remember clearly how we beat Maccabi twice in two cup finals and I'll never forget the winning basket Gordon scored in the last second".

"That's what always did" Thompson recalls, "clearing the way for Gordon to score the decisive baskets. He was the player I ever played with in Israel. Radisav Curcic was my toughest opponent in Israel, when he played with Maccabi. He was really tough. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the place where I should could have in Europe. We did get to the Korac cup's semifinals, but we lost to a greek team. I was frustrated that we stopped there, because I thought we can win it all.

Usually foreign players confess about their love to Israel, but never come back. Naturally, in Thompson's case, a confession is obligating. He loves Israel with all his heart and will come for a visit with some of his church members from Boca Raton, a "roots trip" in the holy land. With god's help, in the 15th of November, he will have a giant congregation in the basketball arena of Malcha.

"I miss Israel so much and miss the fans" says Thompson, "I want them all to come to the congregation – a salute for Israel. We will celebrate the countries existence and pray for it. There will be music and singing. Hey…those who will come, will hear me sing. I really want to talk about my love to Israel. It is the center of the world for me. It's the foundation of everything. I would like to build a church there and help feed the hungry".

- It looks that you are more Zionist than the common Israeli.
"I would like to be an ambassador for Israel and I'm still hoping some day they will let me do that. Maybe the Knesset will understand I can do a good job in representing the country and they'll give me a citizenship. I hope it is possible, although I had a bad experience in the past. The way that they treated me in the media after I was accepted to the church – this is my only negative memory of Israel".

Well before the big congregation in Malcha, Thompson was willing to leave us with some promising blessings for the future: "I hope to meet all my good friends from Israel soon. Pini Gershon, Danny Klein, Uri Manzur, Morris Ohayon and Adi Gordon of course. I also hope that Ehud Olmert (former Jerusalem's mayor) will be there, he really supported our team. I expect to see all the fans who stood by me through the years. My heart goes out to them and I miss them. I was really happy for them after winning ULEB cup, they deserve it. Hey, I'm sure I can get involved with the team again, as a coach or even as a player. Maybe I can arrange something and bring Shaquille with me. Then we can even beat Maccabi".

- pictures courtousy of JPProclaim church in Boca Raton

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