Guarding His Faith

With the teammates’ support, Freehold player puts his religious beliefs ahead of the sports he loves.

By Brad Stratton
Staff Writer

It took a long time, but Freehold Boro senior Akene Dunkley was finally able to manage basketball and religion at the same time.

Despite being involved with the Freehold basketball program in his four years at the school, it was this season when Akene seems to have thrived in the sport.

Akene came off the bench for much of the season, with the bulk of his starts coming in the Jack Kuhnert Memorial Tournament, the holiday tournament hosted by the Colonials.

Despite not being in the starting lineup very often, Akene saw a lot of playing time, averaging more than 20 minutes a game. He finished the season averaging 10.3 points per game.

“(Freehold boys basketball coach Stan Parker) would put me in the game after a few minutes,” Akene said, “and he wouldn’t take me out.”

Akene’s services were limited because he could not play in every game. He missed all Friday and Saturday practices and games due to his religious beliefs.

Akene is a Seventh-Day Adventist, one of six sects of Adventist Protestantism. Created in 1845, the sect believes the “second coming” of Jesus Christ is close at hand. They try to encourage this by holding their sabbath period from sunset on Friday night until sunset on Saturday night.

Because the Fourth Commandment in the Bible dictates that people abstain from doing any work on the sabbath, Akene’s strong religious beliefs forbid him from working with the team.

“My one personal belief is God came first,” Akene said. “I love basketball very much, but God comes before basketball.”

Akene’s religion restrictions aren’t limited to basketball. Special arrangements, such as taking the SAT’s on a Sunday, have been made for Akene since his childhood.

“It was a painful decision for Akene to make (as a child),” Desmond Dunkley, Akene’s father, said. “But he knows his values, and he understands the decision. He’s never compromised on his principles.”

Akene’s religious beliefs have conflicted with basketball for the last four years. He played on the junior varsity team in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but his scheduling restrictions caused him to miss a lot of playing time.

“If I missed a practice,” Akene said, “the (junior varsity) coach wouldn’t play me in the next game.”

After two years struggling to balance religion and basketball, Akene was cut from the varsity team in his junior year. He stayed involved by taking part in practices and worked as a cameraman during games, but his religious beliefs kept him out of uniform.

“I was very concerned, because (Akene) was being penalized because of his religious beliefs,” the elder Dunkley said. “But (Coach Stan Parker) said it was a matter of principle and he had to be consistent. And I respect that.”

Coming into this season, Akene didn’t originally intend to play for the Colonials. “I wasn’t going to play,” he said, “but (Parker) asked me to try out.”

“We knew what kind of person he was, since he worked out with us more often than not,” Parker said. “He played on the scout team, simulating other teams’ offenses and defenses for us. We saw the skills there and thought this year, without question, he would be able to play with us.”

Akene made the team, and went on to become a major force from the bench. He became a key contributor to the team, along with fellow seniors Bilal Salahuddin and Brian Cavallaro.

“He came off the bench and gave it his all,” Parker said. “As the season progressed, it became more apparent we missed him on weekends.”

One game the Colonials particularly missed Akene was a pivotal game against Holmdel on Feb. 2. At 8-8, the game became a important one for Freehold if they hoped to advance to the state tournament. But since the game was on a Friday, Dunkley was unavailable.

“Everybody was used to (my schedule),” Akene said. “But they still begged me to come to the game.”

Without Akene, the Colonials lost to Holmdel 52-50. But at the same time, an appeal to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association came back against Freehold. On two occasions, the Colonials had used a player for a combined six quarters in a day between varsity and junior varsity games. Since the rules allowed a maximum of five quarters in a day, Freehold was stripped of two wins, and their record dropped to 6-11.

“There were some games when we needed him,” Salahuddin said. “Because everything he wasn’t there, we lost some size and some experience.”

But any disappointment the team had never seemed to transpire into resentment. “Everyone respected (Akene’s decision),” Dana Ketcham, a statistician for the Colonials, said. “They missed him because of the points he’d bring, but he knew going (into the season) he’d be at a disadvantage because he wouldn’t be able a start a lot of games. And everyone respected him for that.”

“As it turned out, it was more advantageous to have him than not have him,” Parker said.

In addition to basketball and religion, Akene is also an accomplished student. He is No.‚1 in his class among the regular student body (the medical science students have a different curriculum and are not included in that ranking), and he is the president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter.

With graduation on the horizon, Akene intends to study electrical engineering in college. He has been accepted to Georgia Tech and Rutgers, which offered him a full scholarship. He is waiting to hear from Duke and the University of Pennsylvania.

Asbury Park Press (Freehold Reporter) – March 8, 2001