Willie Briscoe was moving down a dangerous path in middle school – hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into trouble, causing problems – a scenario common within inner-city children growing up in single-parent households. That direction was interrupted by a sixth-grade teacher who recognized the potential in him, pulled him aside, and offered Briscoe a path for an education and profession, a path that included learning the game of basketball.
Briscoe went on to have a successful basketball career, playing collegiately at Point Loma Nazarene University [PLNU], and later as a basketball model double for NBA players like Michael Jordan and David Robinson. Having first-hand experience of growing up without a father in the home and the impact sports and education made on him, Briscoe started Hope Leadership Academy (HLA), a ministry that seeks to ensure that youth from fatherless homes in underserved communities receive support, guidance, and a plan to break the cycles of divorce, poverty, and hopelessness.
PLNU alumna and Editor-in-Chief of Risen Magazine, Kelli Gillespie, sat down with Briscoe to talk about his take on basketball, family, faith and how HLA focuses on mentoring disadvantaged youth.
Kelli Gillespie: How did your love for sports, and especially basketball, develop?
Willie Briscoe: In sixth grade I was running around, and I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was running around with kids that were bad. We got in trouble one day after school and the other two guys I was with got suspended. But the teacher said he saw something in me and that he had a different plan for me. He saw that I was tall and gangly and he said that he was going to start a basketball team. He said, “You’re poor…“, I was on free/reduced lunch and welfare and everything. And he said, “You’re going to go grow and basketball is going to be the way you pay your way through college.” Instead of getting in trouble, I got put on a basketball team. He was a Polish teacher that I called Mr. S. That’s where my love for basketball started. I didn’t know how to shoot; I didn’t know rules of the basketball court; I didn’t know any of that. I was laughed at probably my first two years of playing, but I kept growing.
Then I went to a prestigious basketball high school where A.C. Green [3-time NBA Champion] and Richard Washington [NBA Player] went. Guys a lot older than you and I, but A.C. Green really left a basketball and spiritual legacy at the high school. Benson [Polytechnic in Portland, Oregon] is the high school that I went to.
He looked at me, he looked at my feet – I had big feet – and was kind of tall and he says, “I didn’t mean to cut you.”
I got cut as a freshman. The coach said, “If you get cut, come and talk to me and I’ll tell you why so you can work on it and try to make it next year.” I went and talked to him. He looked at me, he looked at my feet – I had big feet – and was kind of tall and he says, “I didn’t mean to cut you.” We had twenty-five players on the freshman team and I was on the fifth string. I was still horrible as a basketball player. The Lakers won the national championship that year and at the end of the school year, A.C. Green and Magic Johnson came back to talk to our high school team. Magic challenged us and said, “Make goals.” So I made a goal to start varsity my sophomore year after being a fifth-string freshman. All summer long I just busted it – shooting and playing into the night light in Portland, Oregon. [When the weather got colder, I had] a little sheltered place where I just worked on my game and three games into my sophomore year, I was starting as a sophomore on varsity.
I continued to grow and so did my love for basketball, but I wasn’t a Christian, so I had a love/hate relationship. I played because I was tall, I played because I was good, but I didn’t really have a real passion for playing. I had a successful high school career but didn’t have good grades, so I was what they called a “Prop 48 Student” and I decided to go the junior college route. I played two years of junior college ball in Salem, Oregon and won a championship. The first thought that came in my mind was, “I’m so glad I don’t have practice tomorrow.” It just so happened that I left basketball for ten years.
Kelli Gillespie: So you lead your junior college to a championship in 1989, you are feeling burned out on the sport, but why take 10 years off? And what did you do with yourself during that decade gap?
Willie Briscoe: Between the ten years apart, I made money being an athletic model for Nike, for Powerade. I guess the highlight is that I was Michael Jordan’s double for Nike. Did that, made a lot of money, had a lot of fun.
I was still recruited for those ten years and at age thirty came back to play at Point Loma Nazarene University [in San Diego, California]. A professor at Point Loma saw a poster that I had autographed for someone of me and Michael Jordan playing basketball. The coach at Point Loma contacted me. I took one look at the campus and said, “Yeah.” I was in Portland and I came back down and played. I had a really successful two years at Point Loma at age thirty. A lot of pain, but we had a lot of success.
Related Article: The rise of the PLNU men’s basketball program.
Kelli Gillespie: I’m curious about your goal setting. Was your personality always the type that if you set a goal, you would try to achieve it? Like as a sophomore starting for the varsity team, or was that more isolated to sports?
Willie Briscoe: No, I think unfortunately I am motivated by negative reinforcement. I was raised by a single black mom with four kids in the 60s and 70s. Negative reinforcement, being told I couldn’t do something or I wasn’t able to succeed at something, drove me to really work ten times harder than the guy next to me.
Starting this ministry, Hope Leadership Academy (HLA), has been that same challenge. I started it with my last $1,500 in my account. There have been a lot of challenges that would have caused me to give up, but it’s worth it. It’s worth pushing through. But yes, that’s probably, to a fault, my personality to be ignited by “against the odds” or negative reinforcement. Growing up without a father, not having many voices around me other than the voice in my head, which would be God.
