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.
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?'"
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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.
"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.
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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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Yet Tolbert admits it wouldn't necessarily work for him if he were still playing for the Warriors.
"I have no problem with that whatsoever, just as long as it's not something that they're going to throw at you every day where you just don't want to hear it," said Tolbert, who joked that he couldn't find his way to chapel if he tried. "That's not really my preference, so let's just make sure we focus on business while we're here."
Jackson, as he was quick to point out, is hardly alone when it comes to mixing religion and rims.
Williams, who coaches Rivers' son, Austin, in New Orleans, has integrated the two in his own way since becoming Pelicans coach in 2010. Stars such as the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, the Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard and the Warriors' Stephen Curry are extremely vocal about their beliefs and quick to praise God in interviews with the media.
Every arena in the NBA has a room reserved for pregame chapel in which interested players on both teams can, save for the Clippers' outlier, take part at the same time. The Thunder even have a pregame invocation at center court of Chesapeake Energy Arena, in which a non-denominational prayer is given, though they are the only team to have such a practice.
According to The New York Times, those delivering the pregame prayer have ranged from Protestants to Roman Catholics to rabbis to Native American spiritual leaders. The report indicated that the Thunder and the NFL's Carolina Panthers are the only ones among the 141 North American men's professional teams to do so (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS).
Mark Jackson also cities Phil Jackson, the legendary coach with the "Zen Master" nickname whose spiritual ways have been lauded by most throughout the years because of his unprecedented success. While his Buddhist beliefs are seen by many as more innocuous than the more-devout style of a Mark Jackson or a Williams, the 68-year-old who grew up with Pentecostal ministers as parents paints a different picture in his latest book, "Eleven Rings."
Before training camps with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson — who said he borrowed this technique from NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi — would line his players up in a row on the baseline and say, "God has ordained me to coach you young men, and I embrace the role I've been given. If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching as a sign of your commitment, step across that line."
Former Lakers small forward Matt Barnes, now with the Clippers, said Phil Jackson's baseline ritual was no longer in use by the time he played for him in the 2010-11 season that was his last as a coach. But the meditation sessions that were always a part of Jackson's routine, he said, were still in full effect.
Phil Jackson credits the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki as his inspiration for meditation. But as he also noted in his book, baseball great Satchel Paige influenced him as well with his memorable and applicable comment of, "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits."
"I think the main thing I took from Phil was just to relax and clear your mind," said Barnes, who noted that those Lakers would meditate between three and four times per month with the lights turned off in the team's film room. "It was really just to sit back, relax, have good posture and just breath. Have some incense sometimes. Just silence. Just sit back and breath, and be in touch with your mind and your soul.
"I think guys bought in because of what (Jackson's) record showed. But I really don't think to force anything (is good), whether it's a religion or a point of view. Like I said, Phil's thing was never forced. I think guys bought in because of what his record showed."
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Mark Jackson's players say he doesn't force his beliefs on his players, and the togetherness that helped propel them to Game 7 against the Clippers was something that even their most ardent critics would have to acknowledge as real. Still, it's clearly not for everyone.
The one player who teammates said doesn't take part is center Andrew Bogut, whose disagreements with Jackson have gone public in the past. Bogut, who has not played in this series because of a fractured rib, declined an interview request for this story.
"Andrew respects it," said Warriors guard Klay Thompson, the son of former NBA player Mychal Thompson, who was raised in a Catholic household. "And we respect that (it's not for everyone). That's what I love about Coach Jackson is he doesn't force it on you. He doesn't force you to read scripture or anything like that. He'll just make references and respect your personal beliefs and your personal space, but he'll just drop some great knowledge on you."
Warriors forward Draymond Green, who is a Christian, said, "One thing about it is that we never shy away from making it known, because without (God) we are not who we are and we are not the team that we are and we all know that. We like to give him credit for what he's doing for this team."
Jackson has been a lightning rod on this topic, with his detractors alleging hypocrisy when it was revealed in 2012 that he was the victim of an extortion attempt related to an extra-marital affair that he had in 2006 with an ex-stripper. As he detailed in a statement at the time, he changed his ways soon after and began his ministry at the True Love Worship Center International in Van Nuys in 2009. Jackson, who keeps his home base in Southern California, occasionally gives the Sunday sermon during the season if the Warriors have a natural day off in their hectic schedule.
