Why Sam Merrill’s missionary friends are not surprised to see him playing in the NBA Finals

Milwaukee Bucks' Sam Merrill tries to steal the ball from Charlotte Hornets' P.J. Washington during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 9, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) Credit: Morry Gash, Associated Press
NBA guard Sam Merrill, second from right on front row, and his missionary companion, Connor Copeland, far right, enjoyed playing basketball together as missionaries and have remained close friends. Credit: Photo courtesy of Connor Copeland
Current NBA player Sam Merrill, far left, and his companion, Connor Copeland, make a pair of new friends while serving in the Nicaragua Managua South Mission. Credit: Photo courtesy of Connor Copeland

The NBA playoffs were in full swing last month when Milwaukee Bucks rookie guard Sam Merrill dropped an Instagram post that may have seemed a bit out of place.  

But that June 11, 2021, post offered his thousands of hoops-loving followers a glimpse into what the young man treasures most.

“Hard to believe it’s been 7 years since I left to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nicaragua,” he wrote in an Instagram caption attached to several of his missionary photos. “I’m so grateful for the experience that I had and for all the incredible people that I got to meet while serving the Lord.

“Would not be where I am today,” he added, “without serving a mission.”

Latter-day Saints who have followed Merrill’s hoops journey are not surprised to see his missionary-themed Instagram post placed comfortably between his Bucks-themed posts that includes one of him smiling broadly while hoisting the NBA Eastern Conference championship trophy. 

(Included in several Instagram photos is Merrill’s teammate and fellow Church member, Elijah Bryant.)

The 25-year-old Merrill, who is competing with the Bucks in the ongoing NBA Finals, has long enjoyed a balance between the sport he loves and his devotion to his Latter-day Saint beliefs.

In a 2019 Church News feature, Merrill spoke humbly about his basketball success at Utah State University. But he also recalled his unforgettable joy of hearing the general conference announcement that a temple will be built in the Central American nation where he once answered to “Elder Merrill.”

“There are so many really good people in Nicaragua who deserve a temple,” he told the Church News. “It will help the Church grow even more. It was a special moment, and I’m so happy for those people.”

Utah State guard Sam Merrill soars to the basket during the The 2019 Mountain West Men’s Championship tournament held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Utah State guard Sam Merrill soars to the basket during the The 2019 Mountain West Men’s Championship tournament held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. | Credit: Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos

Many who befriended Merrill during his missionary service in Nicaragua have become loyal Bucks fans.

“I’m a fan of wherever Sam’s playing,” said Connor Copeland, who was Merrill’s companion on two occasions during their shared labors in the Nicaragua Managua South Mission. “We talk almost daily — we’ve remained really close.”

Watching a good friend, former companion and golfing buddy competing in pro basketball’s premier event, he added, “is pretty awesome. … But Sam’s definitely put in the time and effort to get where he is now, so I’m not surprised.”

Copeland’s words are echoed by their mission president, Bryan G. Russell.

“Elder Merrill came to the mission field very focused,” said President Russell. “He was not a young man that was still trying to find himself or trying to find his relationship with Jesus Christ. He came prepared with a strong testimony. … He hit the ground running.”

President Russell still remembers Elder Merrill’s favorite scripture — Alma 26:12.

That verse, he said, captures the young man’s humility and devotion: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.”

Copeland had plenty of opportunities to play basketball in Nicaragua with the future NBA player. “Whenever possible, we’d play with people as a way to introduce them to the Church and to ourselves. It helped us make a good initial impression of the Church.”

Like his lanky fellow Utahn, Copeland grew up playing basketball. So yes, he said with a laugh, “we would always dominate.” But those friendly pick-up games — typically played on weathered hoops with no nets — broke barriers and built connections.

Merrill surrendered his spot on Utah State’s roster for a couple of years to serve his mission. But during that hiatus, Copeland remembers his companion being entirely focused on improving his Spanish skills and sharing the gospel in his assigned areas in Nicaragua.

No surprise, Elder Merrill’s  6-foot-4-inch frame drew attention wherever he went. But the photos Copeland shares of the two serving together reveal the affection Merrill has for Nicaragua and its people.

“Elder Merrill was always very kind and compassionate,” added President Russell. “He truly grew to love the Nicaraguan people.” 

President Russell frequently assigned Merrill to train new elders because he was always supportive and helpful. In basketball terms, a great teammate.

A Florida resident, President Russell smiles at the fact that he has become a loyal Milwaukee fan.

“Who would have thought it, right?,” he said. “But it has been great to see how well Elder Merrill did at Utah State, and then get drafted by the Bucks and now to play in the NBA Finals. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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