Kelli Gillespie: You had mentioned earlier in your basketball career, in your first stint, that you weren’t a believer. How did you come to know the Lord and make that a real part of your life?
I was raised by a single black mom with four kids in the 60s and 70s. Negative reinforcement, being told I couldn’t do something or I wasn’t able to succeed at something, drove me to really work ten times harder than the guy next to me.
Willie Briscoe: When I was away from basketball for almost ten years, at age twenty-eight, right after I got saved, I began to have a burdened heart and a strong desire to play basketball. I had completely left the athletic modeling world and all of a sudden I get a call to do a job. I kept getting the same call; it was a direct booking. They wanted me, so I finally took the job… and it was to be David Robinson’s double.
So I’m fasting and praying and the Lord begins to tell me that I’m going to play basketball again. I’m living in Orange County, and I go up to Los Angeles to UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to shoot a Gillette Foam commercial. Tim Duncan’s rookie year, or sophomore year, and David Robinson and we’re shooting a “rookie versus the veteran” commercial. I’m David Robinson. I come out of my RV and David Robinson comes out of his RV and we’re dressed head to toe alike. Here’s the only guy that I knew as a Christian basketball player and the Lord says to me, “You’re going to play basketball again.”
Related Article: Professional U.K. basketball player Drew Lasker on basketball, PLNU, and faith.
Finally playing basketball, and having a heart for playing basketball, matched up because I had a purpose of playing to glorify God as opposed to glorifying myself. It would only be within weeks that I would get the call from Point Loma because someone saw the poster up on the wall. It blows me away to this day to think about.
I was double for several NBA players – Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and several Portland Trail Blazers. But I had left the field altogether and my phone just kept blowing up to take this one last job. And God confirmed that I was going to be playing basketball again.
Kelli Gillespie: Once you became a Christian, how did you see yourself change because you had a relationship with Christ?
Willie Briscoe: That was interesting. The baseball player Heath Bell and I talk about this. I used to play angry, like I said, with negative reinforcement. I used to pick out guys in the city that people said were better than me and I would just envision myself working twice as hard in the weight room, and on the court, or whatever. For twenty plus years I played angry and I played with something to prove.
When I came back at age thirty to basketball, I was searching for a motivation that would get me to that height. I had a hard time finding it. I wasn’t mad at anybody anymore. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t compete hard and you’re not tough, but it took me awhile to figure that out. It took a lot of prayer and a lot finding how to play for the Lord. That was the biggest transition because it used to be me against the world and now it wasn’t against the world anymore. What is going to be my target? What is going to be my focal point? I used to be fueled by negative emotions and now it’s like, how do you go out and be dominant and love?
But I was able to understand that God wants us to do our best, which is something I would try to instill in kids – whatever you’re doing, God wants us to do our best. He wants us to try our hardest and put our best effort on the floor every time in practice and games. That was able to motivate me. But it did take a shift in thinking, a big shift in thinking.
Most of these kids will be first generation college graduates that we work with and probably 75 percent come out of fatherless homes, so they don’t have much positive male interaction. All of our kids come out of homes that live below the poverty line.
Kelli Gillespie: Speaking of kids, did you always know that once you finally stepped off the court for the final time that you would start a foundation?
Willie Briscoe: I used to be very sad about not having a clear, natural calling if it wasn’t athletics. Some people are gifted at music. I did a lot of jobs, even during those ten years out, I did a lot of jobs and I excelled and did well in all of them. I didn’t know that ten years of doing those types of jobs in the non-profit world, and my athletic background, would come together to form Hope Leadership Academy. I used to look at it as a negative that I didn’t have a clear burning desire to be a doctor. But then all of my life experiences came together in creating the ministry of Hope Leadership Academy – I was a drug and alcohol counselor for a few years, I worked with kids in the youth prison systems, I worked in prevention – which is kind of like what we do at HLA, we try to prevent kids from going down that road. I worked in all these different areas and I did well in them, but I didn’t want to be a “lifer” in any one of those jobs. It all came together when God began to give me the vision of Hope Leadership Academy.
Kelli Gillespie: Hope Leadership has different aspects to it, like mentorship, events, after-school activities, and sports. How did it develop to where it is now?
Willie Briscoe: The two aspects of HLA are outreach and the Academy. Outreach is how we introduce ourselves to the community and it’s how we do our largest evangelistic aspects. Our outreaches can be from 50 kids to more than 3,500 kids. It could be anything from a basketball or baseball camp, to a backpack drive, or free football physicals for kids. We’ve done a lot of different things and what we want is to be a blessing in the community. It’s also to provide a place for single parents to drop their kids off, especially in summer and spring breaks. It’s a larger net that helps us grab a hold of kids and also direct them towards the Academy.
I grew up in that situation. I know what these kids face. I can provide a road map for these kids to be successful in life and be eased by God Almighty.
The Academy is our bread and butter. It took us four years to get that off the ground. There was a lot of pain and a lot of heartache, but that’s where we’re actually really getting the ability to put our hands around a kid and have several hours a week to impact them. We help them in tutoring for their education and giving them a mindset that’s outside of the square block that they live in – giving them hope for their future. Most of these kids will be first-generation college graduates that we work with and probably 75 percent come out of fatherless homes, so they don’t have much positive male interaction. All of our kids come out of homes that live below the poverty line.
