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LDS missions and college basketball: A Harvard man, a Cougar and a Tar Heel reflect on their experiences

Corbin Miller completed his LDS mission in Mexico and rejoined the Harvard University basketball team about two years ago. But the move from Mexico to Boston may as well have been a transfer.

Miller no longer wears a black name tag, but he continues to feel like a missionary in many ways. For many of his teammates, he is the first Mormon they have ever met. Curious friends and faculty have asked about it. Miller was even the subject of a lengthy Boston Globe article last year that focused heavily on his two-year experience in Mexico.

"I expected the article to be more about basketball, but it was almost entirely questions about the mission. It kind of surprised me, the interest that people have in me serving a mission," Miller said in a recent phone interview with the Deseret News. "There have been discussions that go so far beyond basketball but have come about because of basketball. … I'm certainly grateful for the opportunity."

Miller is one of about 30 returned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints playing college basketball for NCAA Division I programs this season. The list, which is not all-inclusive, includes 11 players at Brigham Young University, including one on the women's team; six at Utah Valley University; three at Utah State University; two each at the University of Utah and Weber State University; and one each at the University of North Carolina, Harvard, Southern Utah, UC Davis and Colgate.

Miller, BYU’s Brooke Romney and North Carolina’s Stilman White recently responded to questions about how their missionary experiences continue to impact their lives while they gain an education and play college basketball.

Corbin Miller

Coming out of Brighton High School, Miller originally planned to serve his mission before playing for a school in the Western United States.

Then the 6-foot-2 guard did the exact opposite, going as far east as he could and playing a year before submitting his mission papers. The opportunity to gain an education at Harvard and play basketball was too good to pass up. Head coach Tommy Amaker's strong support for him serving a mission was a major factor in his decision, Miller said.

Now in his junior season, Miller has been more than satisfied with how things have unfolded at Harvard. For starters, Miller has twice played in the NCAA Tournament, which was "an unbelievable experience," he said.

This season, Miller is playing about 24 minutes and averaging 7 points per game. Although the Crimson have struggled to win as much as in years past, the team has competed with top national programs such as Kansas and Oklahoma. A December win over BYU was especially gratifying for Miller.

"I knew this was a solid program coming in, but the success we've had, the opponents that we’ve played and competed with, has been a lot of fun," he said.

Miller's biggest Ivy League challenge has been learning to balance basketball with intense schoolwork such as writing 25-page research papers on cyber politics, along with serving as co-chairman of his ward's temple and family history committee.

Miller is also engaged to be married in May, although his fiancee, who served a mission in Atlanta, attends Weber State.

"Basketball is highly competitive, and the school, academics-wise, is also highly competitive. Finding the balance between the two, with church and things that matter most, it’s a challenge in time management," Miller said. "Learning those skills on the mission has definitely helped with that."

One habit that helps — and Miller is quick to add he is not perfect at this — is reading his scriptures before launching into his political science and international relations homework. Miller, who is pursuing a degree in government, also strives to attend LDS Institute of Religion classes as often as he can. As he learned on his mission, Miller said, these small habits make a difference.

"The mission, for me, was a solidifier. The trials faced, the challenging experiences and miracles, everything that went into it strengthened and solidified the foundation of my faith, being centered on Christ," Miller said. "Regardless of what happens, where I am or what is going on, it helps me to realize and constantly be reminded of what lies at the center, and come what may, that is what is most important."

Brooke Romney

Things have not gone as BYU women's basketball player Romney planned since she returned home from her LDS mission to Concepcion, Chile, in February 2015.

The 6-foot-1 forward from Texas tried to block a teammate's shot in practice and came down awkwardly, suffering a Lisfranc injury that ended her sophomore season before it even started.

"My foot just went sideways and popped about three times," Romney said. "I just knew immediately it was really bad.”

She said the hardest part of the recovery process has been not being able to help her team win the West Coast Conference regular season title, which it recently did.

But Romney has remained on the sidelines, cheering on her teammates and relying on inner strength she developed as a missionary, she said.

"On my mission, there were many difficult times, difficult areas, where at times you wanted to give up or no one listens to you," said Romney, who is a medical redshirt this season and will return next year as a sophomore again. "There is a mental toughness you get on the mission that can translate over to helping me recover from this injury. The mission has helped me out in so many ways."

In the meantime, Romney has become the go-to person for teammates with gospel-related questions in their religion classes.

"If I can't help on the court, at least I can help in that aspect," Romney said.

Romney's injury has been a blessing in at least one important way, she said. A few days before she fell in practice, she was seriously considering breaking up with the guy she was dating, so she could focus more on basketball. But suddenly, her schedule was wide open.

"Time was no longer a problem," Romney said. "Now, I'm probably going to get married in the summer. I had my own plans, but Heavenly Father had a different plan for me."

Romney believes she is a better student, athlete and person for having served an LDS mission.

"Serving a mission was the absolute best decision in my life," Romney said. "I've realized there is more to life, more I need to do, service I can give in different areas. … I've cherished the lessons I learned, and they have helped me in everyday life. I encourage anyone considering a mission to do so."

Stilman White

White, a 6-foot-1 guard for the North Carolina Tar Heels, has been home from serving an LDS mission to Ogden, Utah, for about two years.

After battling through his sophomore year with foot and shoulder injuries, White said he finally feels confident physically, and he is grateful to be part of one of the top programs in the country.

"I am enjoying the ride," White said. "We have Final Four and national championship aspirations. Just getting to be on a team that can say that is pretty remarkable and something I will never forget."

As a missionary in Ogden and Logan, it was impossible for White to avoid news of the Tar Heels. Ward members who knew White played for UNC were eager to supply him the latest scores and updates.

"You can't really run away from the fact you played at North Carolina. I got daily updates whether I asked for it or not. Everyone seemed to know how the Tar Heels were doing," he said. "I missed playing ball, but I knew I was there for a purpose, to serve Jesus Christ, and that's what I tried to keep my mind set on."

White never imagined he would serve a mission in Utah. Because he grew up as one of only two or three Mormons in his high school, he said, it was eye-opening for him to suddenly be surrounded by so many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, resources and dinner appointments — all of which greatly enhanced the missionary work.

Another aspect that made Utah different, White said, was that each person he spoke with already had an opinion about the church, for better or worse.

"Sometimes when it's worse, it's harder to talk to them," White said. "From that standpoint, the work is harder (in Utah) than anywhere else."

The biggest lesson White learned as a missionary was how to live an unselfish life. The experience really "mellowed me out," he said.

"I learned pretty quickly that this isn't all about me and what I can do for myself, but what I can do for other people," White said. "Once I learned that, it made life more enjoyable. The greatest joy we find in life is making other people happy."

Back at North Carolina, White's Tar Heel teammates often ask about his mission and find it difficult to imagine getting up each day at 6:30 a.m., or only calling home twice a year.

"Someone is always asking something about my mission, and it's fun to explain it to them," White said.

One perk White has as a UNC basketball player is getting to interact with famous alumni at practice, in the locker room or at games. White has rubbed shoulders with former UNC players James Worthy, Tyler Hansbrough, Sean May, Kenny Smith and Rasheed Wallace. The only player who doesn't come around very often is Michael Jordan, White said.

Playing basketball and majoring in economics keeps White pretty busy, he said. But unlike Miller and Romney, dating has been lower on his priority list.

"Dating? I’m not too on top of that," White said with a laugh. "I'm pretty focused on school and basketball, but from what I hear, it’s great. I’m sure there are a lot of nice young LDS ladies in the North Carolina dating scene."

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