The Oral Roberts University’s men’s basketball team shocked the nation and shattered tournament brackets with its March Madness “Cinderella" run to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974. However, ORU head coach Paul Mills was not shocked that his team made it so far in the NCAA Tournament.
The private, Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Christian university, founded by Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts, became the second No. 15 seed to play in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament by beating No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Florida.
“I actually told our guys on several occasions that we were going to make the NCAA Tournament and that we were going to win multiple games,” Mills told The Christian Post in a Wednesday interview.
“I kind of regret not saying six games to kind of put a bigger vision in them."
To the 49-year-old coach, basketball has always been so much more than a game. It is a mission field.
Mills grew up a pastor’s son and played basketball with boys in his inner city-Houston neighborhood because it was the only sport he could afford. He called it the “sport of the poor” for Americans since all it requires is a basketball.
“I think because of the environment we grew up in, [I] was very much aware that even though we may not have much money, we can have a lot of joy in our house. [A]nd it stemmed from knowing Christ, and it also stemmed from having the ability just to be around friends through a 12-ounce rubber ball,” Mills recalled.
On the basketball court, he gained perspective on how the sport could be an inroad for the Gospel message and ministry.
James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, also saw the sport as an evangelistic tool and thought he could “win more men through sport than he ever could in the pulpit,” Mills shared.
“I realized that I wanted to share the Gospel, but nobody would show up if I said, ‘Hey, let’s have a Bible study.' But if I opened up the gym, I would get 50 teenage boys running around,” he detailed.
“That was kind of the ‘carrot’ when I was in my early 20s that allowed me to use a game to be able to share things that were much more important than a game. And so, basketball was, in essence, the ‘carrot’ that allowed us to bring people together. … [Now], it’s that same 12-ounce rubber ball that kind of joins us together.”
Whether it is business, law or medicine, Mills said everyone is active in some kind of ministry, and his just happens to be basketball.
While Mills coached at Baylor University in Texas for 14 seasons, renowned pastor and author Tony Evans served as the team's chaplain. After hearing Evans speak to his team, Mills wanted to understand Scripture as deeply as Evans did. That prompted Mills to attend to Dallas Theological Seminary.
Mills completed an online master’s degree in biblical and theological studies from the seminary in 2020, which he says has helped him understand Scripture more deeply and become a better coach.
“I actually went to seminary to become a better coach. So, I have no desire to become a better pastor. I just went to seminary to become a better coach because I want to better serve my players,” Mills told CP. “From that perspective, it helped immensely.”
Though he does not intend to serve as a pastor from a pulpit, Mills said he preaches daily to 18- to-22-year-old student-athletes on the basketball court.
“I think that’s why it’s so important we commit ourselves to Scripture and knowing Scripture well because if we’re all going to be involved in ministry, we want to do it well,” he shared.
“The better that we know Scripture, the better that we know God. So, from that context, it’s why there is a commitment to know Scripture better so that I can minister better. … Everyone is ministering in some context, and we need to do it well.”
Seminary was an “eye-opener” for Mills as he dug into the Bible to understand the true significance, importance and meaning of the Gospel from a 30,000-foot view.
God’s Word plays an important role in Mills’ life. He listens to Psalm 118 before every game. The passage is sentimental to him because his pastor father began every sermon by sharing Psalm 118:24: “this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The reminder that God is good in both winning and losing is another reason Mills reflects on Psalm 118 on game days.
“Verse one opens up, ‘give thanks to the LORD, for He is good,’” Mills quoted. “What I want to establish before I ever go into a game, that whether we win this game or lose this game, I need to be mindful that God is good. We have a tendency sometimes to think that God is only good, or we are only seen in His favor when things go our way. And I have to remind myself of that before we ever step on the court.”
Mills uses God’s Word to minister to his basketball team and encourages them to steward their gifts well for the right reasons.
“I share with our guys that 'God didn’t make everyone 6-foot-10, so you have been gifted with something that very few people have been gifted with. …,'” Mills said. “They’ve all been gifted by God in some capacity to use the game of basketball for the right reason, and we share with our guys often that we want to use our God-given talents for God-given reasons. ... Whatever talent or God-given ability that you and I possess, we need to use those things for the right reasons.”
The coach said that Jesus encouraged His disciples to "use what they have been given to aid other people."
“That’s what the game of basketball does. …,” he continued. “We can all use a game to properly deliver what we believe is most important.”
In a press conference last month during ORU's run in the NCAA Tournament, Mills shared the Gospel from a national stage. He said, "There is no other name [Jesus Christ] under Heaven and Earth which men must be saved."
Though ORU did not advance past the Sweet 16, Mills said he was “so happy” and had “such a feeling of elation” to witness the Baylor Bears win the national championship on Monday night with a win over Gonzaga.
Mills was instrumental in rebuilding the Baylor basketball program, spending 14 years of his coaching career in Waco.
“I was so happy for [coaches] Scott Drew and Jerome Tang. I was there 14 years with those guys and was very much aware of the work that has been invested in that program," he said.
"But I was more happy for that entire basketball staff, those basketball players, the basketball and Baylor community because I know that their desire is to do this the right way and represent this the right way,” he added. “And having been around those guys every day for a 14-year period, I can tell you that their hearts are in the right place and they want to do this for all of the right reasons. So, when those things end up playing out as you hoped, it’s a pretty awesome feeling.”
During his time at Baylor, Mills said coaches emphasized temporary stewardship of God’s gifts and that ‘unless the Lord builds the house, we’re laboring in vain.’”
Seeing his former team win the national title was the culmination of many years of this investment.
“To watch this play out on the national stage as it did and to win a national championship, in my mind, is just a culmination of a commitment to use your platform in a God-honoring way,” Mills argued.
Had the Golden Eagles won in the two-point March 27 loss to Arkansas, ORU would have faced Baylor in the Elite Eight round.