Ray Vasser loves the game of basketball.
He played for Don King at Cedar Rapids Washington High School, earning all-Mississippi Valley Conference and all-Metro honors in the mid-1980s. He played for Gregg Bosch at Kirkwood and walked-on at Northern Iowa when Eldon Miller was coaching the Panthers.
He even tried out for a couple of teams in the old Continental Basketball Association.
“Basketball, obviously, has always been a big part of my life,” he said.
But Vasser, 49, found something he loved even more than basketball during those playing days — his Christian faith and his desire to help young people in his community.
And the best part for Vasser was he found a way to combine his passions.
He started Defender Ministry Inc. around 2000, a youth organization hoping to “reach the lost; impacting the entire family unit through sports, education and community goodwill,” according to its website.
The sport of choice, of course, is basketball.
“I really felt it was my calling,” he said. “Everywhere you go, you see somebody playing basketball. It’s played pretty much year-round ... with other sports there are limitations. Basketball, indoors or outdoors, it’s the same game.
“Everybody seems to understand it. Everybody seems to gravitate to it.”
And, he said, “it’s easy to teach.
“Everybody likes seeing the ball go through the hoop.”
But, he’s quick to point out, “it’s not just about basketball.”
The game Vasser loves so much gets troubled or “lost” youth off the streets, gets them in his program where, he hopes, his message will keep them engaged, maybe help them focus on school or family. Maybe turn their lives around.
“Our streets are in trouble,” he said. “If we can touch and change a life ... then now we’re making a difference ... we’re doing something special.”
Vasser said he doesn’t push his beliefs on others. He shares his story, how his life has changed and let’s those who listen decide what path to take.
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“That’s the goal, to be an example ... share what’s changed in my life,” he said.
He has even taken his message to the Far East, mainly to the Philippines where “they think I’m Michael Jordan ... I’m black and I’m bald,” he said with a laugh.
“They come out of the woodwork,” Vasser said. “It’s just amazing.”
Basketball, you see, is a universal sport.
“It really can bring people together and a community together,” he said.
Vasser found another love during those basketball playing days. His wife, Deena. Together they have 10 children, ranging in age from 30 to 4.
“She’s the anchor who makes this thing go,” he said.
The message isn’t just words to Vasser. He actually practices what he preaches. His oldest daughter married a man she met during one of his camps. The couple have two children, Vasser’s first two grandchildren.
“My family is a basketball family,” he said.
He stresses this program — as well as the Eastern Iowa Premiere Showcase Summer League he runs — isn’t about him.
“I want it to be about these kids,” he said.
King — his high school coach and “one of the positive influences in my life” — taught Vasser “until you reach the plateau you have to keep working.”
He still lives by that today. And he hasn’t reached the peak yet.
“As long as I’m called to do it and I have the ability, I’m going to continue to do it,” he said. “There’s always somebody whose life can be touched.”
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