Dribble, Shoot, Pray

Photograph by Nick Wass, AP photo

In the fall of 2002, heading into his junior basketball season at the University of Oregon, Luke Ridnour, citing religious and familial objections, declined to be recognized as one of Playboy magazine’s preseason all-Americans. In forgoing this prestigious honor, Ridnour made very public his private, and at the time still new, religious commitment—a commitment he continues to honor and draw on for grounding and clarity in the NBA.

Though raised in a Christian household, Ridnour’s early worship was upon the alter of the orange rim. “I’d put so much into the game of basketball, it was my idol,” he says. And his devotion was complete; were it not for his parents’ insistence, church would not have interfered with sport. Inspired in part by 1970s NBA virtuoso “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Ridnour spent hours a day working on his ball handling, and from a young age demonstrated the knack for creativity that would keep him improving and innovating as a player: “I thought of the drills myself, or I would go to camps and see the things they would teach and I would pick up on them. Before long I was the one teaching them at camp.”

Ridnour grew up in a basketball household—his father coached the local high school team in Blaine, Washington, and emphasized fundamentals and technical proficiency. “Once I took to the game,” Luke says, “he would come and help me with things, but it was always me going to the gym, me working out by myself.” His father also exposed him to older, bigger players who forced Ridnour to learn to be effective while smaller than his opponents. These skills have paid off enormously in the NBA, where Ridnour, optimistically listed at 6’2”, is still both smaller and a better shooter than almost everyone he plays against.

In high school, Ridnour led the Rob Ridnour–coached Blaine Borderites to two state titles and was ranked among the top players in the nation. At the UO, Ridnour’s focus on the game impressed coach Ernie Kent, who said it is “a coach’s dream to have a kid who wants to work that hard.”

Achievements and accolades abounded for Ridnour, including Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 2001 and Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2003. He set the UO record for assists in a season (218), and the Pac-10 record for consecutive free throws made (62). The Duck team also fared well these years, winning the Pac-10 Tournament in 2003, and making the NCAA Tournament twice—advancing to the Elite Eight in Ridnour’s third and final season. Midway through his junior year, basketball over, Ridnour elected to sacrifice his studies and senior season to prepare for the summer’s NBA draft. The chance to play professionally was too good to pass up, and he could return to school after basketball (as he still intends to do).

But along with Ridnour’s successes also came defeats and frustrations. Many players find their emotions—and sometimes identities—shaped by on-court events. Ridnour, so committed to basketball, was especially prone to this tendency. “If I played well, I was up. If I played down, I was down. So, everything I accomplished was how I was on the court. I didn’t have a way out. I never had peace, so I started to search that out.”

He drew on lessons learned from the religion of his youth and shared his burgeoning faith with teammates. “I think all of us were kind of in the same place. We were still searching a little bit, but we were all at the same spiritual level.” But it wasn’t until Ridnour began a Bible study with Keith Jenkins—the pastor at Jubilee World Outreach Foursquare Church in Eugene who gave optional chapel before games and volunteered his counseling services to a whole range of Duck athletes—that he fully embraced devout Christianity. “When I started reading the Word, everything changed—the way I thought, the way I acted, my attitude.” And with that, for the first time in his life, basketball was not the first thing in his life.

But as basketball lost primacy for Ridnour, it never lost his commitment. Watch his current team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, play, observe him from up close, and you’ll see his physical grace on full display. He moves with a level of control that even among professional athletes is rare. He glides around the court during warm-ups in long strides, ball bouncing at all angles, returning softly to his hand for another casual redirection. A good dribbler makes the ball do what he wants it to, but what Ridnour does is subtler—and more tender. Rather than making the ball do anything, he seems to somehow grant agency to the ball and invite it to collaborate with him in sending onlookers searching for superlatives.

Ridnour’s absolute comfort with the basketball is the product of melding freakish natural coordination with a lifetime of hard work, and it’s what makes Ridnour one of very few NBA players who can take a hook shoot from his knees (as he once did over 6’10” Robert Horry) and make it look like a trusty piece of his skill set. But it’s Ridnour’s conventional shooting that has made him one of the league’s top pure shooters. Other players shoot better over defenders or coming off screens, but few are more consistent when they have a clean look at the rim. An open corner three-pointer, a free throw—you can pretty much put the points on the board. He finished this season among the league leaders in both categories, making close to 45 percent of threes and 90 percent of free throws. World-famous guys like LeBron and Kobe aren’t nearly as effective in these categories.

But for all his ability, Ridnour’s career has not been without disappointment. In eight NBA seasons, his best result has been a 2005 second-round playoff loss with the Seattle Supersonics. The only other time he’s made the playoffs, his Milwaukee Bucks lost in the first round. And the Timberwolves currently are among the worst teams in the league. Individually, he has been widely criticized by commentators for his shortcomings as a defender.

In Minnesota, he’s not so much disparaged as ignored. The Timberwolves drafted Spanish prodigy Ricky Rubio in 2009 to be their point guard of the future; since then fans have hung their hopes on Rubio’s willingness to eventually leave Europe for Minnesota and join Lake Oswego High School grad and NBA All-Star Kevin Love to form the core of a winning franchise.

A younger Ridnour might have been distracted or stung by this kind of thing, but now he pays almost no attention to anything in basketball off the court. When told of his free throw percentage, his response is amusement that anyone bothers with such trivia. His approach to basketball is to handle what he can control and leave the rest up to God. “Having that perspective makes it a lot easier to handle the trades and how I play. I don’t get too up, too down, I just keep going.”

This perspective can seem awfully convenient for a guy who has the rare fortune of being in the NBA, but for Ridnour, a key element of God’s plan is humility. “The Bible just reinforced the belief that I can’t put myself above anybody else,” he says. Faith and humility were recently tested when his wife gave birth to twin boys—with the kind of complications no parent would want. Though he prefers to keep the details private, he says, “We believe God is healing them. It’s exciting to see God’s power touch them daily.” In light of these life circumstances, it’s not hard to understand what Ridnour has understood for years: basketball is just basketball and a free throw is just a free throw. Asked what one of the league’s best foul shooters does when he takes the line, he says, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but I bounce it three times and on each bounce I say ‘I love Jesus.’ And I shoot it.”

By Scott F. Parker ’04