Listed at 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, Elliott Bullock is one of the biggest players on the Stanford University men's basketball roster.
Yet the redshirt junior from Salt Lake City hasn't played a minute for the Cardinal in four years.
Bullock played two years at Stanford before leaving to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He hasn't played at all in the two seasons since coming back, but he wouldn't trade his mission experience for anything. The trials, experiences and lessons learned have blessed his life in multiple ways, he said.
"I consider it to be the most valuable two years I have spent in my life," Bullock said in a phone interview from Tucson, Ariz., where his team was preparing to play Pac-12 Conference foe Arizona. "I would highly recommend it for anyone."
Bullock is one of at least 70 LDS returned missionaries playing at four-year universities this year (see the list).
After lettering for four years at Olympus High School in Salt Lake City, Bullock considered opportunities to play at Portland, Brown, Lafayette, Penn and Princeton, but he really wanted to play at Stanford. He produced a highlight film and sent it to the coaching staff in Palo Alto, Calif., where he was allowed to walk on the team.
As a freshman in 2008-09, Bullock played in 15 games. His greatest contribution came when he grabbed four rebounds and scored three points in a victory over Colorado.
It was good enough to earn a scholarship. As a sophomore the following year, he came off the bench in 22 games and twice had games with five rebounds. But it wasn't enough to keep his scholarship.
"Depending on how I played that year, we would discuss further options (regarding a scholarship). I didn't play very well," Bullock said. "I was going to leave on my mission after my freshman year, but the timing was right to leave after my sophomore year."
Following the 2009-10 season, Bullock was called to the Texas Houston South Mission, where he spoke Spanish. It was a time of great personal growth and maturity, Bullock said.
His biggest challenge was dealing with anxiety and depression, he said.
"They were consistent throughout my life but were magnified within the mission, being so far away from home and dealing with rejection every day," said Bullock, who referenced Ether 12:27, a scripture verse in the Book of Mormon that talks about turning weaknesses into strengths. "It was a real problem and during that time I was able to diagnose it and treat it to some extent. I was able to strengthen my testimony through that trial, and I'm very grateful to the Lord for helping me through that."
Bullock's mission experience also taught him principles of leadership and service.
"Christ was the greatest but he came to serve," Bullock said. "Whether you are the star or the last guy off the bench, you can contribute. Your job is to serve others in the capacity that you have."
He also learned it's important to cultivate personal relationships with those you work with.
"I felt a lot more valued when my leaders in the mission knew me, what I was going through and how to help me personally," Bullock said. "I think the same holds true in basketball. A lot of times we know the fundamentals, the techniques. They've been preached from Junior Jazz on up. But a lot of times it's helping someone to learn to focus their mind or energy or tap into what knowledge they already have in order to be more consistent in doing those things."
His mission also taught Bullock to be resilient. Regardless of how they feel, missionaries have to get out and talk to people.
"I think that holds true in basketball, as well. You don't always want to go to practice, you don't always want to dive on the floor or cheer from the bench," he said. "As you continually try, it becomes easier. You can do it even when you don't feel like you can. That was a big realization for me."
Upon his return, Bullock earned his way back onto the Cardinal as a walk-on and used his redshirt. He was grateful to have Stanford assistant coach Mark Madsen as a mentor and friend. Madsen served a mission in Spain before playing at Stanford and nine years in the NBA. Madsen left Stanford to become an assistant coach with the L.A. Lakers.
Madsen was admired for exhibiting energy, attitude and consistent effort, Bullock said. Sometimes Madsen jumped in and played or participated in drills. Bullock said Madsen told him to be patient in regaining post-mission basketball skills.
"It was a wonderful experience for me to have him as a coach last year, especially transitioning from a mission to have a coach who understood my situation," Bullock said. "He was always focused and ready to go, always up, always aware of the situation and always enthusiastic to be there. He was always going all out, like during his career. That was the most contagious aspect of his coaching and it stuck with me personally."
Unfortunately, Bullock suffered a stress fracture in his knee cap at the start of this season and hasn't played all year. Even so, he doesn't consider himself "just a practice player," but a supportive teammate who is willing to make the other players better and do whatever is asked of him.
While still dedicated to helping his team this year, Bullock has high hopes for his senior year. He wants to end his career on a high note.
"After four years without playing, I want to unleash what knowledge I've gained and the experience I've accrued in order to validate what I went through," said Bullock, who serves as a Sunday School president in his LDS singles ward.
To anyone considering a mission, Bullock says go.
"The Lord has a specific plan and timeline for each one of us. For me, I left a year later than most people would and that was the perfect time for me. I would encourage everybody to go on a mission. Whether it's right out of high school or later, I never think it's too late to serve a mission.
"The mission was the hardest and most rewarding time of my life. Athletically it was a blessing. It has for sure changed my perspective on playing basketball.
"I've always appreciated the game for being more than a game. I feel basketball is a microcosm of life. You can learn about hard work, teamwork, communication and attention to detail. What a mission did for me was give me the opportunity to go and apply those in real-life situations and gain a deeper understanding of what those things mean. I've been able to bring that perspective back with me to Stanford. It's helped to shape my life in the way I want it to go."
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