'The gospel is for everybody,' says former BYU basketball great Jeff Chatman

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

He was impressed by the cleanliness of the campus, the educational opportunities, the facilities and the genuine hospitality of the people. There weren’t many African-Americans or Southern Baptist churches, but it didn’t bother him.

“After the visit I had a feeling I had never had before, like my heart was going to jump out of my chest,” Chatman said. “I couldn’t explain it to anyone, not even to myself. But I knew in my heart BYU was the right place for me. Even though no one looked like me, talked like me, ate the foods I ate, or was the same religion as me, I was supposed to be there.”

Chatman came from a heritage of devout Southern Baptists and considered himself a believer. His father was indifferent about his decision, but his mother did not want him to go to BYU because it was too far away.

Reid traveled to the family’s modest home in rural Alabama to hear their concerns and answer their questions. The coach didn’t promise playing time, but guaranteed their son would get his degree and experience college in a Christian environment. Chatman’s brothers helped put their mother at ease about the distance.

“I felt the Lord softened her heart and she decided to let me go,” said Chatman, who committed to play at BYU.

Recruiting African-American basketball players to BYU at the time was a “tough job,” Reid said, because opposing recruiters often spread negative information and fallacies about the LDS Church.

That was the case with Chatman. He was happy with his decision until he received a letter from an African-American in Utah, who said among other things that he was being “tricked” and “brainwashed,” and that “Mormons weren’t Christians.”

On recruiting trips to other schools, Chatman was told he would only be “a token player” at BYU. Another recruiter told him he would be forced to serve as a missionary for three or four years. As signing day approached, Chatman began to have second thoughts.

“I was bombarded pretty hard,” he said.

Chatman called Reid and told him he wasn’t coming.

The coach’s response surprised him. He simply asked Chatman to remember the feelings he experienced during his campus visit, and if he still didn’t want to come, so be it. Then he hung up.

“I didn’t pray, I just pondered and immediately those feelings, the Spirit, came back and I knew I was supposed to go there again,” Chatman said. “I made a firm decision that I was going no matter what.”

But Chatman’s parents still had doubts. Just before signing day, Reid got a call from Chatman’s high school coach informing him there were issues still to resolve. Reid said not to do anything until he got there.

Reid had been in these situations before, and most of the time, a last-minute trip wasn’t worth it. Even so, despite the hassle of another expensive trip across the country, something compelled him to keep pursuing Chatman.

“I felt this was a super young man. I loved him and his family tremendously,” Reid said. “I had the inspiration that I needed to follow through on this guy.”

That fall, Chatman suited up in a blue and white uniform.

Influences and examples

Chatman made an immediate impression with his coaches and teammates as a freshman. In a preseason scrimmage, fellow freshman Marty Haws remembers Chatman scoring half of his team’s first 20 points, raising several eyebrows.

“I remember somebody asking Jeff as he ran up the court, ‘What’s up with that?’” Haws said. “Jeff said, ‘Hey, the lights are on, baby.’ That was Jeff. He was a gamer. The brighter the lights, the better he was.”

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