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

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

One of the most extraordinary periods of Jeff Chatman’s life came during BYU’s 1987-88 basketball season.

The 6-foot-6 forward was BYU’s best inside defender and a master of the turnaround jumper, which he claims was never blocked. As team captain, Chatman averaged 19.5 points and 7.6 rebounds. The Cougars won their first 17 games and climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings. Members of the national media were following Chatman and his teammates around campus in search of interesting story angles.

But there was something more significant going on.

Unbeknownst to many at the time, it was early on that season when Chatman joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I don’t want to seem cocky, but I loved the attention,” Chatman said between bites of pizza at the Brick Oven, one of his favorite restaurants near campus. “I wanted us to be good in a national setting and all that was great. At the same time, studying the gospel and investigating the church was a natural thing. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it all. It’s what I was living for; it was awesome.

“I would say that was one of the best times of my life when that was happening all at once.”

Chatman’s conversion didn’t happen overnight. It started with an inspired recruiting effort by then-assistant coach Roger Reid and continued at BYU with several influential examples. Since his baptism, Chatman has remained active in the LDS Church, raised a family, found success in business and maintained close ties with the BYU program. He is grateful for the events that guided him to where he is today.

“The gospel is for everybody,” he said.

Feelings, impressions

As a senior at Munford High in Talladega, Ala., Chatman led the Lions to county and area championships twice while finishing his career as the school’s all-time career scoring and rebounding leader in 1984. To top it all off, he was invited to play in the Alabama all-star basketball game.

The event was usually held in July, but for some reason it was moved to March, the same weekend BYU was playing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The Cougars were supposed to lose Thursday night, but they upset UAB 84-68 to advance and play Kentucky on Saturday. BYU assistants Roger Reid and Carl Ingersoll heard about the all-star game on Friday night and decided to attend.

Reid said the rosters were loaded with talented players who had committed to play for major colleges all over the South. Then there was Chatman, who scored 16 points, grabbed seven boards and blocked 11 shots to earn game MVP honors. “I had an inkling, an impression, to go to this all-star game,” Reid said. “Jeff caught my eye, but with the way he played in that game, I thought he was committed somewhere.”

Chatman had offers from several smaller schools, such as East Tennessee State, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Alabama State, Auburn University-Montgomery and Samford, but he was holding out hope for a bigger opportunity.

That opportunity came the following Monday as he sat in his pre-calculus class. Chatman looked up to see his high school coach walk in with a big smile on his face. He informed Chatman that BYU was on the phone.

“At first I was excited, but remembered my coach was a practical joker. BYU was all white guys, all Mormon, way out in Utah. I thought he was joking,” Chatman said. “He said, ‘Seriously, they are on the phone.’ I got on the phone with Roger Reid. He invited me to come for an official visit, and if I liked what I saw, they would offer me a full-ride scholarship. I was blown away.”

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.”

Basketball was about the only thing that seemed normal to Chatman. Off the court, he felt like he was in a foreign country.

“My brothers had been to college and had told me what night life at college was like,” Chatman said. “It was absolutely amazing to me how many people didn’t drink, smoke or have premarital relations. ... I knew that it was because of their commitment to their religion and God.”

It wasn’t difficult to adjust because his parents had already raised him to live similar standards. As he became more familiar with his surroundings, he quietly observed the actions of those around him.

Chatman was astonished to learn that Haws and Andy Toolson were giving up their hard-earned scholarships to serve missions. Their dedication deeply impressed him.

“I never told them, but I was blown away. As I watched people leave the team to serve missions, their devotion stuck with me for a while,” Chatman said. “When they came back, I noticed all of them were better people. That stood out to me.” Chatman also developed a friendship with Floyd N. Johnson, BYU’s longtime equipment manager who also doubled as a spiritual adviser to countless athletes.

“In a nice, sweet way, he would ask when I was going to get baptized,” Chatman said. “I joked with him that when I did, he could give the talk on baptism. He said it was a deal.”

All BYU students are required to attend religion classes. “Chat,” as he became known among his friends, remembers sitting in Ed J. Pinegar’s Book of Mormon class. He was completely lost in regards to the teachings and doctrines, but appreciated how welcome and comfortable Pinegar made him feel. He later had a similar experience in a religion class taught by Reed Benson, son of the late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson.