I hate to say it, but most of these kids’ parents either clean someone’s house or they cut someone’s yard for a living. We want them to dream bigger than that, maybe be a business owner one day. But most importantly, that they would know the Lord and their calling for their life, and that they wouldn’t have an excuse for not fulfilling their calling in their life.
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When I first started this ministry, I had to struggle. Then the Lord gave me Malachi 4:6. God says, “I will give you a Prophet Elijah and that Prophet Elijah will turn the hearts of children to their fathers and fathers to their children.” And if you think about the importance of that, those were the last words spoken before 400 years of silence. Those are the last two verses of the Old Testament which show how important fatherlessness is to God. I grew up in that situation. I know what these kids face. I wanted to provide an atmosphere where those kids would have no excuses. I could do it against a lot of odds and I can provide a road map for some of these kids to be successful in life and be eased by God Almighty.
Kelli Gillespie: What are the biggest changes that you see in the kids once they’ve been involved with Hope Leadership?
Willie Briscoe: Interacting with the kids and recognizing that they’re approaching life with prayer, they’re learning the Word of God, they’re practicing principles like the Fruit of the Spirit. I can tie in behavior positively, or negatively, to the Word of God. To see them get it, to see them not simply just memorize Scripture, but to live it out is the biggest change and to watch their lives start to be changed by the Word of God because they’re reading the Word of God. They ask for a copy of the Bible so they can read it at home. When our kids see prayers being answered. That is making a difference in their life. It’s watching a bunch of little miracles happen on a daily basis and imagining what the hope is for these kids in the future.
It’s watching a bunch of little miracles happen on a daily basis and imagining what the hope is for these kids in the future.
I was processing as I do at the end of every year, needing the Lord to speak to me about the upcoming year. It’s simply this: by changing the hearts of these children, that is how you change the world. We’re grabbing kids in third grade before they’re thinking about abortion, before they’re runaways, picked up for child trafficking, before they’re thinking about teen sex, before they’re thinking about doing drugs… we’re preempting them with the Word of God, impacting almost all of those other ministries so hopefully in the future their [failure]numbers will be lower. There will be fewer kids that are coming into a teen pregnancy clinic or fewer kids that are thinking about suicide.
The Lord really began to show me the importance of the work that He wants to do in the kid’s life and how broad of a spectrum it covers across several other ministries. In a few years, these kids are going to be going on missions trips. Like we’ve talked about other parts of the world, they’re going to start in Mexico and they’re going to be going to Africa and other places. By the time they’re in high school they’ll be doing missions trips and I’m excited to see their work.
Kelli Gillespie: Most of your work is done in the United States and it’s so needed, but Africa has weighed heavily on your heart, so why this continent and what have you seen in your trips there?
Willie Briscoe: The same problem that plagues inner cities in America, plagues Africa – and that is fatherlessness. The breakdown of the family structure is the same challenge; a lack of positive influence at home and in the community. I have gone to Sudan two or three times and we’ve already been talking about expanding HLA to the continent of Africa. I have a huge burden for Africa. I envision HLA impacting Africa, starting off as soccer camps and basketball clinics and things like that. Then using the same model that we’ve birthed here in San Diego, we’ll have education, job training, and all the different pieces.
The same problem that plagues inner cities in America, plagues Africa – and that is fatherlessness. The breakdown of the family structure is the same challenge; a lack of positive influence at home and in the community.
We’re patterned after a program in Portland that I was a part of called Self Enhancement Incorporated, SEI. SEI is about twenty-five years old. It started originally for basketball players of single-parent families – just boys and trying to bring about a positive role model. It’s now a $15 million-a-year inner-city program turning out top students and top athletes, graduating about ninety percent of their students in the inner-city. The only difference is that they are not outwardly faith-based, and HLA is outwardly faith-based. I meet with the president up there twice a year. There’s no reason to reinvent a lot of things. We use a lot of what they do, except for Scripture, we place Scripture and biblical curriculum into the program, like God’s Girls and Good News Club and Awanas. We believe that we can change kids’ hearts here in San Diego, other urban communities, and ultimately in Africa.
Willie Briscoe has also been honored with a 2021 PLNU Homecoming Alumni Award. To learn more, visit the PLNU Homecoming website.
This interview and story was originally published in Risen Magazine. It has been adapted for our platform and can be read in entirety here.
Kelli Gillespie is a PLNU alumna. Kelli has been an integral part of the CW in San Diego since 2002. From reporting, hosting and producing… her talent shined on CW6 in the Morning and San Diego Living. In 2017 as the CW affiliate moved from XETV to KFMB, Kelli too shifted her entertainment to News 8 Morning Extra. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Risen Magazine, Co-Founder of Family Entourage and a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Kelli is married with two kids and even though she commutes regularly to Los Angeles, New York and London, she still calls San Diego home. You can connect with her at KelliGillespie.com or on social @kelligillespie.