"I wasn't always who I am today," Jackson said. "I made mistakes, and I think (my players) respect the fact that I'm not trying to judge them. I'm just in the fire with them trying to make them better. I think (religion) is a sensitive subject, where I don't think people do it justice."
Jackson ran headlong into that sensitivity in late April 2013.
When Collins came out as the first openly gay player in the major North American professional sports, Jackson was asked how he saw the situation. He spoke highly of Collins and said he could play for the Warriors "if he had game" but also referenced his own "beliefs of what's right and wrong" and said he was "praying for (Collins) and his family." During what was a sensitive time, Jackson — whose team president, Rick Welts, was the first openly gay senior sports executive — was seen by some as insensitive.
Jackson welcomed the chance to discuss this topic, and was eager to clear up what he believes are misconceptions about his chosen methods. He cited the two buses on Easter Sunday as an example of how he always respects others beliefs, and said players who don't share his world view need not fear for their playing time or worry about their role on his team. But Jackson clearly sees his spirituality as a way to inspire his co-workers and gets excited when he speaks of having a positive influence on others.
"I look at is as bigger than just players, too," he said. "I've got coaches who coach differently today than they've been raised their whole life to coach. All they knew was cussing guys out and disrespecting them and challenging them and yelling and screaming. So it's bigger than 12 to 15 players. Some people will never get it. Some people want you to cuss them out. Some people think it's soft to not do that. I would say that my guys respect me more and run through a wall more than others because at the end of the day you're respected and treated like a man."
Jackson, whose coaching career began when he landed this job in June of 2011, said he has never had a player express concerns.
"I am who I am, so I think people make more of it than it is," he said. "I'm not coach, pastor, husband, father, son — when you see me, you see all. So I don't separate them. But I'm respectful to everybody."
As is Rivers, who simply chooses to go with a different style.
"If it's 75% (who believe one way), that's to me 25% that (don't)," Rivers said. "To me, if it's 95%, the 5% deserve the same treatment as everybody else. And I just think that's what we need to do. If it was church, then that's different. This is not church. This is our jobs. So our jobs come first, respect comes second, and I think that's the way it should be."
While there is no praying in his locker room to this day and he also forbids his team to take part in the postgame ritual in which some players from both teams would meet briefly on the court for a prayer, Rivers does lead a moment of silence before games. Clippers point guard Chris Paul and veteran guard Willie Green are the only consistent attendees at pregame chapel.
Rivers has taken his own tact when it comes to togetherness too, employing and embracing the philosophy of Ubuntu that was inspired by the late Nelson Mandela and encourages people to value community, selflessness and respect. It became a rallying cry for Rivers' Boston Celtics championship team in 2008, and has been emphasized — though to a lesser extent — with his Clippers as well.
"There's a spiritual connection with every team, and that can be religious or that can be Ubuntu or something like that," Rivers said. "(But) the religious part is individual. I don't think there's any God cheering for one team over another. I know that.
"But each individual who is spiritual needs that. It's what makes him. Like I said, I haven't been to church in how many years. The last time I've been to church is for funerals, for the most part. I pray every night before I go to bed. I get on my knees and I pray. I don't share that I pray with my team. I think it's very private, and it's individual, and I've made it a choice to keep it that way."
When Rivers changed his ways, he was unaware at the time that then-Magic center John Amaechi was gay. Amaechi came out in 2007, four years after retiring, and thus became the first openly gay former NBA player to do so.
At that moment, the most pressing issue locker room for Rivers was religion and this drastic change in how it was handled. Armstrong questioned Rivers' decision at first, and there were others who weren't happy too. But eventually, Rivers helped his players see his side and the sense behind his stance.
"They all saw what it was about," Rivers said. "I think Darrell asked me what was going on, and then he thought about it and the next day he came over and said, 'That's awesome. I hadn't thought of that.' And I hadn't either. It really opened my mind.
"You know, religion is good. It's a good thing. But it should be in its place. Everything has its place. Just because you can't show it publicly at times doesn't mean you're not that person, and that's the way I looked at it."