“He (Pinegar) went out of his way and treated me like a member of the church in there,” Chatman said. “He was a huge influence.”

Pinegar’s class stood out for another reason. One day a pretty girl started talking to Chatman and he thought she liked him. Once they became friends, he wanted to ask her out but didn’t have the nerve. Then she surprised him with a conditional invitation to dinner.

“She invited me over for dinner, but first I had to attend church with her,” Chatman said. “I was crushed. I thought she liked me, but she just wanted to take me to church and get me baptized.”

It wouldn’t be his last invitation. Because of his high profile and magnetic personality, Chatman received all kinds of special requests to attend church, to meet the missionaries and even experience a fireside. What an interesting culture, he thought.

“When I got invited to a fireside, I really pictured a group of Mormons sitting around a bonfire preaching and singing stuff. I put that in my mind and I never went because that’s what I thought they were doing,” Chatman said. “People would say, ‘Come play basketball at the stake center.’ I thought, that’s cool, you got a steak house with a basketball court in it.”

The turning point

Chatman, No. 24, cracked BYU’s starting lineup as a sophomore in 1985-86. A fierce competitor, he averaged 17.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game to help head coach LaDell Andersen’s Cougars to a record of 18-14 and an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament.

As a junior in 1986-87, Chatman posted similar numbers as BYU finished 21-11 with an opening-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Going into his senior year, Haws said Chatman’s combination of personality and talent made him a leader on the team.

“On the court he led by example, but he was more than that,” Haws said. “He broke barriers. He was a big-time leader in the program and a big-time influence.”

Off the court, Chatman continued to learn about the church in his classes and conversations, but he had several questions. The plan of salvation made sense to him, but little else did. Although he was constantly surrounded by returned missionary teammates, he didn’t feel comfortable asking them questions.

The turning point came when he met Wascar Cruz.

One day during the summer before his senior year, Chatman was driving south of campus and noticed a black man walking along the road. Chatman thought he knew all the African-Americans at BYU, but he didn’t recognize this guy. He pulled over and introduced himself. The friendly young man presented himself as Cruz, a native of the Dominican Republic from New York City who just finished serving in the Salt Lake City North mission. He was looking for a place to live. They visited for a few minutes and wished each other well.

The next day Chatman was at a baseball game when he bumped into Cruz again. He was still looking for an apartment. They became roommates and, with time, developed a bond.

“Thinking back now, it was really funny and crazy how this worked out. He was a total stranger, but I felt pretty good about this kid,” Chatman said. “After that we were inseparable.”

As Chatman came to trust Cruz, he started asking questions about the church. They often stayed up talking late into the night. It was during those gospel conversations that Chatman began to feel that same powerful feeling from his recruiting trip.

At one point he got emotional and called his mother to share what he was learning from Cruz.

“She wasn’t used to me calling and talking about religious stuff. She could tell I was looking at making a change and said, ‘What’s going on with you?’” Chatman said. “The only thing I could say is, ‘Mother, we are going to make it,’ then I started to cry and we hung up the phone.”

Seeing his friend’s growing interest, Cruz tried to set up meetings with the missionaries, but Chatman kept backing out because he worried how his family would react if he were baptized.

“I didn’t want to disappoint them,” he said.

But Cruz was persistent and Chatman finally relented as his senior season was about to get under way. Around October 1987, two sister missionaries — a black woman from Jamaica and a tall, former basketball player — were sent to teach Chatman.

“They were slick to send those sisters,” Chatman said. “They had me covered.”

Forever changed

With more than three years of religion classes and insight from Cruz, Chatman knew a fair amount about the church. When the missionaries mixed up their visual aids and asked Chatman to arrange them to show the different phases of the plan of salvation, he organized the pieces in less than 30 seconds.

“They were shocked,” Chatman said. “They asked what I thought and I told them I knew it was true. They said, ‘If you know it’s true, why don’t you get baptized?’ I said, ‘Because I don’t believe the rest of it.’”

Weeks later, when the missionaries finished teaching their athletic investigator the six discussions, they asked if Chatman believed the gospel was true. He replied that he did, but he couldn’t get baptized because of his family. The missionaries were at a loss, he said.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” Chatman said. “I told them I didn’t have a strong testimony. I wasn’t looking for a sign, but I needed a strong assurance that it was true.”

