From fasting to pregame prayers: how religion shapes the NBA | NBA

Before every game, Bob Hill brought his teams together for a moment of silence. Hill, who coached in places like New York, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Seattle, didn’t insist on any particular message. It was simply a moment of togetherness before the start of another NBA battle. But it was in 1994 when he got to San Antonio, where David Robinson starred, that Hill was exposed to a more pointed pregame process. During a preseason game against the Knicks, Robinson, a born-again Christian, began to lead the team in prayer. Then, before the next game, the 7ft 1in center did so again. It got to be such a big part of the team’s ritual that pregame prayer became the norm – fitting, Hill says, for a roster that included Terry Cummings, an ordained minister, and Avery Johnson, who was also a born-again Christian.

“I didn’t have anything to do with it. This was all them,” says Hill, remembering the season when the Spurs went 62-20. “The culture of the team was spiritually motivated because of David, Terry and Avery. It was that way all year long.”

A focus on faith grew organically, Hill says. So much so that it changed the culture of a Spurs team who reached the Western Conference finals, where they fell in six hard-fought games to another spiritual pro, Hakeem Olajuwon, who is Muslim.

Some would say that building a team culture around religion is tricky – and risks excluding players who do not practice a faith. How, for example, would Olajuwon or an atheist have felt in Hill’s Spurs team. That’s why today, the NBA retains team chaplains rather than players to lead faith practice, something that can be traced to the late 1970s and Hall of Famer Bobby Jones. And they offer advice and support to players from every faith, and those who have none.

Jonathan Wynne, a school administrator by day, works as the Detroit Pistons’ chaplain in the evenings. Wynne might do anything from visiting a player at his home for his baby’s christening to simply listening. And it’s not just for the players on the roster. He offers these services to staff members, executives and visiting opponents, alike.

For Wynne, it’s about practicing a “ministry of presence.” Just being available to players can go a long way, he says. While Wynne works with anyone in the organization, it’s the world-class athletes who often need his services most since they are often treated more like objects than complex people. As if they don’t have internal and personal lives. Colin Pinkney, the chaplain for the Charlotte Hornets since 2004, also knows the value of serving a player’s internal life. Like Wynne, Pinkney makes himself available before every home game for prayer or face-to-face discussions. He is a sounding board as much as a minister. “Primarily,” says Pinkney, “it provides a grounding for the players who participate.”

Pinkney says he has seen that just offering an open-hearted space can provide comfort in tough times. Maybe someone is having relationship troubles, or just found out a relative died. “I think, overall,” Pinkney says, “it provides a recognition for the players that they’re more than just their role as basketball phenoms. They are human beings.” The Hornets chaplain says he meets with people who have deep spiritual backgrounds as well as those who have “no faith expressions” at all. And people come in for different reasons, he says, though he treats them “all the same.”

Of course, the NBA is comprised of people who practice all types of religions. Metta Sandiford-Artest espoused Buddhist philosophies. Phil Jackson was known as “The Zen Master.” Six-time All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire has talked about his “Hebrew roots” and he played in Israel after his NBA career. Decades prior, Dolph Schayes, now an NBA top-75 player, was the son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants. And in the minor leagues, Ryan Turell is trying to make the NBA all while observing Sabbath. Turell is featured in the documentary, Destination NBA: A G League Odyssey, which shows the former Yeshiva University player, who also led college basketball in scoring, observing orthodox Judaism while playing with the Motor City Cruise G League squad.

In the 1990s, former LSU basketball star Chris Jackson made a name for himself on the Denver Nuggets. Then in 1993, the high-flying point guard changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf as he got deeper into his Muslim faith. His time in the NBA was mired in controversy, however, because of his protest during the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf took issue with American politics, domestic and abroad, and decided to stay in Denver’s locker-room while the anthem played. When that choice was reported, though, it created a firestorm, eventually leading to a suspension and a compromise that he would say a silent Muslim prayer while standing with his teammates for the anthem. In the end, Abdul-Rauf’s time in the NBA was cut short. “I lost millions because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” he told the Guardian last year.

Plenty of other Muslims have made their impact on the league, including big-time scorer Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who is now the president of the G League; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the league’s all-time greats; Enes Kanter, who the Knicks gave a special room to at their practice facility so he could pray five time a day; and Olajuwon, who famously fasted during the NBA finals as part of his observance of Ramadan.

“Fasting … is a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play. Through Allah’s mercy, I always felt stronger and more energetic during Ramadan,” he told The Undefeated in 2017.

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Retired players often bring their faith into the next stage of their lives. For Reggie Theus, a two-time NBA All-Star and current athletic director at Bethune-Cookman University, faith has long been a part of his professional life. These days, when considering the breadth of his playing career, Theus says that the common threads were God and basketball. A prolific scorer who often played on subpar teams, Theus says he needed his faith during his NBA days as he wondered why his career unfolded as it did.

“You develop a strong spirit,” Theus says. “I believe that a lot of times, God is talking to you. It’s just whether you’re listening to Him or not.”

But while practicing a specific faith may not be for everyone, that act of getting in touch with one’s internal self can go a long way. Doing so can unburden the heart and mind in the most difficult of times – that is, as long as the right person is there to listen. As Wynne says, being in communion with others, whether religious or not, is part of being alive. And for a pro athlete, having an opportunity to talk about anything but the game can be a big relief.

“You don’t [always] know the impact that it’s having,” says Wynne. “But what we try to do is create a space where, for 15 minutes, you can come down here and just be yourself.”