These loyal fans support their players on and off the court
By Sara Kelm
On Friday nights in winter, it’s not uncommon to see a slow but steady exodus across Fulton Street to campus. The travelers carry padded bleacher seats – the mark of true fans – and make their way into Miller Gymnasium before settling in behind the scorer’s table in anticipation of another night of George Fox women’s basketball.
They wear matching blue and gold T-shirts, often with pearls or over collared shirts. Clutching rosters in their hands, they take special note of who is injured. Maybe they are not the loudest in the gymnasium, but they are the most dedicated.
Known as the Foster Friends, this collection of diehard fans from the Friendsview Retirement Community is present at each and every home basketball game for one reason: to support
Marvin Clarkson can most often be found sitting about 10 rows behind the home team’s bench, his attention focused on senior guard Keisha Gordon – though he also keeps an eye on assistant coach Mandee Wilmot. Clarkson and his wife Louise were paired with each woman as part of the program – Wilmot in 2004 and Gordon in 2008 – and he doubles as an adoptive grandpa and dedicated supporter of both.
Clarkson’s presence is exactly what the Foster Friends is all about. In 1994, then-Bruins women’s basketball coach Sherri Murrell saw an emotional need going unmet. She was quoted in a Friendsview publication as saying, “After a home game, I saw one of our players was by herself, and it got to me wishing that every player could have someone after the game to hug.”
Seniors Keisha Gordon (left) and Arianna Mohsenian (right) have both developed lasting relationships with their Foster Friends.
As a result, Murrell and Friendsview resident Esther Klages went about pairing the 16 players on the 1994-95 team with members of the Friendsview community, and lasting relationships began to form. In the nearly two decades since, the program has become a selling point when recruiting new players and an integral part of the lives of current players – and their adoptive grandparents.
True to Murrell’s vision, players whose families are too far away to attend games now have someone cheering for them every home game. Ari Mohsenian, a senior from Yakima, Wash., remembers how much that meant to her as a freshman. “It was so nice to know I had a ‘grandma’ there watching me and cheering for me,” she recalls, “someone who was there specifically for me.” Four years later, her foster friend, Earlene Edwards, still considers Mohsenian the star of the team.
But the connection goes beyond the gym. The Foster Friends meet with their players as often as schedules allow, catching up over coffee or treating them to a coveted home-cooked meal. Foster Friends also have a knack for remembering birthdays, and often send cards of encouragement to let their player know that she is in their prayers. And, of course, stories are passed from the older generation to the younger – some about sneaking down the fire escape after curfew as students living in Minthorn Hall.
As an assistant coach, Wilmot sees how good it is “for girls to interact with people who are not 20 and in college.” She knows this from her own experience, having maintained a relationship with Clarkson since graduation. Now she meets with him regularly on her lunch break from the George Fox admissions office, calling their weekly time “Tuesdays with Marvin.”
Players keep the same Foster Friends the entire time they are in the basketball program. Consequently, the women get to know their adoptive grandparents well, sharing in both joys and sorrows. When Mohsenian got engaged, she e-mailed Edwards right away. The celebration prompted a meaningful conversation. Edwards shared with Mohsenian how she has seen her young friend grow from a freshman into a young adult prepared to follow Christ into new roles as a teacher and wife.
Likewise, both Wilmot and Gordon know what it’s like to share periods of sadness; Louise Clarkson was diagnosed with cancer and passed away about a year ago. Watching someone close to her pass from life into death was a painful new experience for Gordon. But she emphasizes the blessings of seeing Marvin say goodbye to his beloved wife and continue putting his faith in the Lord.
As a new wife, Wilmot is inspired by Clarkson’s continued love for his wife and his choice to honor her by enjoying life. “The way Marvin talks about Louise inspires me to love my husband and be thankful for the time we have together,” she says.
But it’s not just the George Fox players who benefit; the Friendsview residents also cherish these friendships. Clarkson says that their relationships with players “keep older people younger.” Eilene Williams, meanwhile, keeps track of all 11 of her former adopted players, sharing how the current team is doing over e-mail and happily receiving photo attachments of weddings and babies.
Plus, the Foster Friends enjoy walking across the street to home games, proudly sporting their blue and gold and cheering on their adopted granddaughters. After all, as Williams likes to say, for many of the Friendsview residents “the redeeming feature of winter is basketball.”
Likewise, among the blessings of basketball at George Fox are the multigenerational bonds formed through the Foster Friends program, where lasting relationships remain long after the final buzzer has sounded.