That extra spiritual witness came a short time later when the missionaries came back for another visit. Toolson, a teammate recently returned from his mission in Chile, accompanied them. They were reading together in Ether, Chapter 12, of the Book of Mormon when Chatman read verse 27, which teaches that with humility and faith in the Lord, people can overcome their weaknesses. The words of the verse touched Chatman’s heart. As the group continued reading, he offered a silent prayer.

“Lord, if you will allow me to know if this church is true, I will join it,” Chatman said. “At that moment the Spirit overwhelmed me so much that tears began to flow and I had to cover my face. I had never cried happy tears before. I cried uncontrollably. Everyone was watching me, wondering what was going on. I finally composed myself and said, ‘You can stop now, I know it’s true and I want to be baptized.’”

Another miracle

Chatman’s baptism date was scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 6, 1987, following a three-game road trip to Utah State, Washington State and UCLA. The Cougars won all three games to improve to 4-0.

Chatman invited his teammates, coaches and friends to the service, but word leaked out. The chapel was filled to capacity.

True to his word, Johnson, the kind equipment manager, gave a short talk on baptism. Benson, a religion instructor, spoke about the gift of the Holy Ghost. Chatman was then baptized by Cruz and Coach Andersen confirmed him a member of the church.

The experience was perfect except for one small detail. Chatman still hadn’t told his parents.

He went home for Christmas break and still didn’t tell them. He continued to keep the secret into January when he granted an interview to a sportswriter from USA Today. The reporter asked Chatman about his time at BYU as a non-member and the senior enthusiastically informed him he was recently baptized. Chatman felt safe in revealing this because he knew his parents didn’t subscribe to USA Today, and figured they would never read the article.

He was wrong. His cousin saw the article and showed it to Chatman’s parents.

“The article came out and I got a call from my mother. ‘Did you get baptized Mormon and not tell us?’” Chatman quoted his mother. “They were very angry and my mother hung up on me. We were really close and she had never done that before. I thought, ‘Well, looks like I’m going the rest of my life without my family because I know the gospel is true and I’m going to stick with it.’”

The very next night, his mother called back with a question.

“Are you happy?” she asked.

“Yes mom, I’ve never been happier in my life,” Chatman said.

“Then we are happy for you,” she said.

Chatman said his mother’s change of heart was a special miracle. She died less than two years later.

“The Lord had softened her heart and that was the end of it,” Chatman said. “They still thought I was brainwashed and crazy, but as they saw all the fruits of me getting baptized, they have been great about it.”

This December marks 25 years since Chatman’s baptism.

Spiritual victory

Chatman graduated from BYU with a degree in speech communication and finished out his career by earning honorable mention all-American honors. He is seventh on the school’s career scoring list and ranks among the top 10 in blocks, field goals, field-goal percentage and games started. He has since become an unofficial ambassador for African-American recruits at BYU.

Chatman went undrafted by the NBA, but passed up tryouts with the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks to play a season in Switzerland. The following season he played in Madrid, Spain, but it was a different brand of basketball and wasn’t as fun, Chatman said. So he returned to the United States and moved on with life.

In April 1989, Chatman married his sweetheart, Leah, in the Jordan River Temple. Today the Chatmans live in Ridgefield, Wash. Jeff and Leah have eight children. The oldest, Jocelyn, is a student at BYU. Jessica, another daughter, is a junior in high school. She has already committed to play basketball for BYU coach Jeff Judkins.

Jordan, the oldest son and No. 2 child, is serving a mission in Taiwan and committed to play for BYU upon his return.

Jordan’s middle name, “Reid,” is an expression of love and gratitude to Roger Reid, the coach who didn’t give up on signing Chatman as a Cougar.

“You don’t think that hasn’t meant something to me?” Reid said. “I’ve coached a lot of players, but I don’t know that I love any player more than Jeff Chatman. … His impact has been unbelievable.”

Chatman owns and operates two emergency dental offices in Oregon and serves on his stake’s high council. Leah describes him as a natural speaker and teacher. He has also enjoyed researching his family history.

Reflecting on his life now, he can see how the Lord prepared him for the experiences he has had.

The biggest message Chatman hopes people will take away from his story is a witness of the universal power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how it can bless lives.

“The gospel is not for one particular race, color or nationality,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. I’m a normal guy who accepted the gospel.

“The gospel is for everybody.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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