The Sensitive Role of Religion in the NBA

Mark Jackson (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
Mark Jackson (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)

Long before Doc Rivers found himself defending his Los Angeles Clippers players who were the unwelcome participants in team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments all week, he was concerned about another sensitive subject.

Religion.

It was late 1999, the start of Rivers’ first season as coach of the Orlando Magic, and he saw a situation in the locker room that he felt needed to be addressed. As his players took part in the pre-game prayer that was part of their routine — with veteran point guard Darrell Armstrong handling the message like always, future New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams serving as unofficial co-messenger and the entire team standing in a circle — Rivers noticed something he didn’t like.

“I looked up in one of the prayers, and Tariq (Abdul-Wahad) had his arms folded, and you could see that he was really uncomfortable with it,” Rivers, whose team hosts the Golden State Warriors tonight in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs, told USA TODAY Sports recently. “So the next game, we were standing up in a circle, and I said, ‘Hey guys, we’re no longer praying,’ and I remember Darrell and Monty looking at me, like ‘What’s going on?'”

Rivers calls himself a “very religious” man, having grown up in the Second Baptist Church in Maywood, Ill., and praying on his knees every night in his home to this day. But he prefers to practice privately and is quick to note that he has attended church only for funerals the past 15 years.

So, that day, he decided his teams would keep their religious practices private as well.

“We’re no longer praying,” Rivers recalled saying to his team. “I want to take a minute. Everybody close their eyes. We all can have different religions, we have different Gods, we can just take a minute to compose. If you guys want to pray individually, you can do it. If you want to meditate, do whatever you want.”

Rivers added, “Then after that game, Tariq Abdul-Wahad walks in to me, gives me a hug with his eyes tearing, and said, ‘Thank you. That is so important to me. No one has ever respected my (Muslim) religion.’ He said, ‘I’m going to give you everything I’ve got.’ ”

This NBA season has been unprecedented when it comes to the blending of basketball and unresolved social issues — from Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in a major professional league to Royce White, who has dealt with mental illness, to the Sterling situation — there has been a widespread push for increased tolerance on all fronts. Yet the conversation about religion and how it’s best handled by coaches and players remains fluid.

With Rivers handling his work world one way and Warriors coach/ordained minister Mark Jackson another, there’s no better sign of the breadth of this debate than this particular series. After all, their growing rivalry reached this point in part because of an Oct. 31, 2013 controversy over pre-game chapel and the Clippers’ decision to break league-wide tradition and force the Warriors to pray on their own.

Jackson’s strong Christian beliefs and practices are well-chronicled: The former All-Star point guard who found God later in life and has perhaps the most devout locker room in the league sees great value in sharing his spirituality with his players. This has been the case since the start of his time as coach in the summer of 2011.

But it was never more obvious than the recent Easter Sunday in which eight of his 15 players made the 18-mile trek from their Beverly Hills hotel, through Los Angeles traffic on the team bus, and to Jackson’s non-denominational church in Van Nuys, Calif., then on to practice at UCLA. A second bus had been arranged for those who didn’t want to attend. It was a unique version of their norm inside the arena, with a majority of players attending pregame chapel and taking part in pre- and postgame prayers.

“You go in (the Warriors locker room) before the game to just kind of chat and see what’s going on, and no one is there,” said Tom Tolbert, who played three of his seven NBA seasons for the Warriors and is now a radio host for San Francisco station KNBR as well as Golden State’s radio color analyst. “They’re all in chapel. … It’s like the entire team. And then when chapel is over, pretty much the entire team comes parading into the locker room. It works for them.”

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SOURCE: Sam Amick
USA TODAY

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