The Renaldo Gates Story

by Terri Nighswonger

 "I died on the court right there. I know it was because of the Lord that I lived through it."

That’s how Renaldo Gates recalls his brush with death on a basketball court in South Africa in June 1998.

Gates, now 26 years old, was playing professional basketball as a 6-foot, one-inch point guard for Team Soweto in South Africa’s PGS, that region’s top professional basketball league. The fateful game was being played in Pietermaritzburg, and Gates’ team was in a three-way tie for first place.

"This is a very competitive league," Gates said. "The game was pretty tight, pretty close, pretty high energy. On the other team were two Americans, and I was the only American on Team Soweto. While I was playing, there was about three minutes left in the game, and they threw a ball in from out of bounds."

Gates and the other two Americans ran full speed at the ball from different angles on the court. One player dove beneath Gates, and the other player went for the ball. The two hit head-on, and the other player’s head hit Gates in the middle of his nose. He doesn’t recall the next 20 minutes of commotion on the court.

"I’m telling this how it was told to me by some of my teammates and different people," Gates said. "On the basketball court, from what I remember, when we hit, everything was like a bright flash, and from the bright flash everything went dark and I couldn’t hear anything. It was like everything was fading out."

Teammates told Gates he was on the court convulsing for 15 minutes and then didn’t move.

"I thought I was talking because when I hit, there was a fire that went from the top of my head to the soles of my feet through my body, and I’ve never felt anything like it," he said. "Sometimes when I wake up, I remember the pain of it. I just called the Lord. I yelled Jesus’ name several times with my mouth, or so I thought. I was told I wasn’t speaking at all. It was my spirit crying out. There was a sucking feeling from my body. I felt totally displaced. They said that we hit so hard that it knocked me seven feet backwards. I woke up on the court in a puddle of blood.

"I thought (that) when I called the Lord’s name, I opened my eyes on the court, and when I looked, I saw a stream of blood going down the court. I did not know it was my blood. I thought it was the blood of the Lord. I didn’t know whether I was alive or what."

No one wanted to move Gates because they thought his spine was severed. Gates had cracked the front of his skull, broke his nose and ripped all the skin off the nose and the cartilage behind the nose.

"There was just blood pouring out of me. There were some bones on the right side of my neck that had been chipped in half. In the hospital, from what they tell me, all the muscles and tendons in my neck were as if I’d broken my neck clean through," he said. "I spent six days in intensive care, the first two and a half of which I couldn’t move at all."

During the season, Gates said, he was playing well. He had made the all-star team in South Africa and was averaging about 18 points a game. He also was sharing Christ with teammates and others during his time off.

"I was the team minister," he said. "We would have prayer on Tuesday nights and Bible study for the team and prayer before the game. I did missionary work there in Soweto, and I preached in several churches. I’ve been in ministry pretty much most of my life.

"I’ve done many different things that the Lord has wanted me to do, but I know the accident was for the glory of God. A player had died that same way a year before on that court. I think he had broken his neck."

In the hospital, Gates said, his neurosurgeon was supposed to be the best in South Africa. The doctor found chipped bones in Gates’ neck, but by the time he left six days later, X-rays showed nothing.

"I think he had the gift of healing in his hands," Gates said. "I’ve tried to get the records, but the Lord has sealed that door for now."

Even Gates’ time in the hospital was a blessing, he said, and gave him the opportunity to witness to many of the other patients, including a man shot five times in the head with a gun who survived and was walking. Another man had fallen 25 meters off a building on his neck and had survived. That man’s testimony was that the Lord had saved his life through an angel who had caught him. Another young woman, Gates’ nurse, had tried to commit suicide.

Gates was only supposed to have two visitors at a time every two hours, but he was able to visit with 30 to 40 people every day for five days.

"The Lord had made provision so these people could come," Gates said. "There were pastors, evangelists, youth ministers, and even Muslims and Jews came. It was quite a blessing."

Also a blessing was Gates’ six-day stay in the hospital. When he was released on the seventh day, the team doctor took over his care.

"I woke up in Soweto on the seventh day. I walked; I guess what you would call walking. I had to go to church that day. Something just moved me to get up and go to service. My whole left side was on fire. My hands and face were swollen. It was a blessing. … I preached at a church. I had no balance or anything. I don’t even know what I preached. I know it was the Lord," he said.

When Gates left the hospital, he could not feel anything on the left side of his body. His left leg curved in. In his words, "It looked terrible from the outside."

What God did on the inside of Gates and what He did in the hearts of Gates’ teammates is all that matters, he said. Many players on the team rededicated their lives to the Lord after the accident.

"I believe from the time that I had left to go over there that it was the purpose of the Lord," he said. "I know that the Lord has commissioned me to spread the Good News. My life is about Him. It’s not my life. I just desire to serve the Lord out of this.

"In serving the Lord, He has showed me that I’m to spread the Good News. I don’t look for a podium or a church. I believe that one day those things will come to me, but at this time, it’s just to walk wherever the Lord leads me to give the word of God."

After the accident, Gates coached at a basketball camp and had an opportunity to give his testimony. The door also was opened for him to visit Turkey, where he saw some of the caves in the mountains where the Hittites lived. The second church after Antioch was started underground there, he said.

Gates works for the Urban League of Greater Cleveland as an education instructor to help people prepare for the GED, SAT/ACT and proficiency tests. He also sings gospel music, preaches and shares his testimony when the Holy Spirit leads him.

"I’m not too quick to go out and do anything like when I was young and had a lot of zeal," he said. "I was down at Cleveland State holding revivals and prayer services. The Lord’s given me a little bit more wisdom on some things, and he’s working on me as far as my integrity and things of that nature. At this stage of my life, wherever the Lord will lead me, I will just try and stay on path with him."

Although less than a year after the accident, Gates is back on the basketball court, although not competitively. He would like to get back to the pros some day.

"I want to go back, Lord willing, and do more missionary work there (in Soweto). I desire to work with some of the different pastors that I met there because there is a lot of need. The world really needs the Lord more now than ever before. They really need to know that Jesus lives. I can say this from experience.

"I know that the Lord lives, and it’s because of him that I live. There’s no compromising that. Because of that, I believe He’s commissioned me to preach His word like the apostle Paul. The Lord has raised me from the dead. How can I not share His word?

"I died on that basketball court, and the Lord gave me life again. I’m excited about this life. It has its ups and its downs, but I can tell you that experience changed my life."