Among NBA players and coaches, Catholicism is not so rare, especially given the modern influx of players from around Europe and Africa, where the faith is either the historical norm or the current wave. Things are a bit different stateside, however, where most pros come from the African-American community—of which only a small percentage is Catholic.
This made it all the more significant when the Archdiocese of Detroit announced this month that Detroit Pistons assistant coach Andrew Jones III is converting to the faith, scheduled for Confirmation at the Easter vigil in April.
“The seed was planted early with my wife and her being Catholic,” Jones told the archdiocesan newspaper.
“I was always interested; I did some research here and there on the faith, to be more abreast of what she believes in and the way she worships. But it wasn’t until we got to Detroit, and I met Fr. John, who has been a great mentor, a leader in the faith, that I started to dive deeper into faith and what it meant.”
The Joneses and their three children, who are also Catholic, attend the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, Michigan, where McKenzie had served since his ordination in 2019. Andrew is currently in the OCIA program at McKenzie’s new assignment, Christ the King Catholic Church, one of Detroit’s numerous parishes with a strong African-American presence.
For the former Penn State forward and Philadelphia native, hired by the Pistons in 2021, a busy NBA schedule taking him around the country on a weekly basis has made the catechetical process a challenge—though not an insurmountable one.
“Fr. John and I have a great relationship,” Jones said.
“He’s been great in creating schedules around both of our daily lives—him being a father to many, and me being a father of three and a coach to quite a few guys as well as a husband.”
One of the nation’s few historically Catholic big cities, Detroit has seen a number of legendary Catholics pass through its sporting circles, including Pistons greats Chuck Daly, who coached the team during its “Bad Boys” era, and those teams’ fiery leader Isiah Thomas, who last year was named a top 75 player in NBA history.
Jones is not the only Black Catholic to coach in the NBA, either. Two of the most highly regarded Black coaches of all time, retired Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Al Attles, are both Catholic, and former Lakers head Byron Scott converted in 2020. Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla—who recently went viral for his unexpected display of faith, and whose team currently sits near the top of the Eastern Conference—is also devout.
The league's notable Black players who practice or were raised Catholic include a mix of Africans and Americans, including Joel Embiid, Klay Thompson, Pascal Siakam, Desmond Bane, Victor Oladipo, and Matisse Thybulle.
Fr McKenzie, when asked by Detroit Catholic about the Church's relationship with African Americans specifically, said it’s part of his personal mission to make a difference in a difficult situation.
“It’s not like the Church hasn’t been reaching out to the African-American community, but we continue to lack in simply reaching the Black community through how we speak, preaching, and liturgy,” he said.
“That is something we haven’t gotten to wholeheartedly, and that is because we have not recognized the history, the shameful history the Church has with African-Americans.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).