It’s impossible to overlook Josh Slater when he’s on the basketball court.
The junior guard for Lipscomb plays with an energy and a level of enthusiasm that is undeniable. So evident is his desire, in fact, that fans from the other teams often single him out as their primary target for taunts.
“I do think I am ‘that guy’ for us, that other teams like to get on me a little bit,” he said. “As a player, that just kind of energizes you even more.”
Off the court, though, he spends a lot of time and energy in places most don’t want to look. He moves among the homeless and extends his hands to the sick. He seeks out opportunities to provide hope and healing and — literally — gives of himself.
His passion in pursuit of service is no less intense than what he displays when he plays the game. That much is apparent as his voice cracks or is eyes well with tears at the thought of some of what he has encountered.
The difference is that there are no cheers or jeers — and Slater would not have it any other way.
“In no way am I doing this for people to look at me,” he said. “You won’t hear me talk about it every day. It’s just, if people want to do that, that’s great. It’s just something I’ve been personally convicted of.
“… Lately I’ve just been realizing how little I need, compared to the rest of the world how much I have and how much I can give away that’s mine and still be fine.”
Forgotten by society
Following a re-examination of, and a recommitment to his faith last summer, Slater, at 20 years old, felt called to lead a life of “service, simplicity and most importantly love.” Repeated Bible verses that talked about “clothing the naked, feeding the poor and loving the oppressed” had a particularly profound impact.
So it was that he became involved in homeless ministry and began to seek out those who have little or nothing.
“When I go downtown and see people on the street, it breaks my heart,” he said. “… Just to see how much I’ve been given, and these people don’t have very much. For me to just be able to give back, and not just give back but to spend time and love on them because these people are forgotten by our society and they just need someone to love on them.
“The blessing I get from that and feeling I get from that is worth more than anything. …I just hope I can change something, do something.”
The start of basketball season in October limited the amount of time he was able to devote to such pursuits but did not push thoughts of doing so to the back of his mind.
Following one workout during the Christmas break, coaches had lunch brought in for the players. Slater took his share of the sub sandwiches and water, went home and gathered up some of his old coats and distributed all of it to those on the streets of Nashville.
He also continues to volunteer, when time allows, at the local Ronald McDonald House, where his mother, Kaye, works.
“He’s just changed a lot off the floor, without a doubt,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said. “He’s just maturing, and just being at this school and being around the people you encounter at this school has had a big impact on him. He’s starting to understand his place in the world.”
Playing with passion
None of Slater’s charitable pursuits have diminished his ability or his desire to play basketball.
As he was last year, he is the Bisons’ second-leading scorer this season, although at 15.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, his production in each of those critical statistical categories is up over last season.
Plus, he still draws the attention of opposing fans the way he always has.
“He’s very animated and wears his emotions on his sleeve and people get on him for it, but that usually makes him play better,” Sanderson said. “Like at Vanderbilt earlier this season, their students were all over him and he played very well in that game.”
Well enough that he had game-highs of 20 points and six rebounds against a team that has been on verge of the national Top 25 for most of the season.
The difference this season is that Slater has learned how to channel his emotions in a different manner. He tunes into the pleasure of playing more than the pressure of doing so. He relishes the opportunity to be a part of a team understands that not everything will go perfectly during the course of a contest.
Sanderson said there have been times in the past when Slater’s emotions led to unproductive moments on the court or on the bench. Such incidents have been rare this season, he said.
“Basketball has always been so important for me, and I’ve always felt a certain amount of pressure,” Slater said. “This year, I’ve really shifted my focus off of myself and on to the people around me, and really just trying to please God and play for God. I like to think of it like I’m going to play as hard as I can for. God. There’s really no pressure and it’s become just a game again. I can go out and just have fun, just have fun being with my teammates and coaches.”
Rarely does he have more fun than the twice-annual meetings between Lipscomb and Belmont, affectionately known around these parts as the Battle of the Boulevard. The 126th meeting between the schools is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Belmont’s Curb Events Center.
In five career games against Belmont, Slater has averaged 14.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Most recently, he had 16 points and 14 rebounds in Lipscomb’s 64-53 victory on Jan. 11.
“I just love playing in the Battle of the Boulevard,” he said. “It’s just a fun environment. I know all those guys and their coaches too. Belmont has great guys and a great team. It’s just a fun game. They scout us really well, and we scout them really well. It’s fun. It’s just a fun one to be in.”
The ferocity of the rivalry is fueled by the fact that a mere the three miles of Belmont Boulevard separate the schools.
Similarly, Slater’s devotion to Lipscomb University is due in part to the fact that he prepped for college just down the road David Lipscomb High School.
“This was a place I needed to be,” he said. “The blessings have just been immense. I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by the people I’m surrounded by every day. I couldn’t be happier.”
Look down other streets in town, though, ones not named Belmont Boulevard or Granny White Pike, though, and you’re liable to find Slater there too. In those places there is no game-plan. No one calls him names. It’s just a young man trying to answer a calling.
“I just know that’s what I’m passionate about — serving people,” he said. “I’m not doing this so anybody can see me or anything. I just want to help out the best I can.”