MINNEAPOLIS — As Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin have risen to prominence in the NFL and NBA, the touchstones of professional sports and religion have converged perhaps as never before.
Tebow, the New York Jets quarterback known for doing missionary work in the offseason, and Lin, the point guard who came out of nowhere to galvanize the New York Knicks, have been outspoken about the role faith has played in their athletic careers.
The conversation couldn't have come at a better time for Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver and former NBA D-Leaguer Lanny Smith, who have started a company that makes sports apparel with Christian messages.
Lin is a big supporter, wearing Active Faith wristbands emblazoned with "IJNIP" — In Jesus' Name I Play — during games. And the two friends have already recruited Golden State Warriors star guard Stephen Curry and San Diego Padres pitcher Micah Owings as investors in a company that is owned exclusively by athletes.
"It kind of blew up on us overnight and it turned from something that me an Anthony were working on growing step by step to something that turned global," Smith said.
They have Linsanity to thank for that.
Smith and Tolliver were teammates on the Idaho Stampede D-League team in 2009-10, routinely attending church together and becoming friends.
Smith suffered a career-ending knee injury that season. While he was lying in bed recuperating from microfracture surgery, he started to think about what he was going to do with a life that had been consumed by basketball since he was a kid.
He wanted to meld his faith and love of sports through an apparel line and went to Tolliver when he was looking for investors.
"He said when you're ready to move forward with this if you need any help with it, I'm there," Smith said. "A lot of guys will give you that lip service, and when it comes to the moment of truth they'll disappear. Anthony stood by that word."
A finance major at Creighton, Tolliver has taken pride in becoming a savvy real estate investor and businessman off the court. He never planned on becoming a cliché by being a pro athlete with a clothing line. But then again, he still doesn't see himself that way with Active Faith.
"I never, ever, in a million years thought I would be involved in a clothing company," Tolliver said. "I was like nah, I would never do that. This is something that's way more meaningful than just making money."
After the company got off the ground, using the wristbands largely as promotional items and finding a factory in China to make the apparel, Smith was watching the D-League Showcase All-Star game. Lin thanked Jesus during a postgame interview, and Smith immediately thought the two had something in common.
Smith got linked with Lin through friend Patrick Ewing Jr., who was Lin's teammate in Reno, and the Asian-American point guard started wearing the wristbands in games. The two first met face to face in Houston, when the Rockets claimed Lin off waivers. Shortly after, Lin was waived again and picked up by the Knicks, who returned for a game against the Rockets less than two weeks later.
"I remember waiting at the Knicks bus and there were all these fans waiting to see Amare (Stoudemire) and Carmelo (Anthony)," Smith said with a chuckle. "Lin just walked off the bus and nobody asked him for an autograph or anything. We just stood there chatting. That will NEVER happen again."
Smith hooked Lin up with some orange wristbands to match the Knicks colors, and Linsanity was born not long after. Lin burst onto the scene with a series of huge games to help the Knicks get back into contention in the Eastern Conference, and his status as the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent coupled with his electric skills and outspoken faith to make him an overnight sensation.
Lin's picture was plastered everywhere — on consecutive Sports Illustrated covers, Time magazine, ESPN.com — and so were the wristbands.
"All these pictures across the world with him rocking our bands," Tolliver said. "Basically at that time, our website launched. It just was crazy after that."
The website — MyActiveFaith.com — crashed three times before they were able to get a dedicated server to handle the traffic and they sold 10,000 wristbands in the first two weeks.
"Nike, Adidas, Reebok, UnderArmour, they'll never make a faith-based product. They'll never really crossover and touch that," Smith said. "We felt that this was a niche and a market that we could create. That's what we plan on doing, almost being the Nike of the Christian sports apparel."
Smith's aim is to make the company much more than just another catchy wristband maker. Active Faith also has t-shirts and workout tops, shorts, hoodies and polo shirts, all geared to athletes, workout freaks and weekend warriors.
They also have a women's line — Fearfully and Wonderfully Made — and have high-profile athletes like Lin, Bulls star Derrick Rose and Timberwolves rookie Derrick Williams sporting the bands.
The line is sold at Houston's Lakewood Church, which has the largest congregation in the United States with more than 40,000 attendees every Sunday, and at nationwide retailer Family Christian Stores, in addition to the website.
"It's definitely been amazing and scary at the same time how fast it was blowing up," Smith said. "We had to reorder inventory two or three times pretty quickly. There's some stuff selling out in a day."
The Lin-like rise for Active Faith has led to some significant financial investment offers with one caveat — the company had to tone down the religious messages and take 'Jesus' off of the apparel to appeal to a wider demographic, Smith said.
"We're not willing to compromise the message," Smith said. "We're staying true to it and that's going to separate us."
The next frontier? Tebow.
Now that the quarterback has been traded to the Big Apple, Smith is hoping his buddy Lin can knock on his neighbor's door and make a pitch.
"We're looking at becoming one of the first companies owned solely by athletes," Tolliver said. "It's a very, very unique thing. We feel like we have a niche that nobody has even touched before and it has unlimited potential."
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