Before each of the many NBA games played over the course of the season, one unique pre-game ritual that's little-known among fans is shared: a joint chapel service.
Faith has played a remarkable role in the lives of players of every sport, but the NBA's pre-game chapel sets the league apart. In professional hockey, football and baseball, players often pray by themselves or with their own teams before games. The NBA's pre-game chapel, however, has opponents attend a voluntary prayer service together before competing. The ritual is about to celebrate its 34th year.
"The league is pretty special in this regard," said Mike Yorkey, a former Christian magazine editor and author of Linspired: The Remarkable Rise of Jeremy Lin who has written extensively on religion in the NBA. "About 45 minutes before the game, players from both teams are invited to meet with the hometown chaplain for a service that lasts about 15 minutes. The chaplains will either share a little message or read some scripture and sometimes they will encourage the guys to ask and take prayer requests." On occasion, the players also sing a capella.
(As in most professional sports, each NBA team has its own chaplain, some of whom follow teams on the road and others who are only around for home games.)
The sermon topics are often about overcoming challenges in life as related to a message in the Bible, said Yorkey, "but the basic goal is to equip the players to live lives that glorify God and to encourage them to remain strong in the face of temptation."
"Then they separate from each other, warm up, shoot out and eventually start the game. Here are players sitting next to each other, sharing intimate prayer requests before they go and beat each other up on the basketball floor," he added.
According to experts who study religion in athletics, the role of faith in the NBA differentiates it from other professional sports. NBA players are known for their public professions of faith; the Houston Rockets' Lin, for example, is an evangelical Christian.
"The whole league is just fascinating to me -- everything they do pre-game to during the to game off the court," said Daniel Czech, a professor of sports psychology at Georgia Southern University. Czech studies the role of faith in sports and also counsels players -- he's currently working with three -- via phone about their spiritual and mental health as they work through seasons.
"It is almost like a male soap opera if you follow it -- the story lines, the coach interaction, the team turmoil, the team chemistry, and this idea of praying together for one another, even though you want the other to lose very badly," Czech said.
The first NBA pregame chapel was held in February 1979. That year, Philadelphia 76er and forward Bobby Jones asked general manager Pat Williams to get a chapel service together for players. Williams, who knew faith helped motivate Jones on the court, organized a pregame chapel during the team's next home game.
In interviews, Czech has found that players often don't pray for their own success. "They don't really talk about praying to win," he said. "A lot of times it's more of a thankful prayer, a prayer to play to the best of their ability, a prayer to not get injured."
In his book, Yorkey documents a recent pregame chapel that Lin, then a player with the New York Knicks, attended before a January 2011 game against the Miami Heat. It was Jan. 27, just before Lin's popularity began to skyrocket and just over a week before the Knicks had to decide whether to keep him on the team and on contract for the rest of the season. Only a handful of players from both teams were at the service, including the Heat's Udonis Haslem.
"Lin had been sent to the D-League -- Development League [minor league] -- recently and wasn't in a great position," explained Yorkey.
The chaplain gave a short sermon and asked if there were prayer requests. Lin put up his hand. "That I not get cut again," he said.
A week later, Lin posted 25 points against the New Jersey Nets, touching off a phenomenon that would be known as "Linsanity."
For the time being, said Yorkey, "God answered that prayer."
Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis
Lewis has been voted to 13 Pro Bowls and was named the Most Valuable Player following the Ravens' 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in the 2001 Super Bowl. Known for his ferocious hits, Lewis has matured into one of the league's greatest leaders, providing guidance to teammates both on the field and in their private lives. He says he learned leadership through Christ's teachings, which emphasize the importance of servitude. One of his favorite scriptures is Mark 9:35. "Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, 'Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.''' Asked to describe the tenants of his leadership, Lewis said: master your craft, help others get better, spread the Word of God and live genuinely so others will know your words are true. Photo: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis reacts as he is introduced before an NFL preseason football game against the Detroit Lions in Baltimore, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
New York Jets Quarterback Tim Tebow
Tebow, the son of missionaries, played for the University of Florida and won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 as the best college football player in America. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos and became a lightning rod for both fans and critics when he began kneeling on the field to pray after scoring touchdowns, and praising God during post-game press conferences. "If you're married and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife 'I love you' the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and every opportunity?''' he said in an ESPN interview. "And that's how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ is that it is the most important thing in my life. So anytime I get an opportunity to tell Him that I love Him or am given an opportunity to shout Him out on national TV, I'm gonna take that opportunity.'' After Tebow came off the bench last season to lead the 1-4 Broncos to a 7-4 finish and their first postseason in six years, he was traded to the New York Jets when the Broncos signed four-time NFL Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning to a free agent contract. Photo: New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow throws a pass against the New York Giants during the second half of a preseason NFL football game on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Arizona Cardinals Kicker Jay Feely
Feely and his wife Rebecca are among the most devout Christians in the NFL. They have held Bible studies at their home, mentored younger teammates and volunteered in their community throughout his career. Feely, now in his 13th season after playing for the Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, says a prayer before each kick. The veteran said once he's lined up his kick, he takes a short moment to be with God and remind himself of the strength and confidence the Lord gives him every day of his life. One scripture he would whisper to himself was from the disciple Paul in Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.'' Photo: Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely (3) boots a 49-yard field goal against the Tennessee Titans as Dave Zastudil (9) holds in the second quarter of an NFL football preseason game on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Joe Howell)
Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve, but his belief in Christ is as strong as any player in the NFL. A two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, Rodgers was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLV in February of 2011 after leading the Green Bay Packers to a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last season was perhaps the best of his career as he passed for a personal best 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns in guiding the Packers to a 15-1 regular season record. He was named the league's Most Valuable Player. "I've always lived by the philosophy of the words spoken by St. Francis of Assisi who said, 'Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.' I feel like you can always have a greater impact by the things you do than the things you say, so living out my faith has been primarily in that form,'' Rodgers said in Men of Sunday. "I think it helps to have a pretty good knowledge of the way that Jesus spoke and taught and interacted with people in the New Testament. He cared about people, He spent time with people, He cared about relationships, and that's kind of my leadership style." Photo: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) scores a touchdown on a 12-yard run, in front ofCincinnati Bengals cornerback Nate Clements during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Grieshop)
New York Giants Defensive End Justin Tuck
Justin Tuck, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end and two-time Super Bowl champion has the respect of his fellow teammates both for his hard-charging style of play on the field and his faith in Christ. In Men of Sunday, Tuck spoke about the temptations that come with playing in the NFL, especially women, that often prove challenging to his teammates. Now married and the father of a one-year-old, Tuck cautions younger teammates that when women offer themselves at camp or at a club: "It's probably not because you are handsome. They want to get pregnant.'' Tuck said he had sex before marriage and one of the greatest regrets of his life is that he didn't save himself for his wife. "To this day I wish I could take it back,'' he said. "Just knowing that I could have saved myself for her, and there would have been nothing impure about it ... I wish I could go back.'' Photo: New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, center, runs with teammates during a physical evaluation on opening day of NFL football training camp in Albany, N.Y., Thursday, July 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Tennessee Titans Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck
Matt Hasselbeck's best year came in 2005 when he was playing for the Seattle Seahawks. He passed for 3,459 yards and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions and completed 65.5 percent of his passes. The team started slow (2-2) but between running back Shaun Alexander's MVP season (1,880 rushing yards), and Hasselbeck's accurate passing, they finished 13-3 and advanced to the Super Bowl -- losing 21-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that wasn't decided until late in the contest. So many things had gone right leading up to the championship that Hasselbeck was beginning to wonder if a Super Bowl title was destined; that it might have been in God's plan for his life. The Seahawks trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter but had driven inside the Steelers' 30-yard line when Hasselbeck lofted a pass too far and it was intercepted. The Steelers scored on a gadget play moments later to put the game out of reach. Hasselbeck said it can be difficult to understand God's plan for your life, and that's when it is most important to have faith. He recites Jeremiah 29:11. "For I know the plans I have for you'' declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'' Photo: Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck stands on the sideline after he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown by the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football preseason game, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Philadelphia Eagles Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe
Oshiomogho Atogwe signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles this past off-season after playing 13 games at free safety for the Washington Redskins in 2011. A man of deep personal convictions, Atogwe said he knew about Jesus and understood the basic Christian holidays when he was growing up, but it wasn't until he was a freshman at Stanford that he came to know Christ. He joined a group called Cardinal Life, a Christian athlete ministry for all the sports teams at Stanford, and through their activities he saw that there was a better way to live. Atogwe, the son-in-law of former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary, is also known for delivering some hard hits. When asked whether there was a conflict in aspiring to be a good Christian and the violence inherent in the game of football, he said there wasn't. "As long as I'm playing by the rules I'm governed by, then God will be pleased by me. As long as I'm hitting them where I'm allowed to hit them, it's fair game. Everybody agreed to the rules. If he is hurt, you pray for him. "He's in God's hands. You don't want to seriously harm anybody. I don't' believe that is in the heart of a Christian. We are here to love each other and build them up. God wouldn't be OK with me trying to hurt someone because we are putting the sport above the lives of the people He created. "But He has called us to play this game 100 percent without fear or hesitation to His glory, and as long as we do that within the rules, I believe that in His eyes He is pleased with what we are doing." Photo: Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Marvin McNutt (83) battles safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (43) in a special teams drill during the teams NFL football training camp at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa, Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu is a seven-time Pro Bowl safety who ranks among the hardest hitters in the league. Always around the ball, this Steelers playmaker is also one of the league's most religious players. Polamalu is an Orthodox Christian. Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the early Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054. Polamalu, who came from a Catholic and Protestant background, and his wife Theodora, who came from a Muslim and Protestant background, converted to Orthodoxy in 2007. Very soft spoken off the field, Polamalu is known as a person who takes his beliefs seriously. He keeps a book nearby called ``Counsels From the Holy Mountain'' which contains letters and homilies from a monk, Elder Ephraim, who the player has described as his spiritual father, according to The New York Times. And he's gone on pilgrimages to Mount Athos in Greece. He told the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette earlier this year: "Orthodoxy is like an abyss of beauty that's just endless. I have read the Bible many times. But after fasting, and being baptized Orthodox, it's like reading a whole new Bible. You see the depth behind the words so much more clearly." Photo: This Dec. 8, 2011 file photo shows Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu on the bench during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Minnesota Vikings Defensive Back Husain Abdullah
Abdullah, a devout Muslim, gained notoriety in 2009 when it was reported that he was fasting during training camp to observe the Holy Month of Ramadan. He showed his teammates that he could practice his faith, without asking for special favors or being an imposition to his team. Abdullah would eat a big breakfast before sunrise, have a big dinner after sunset and wake-up in the middle of the night to have a protein shake to get his calorie count up for the day. Earlier this year, Husain, and his brother, Hamza (formerly of the Arizona Cardinals) both free agents, announced they were going to sit out the 2012 NFL season to perform hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia this fall. In the meantime, they are traveling around the United States speaking at mosques and doing charity work. Photo: Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings, left, is tackled by Minnesota Vikings safety Husain Abdullah during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Cleveland Browns Punter Reggie Hodges
Reggie Hodges has played for five teams in five NFL seasons. When he was between jobs, he sold copiers and cars to feed his family, and wondered if he wanted to continue playing football. After a strong start in last year's training camp, Hodges tore his Achilles tendon and lay twisting in pain on the ground. In that moment, the team did something special and unexpected. Rather than move to an adjacent practice field until trainers could remove the injured player as is usually the case, both the players and coaches stood around in support, and after he was carted off, they gathered to say a prayer. "Reggie has this infectious enthusiasm about Christ in a way that doesn't put people off,'' Browns Chaplain Tom Petersburg said. "A lot of people disagree with him. Some have responded, others ignore him, but they all respect him so much because he's genuine, the real thing. And that's why that happened on the field that day." Photo: Punter Reggie Hodges #2 of the Cleveland Browns runs for 68 yards on a fake punt during the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome on October 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid
Andy Reid is one of the winningest football coaches in NFL history, having guided the Eagles to five NFC championships, one Super Bowl and a 136-90-1 overall record including playoffs. The former Brigham Young University offensive lineman prays daily, attends chapel and used to travel around the community with his wife Tammy speaking to groups about his faith. Reid has five children. Two of his sons became drug abusers and one, Garrett, 29, died suddenly while working for the Eagles during this year's training camp. Reid implied drugs were involved, but toxicology reports hadn't been made public at the time of this writing. "A lot of the things you go through in life, and how you pull through them, come down to what sort of foundation you've built and that you can fall back on," Reid said in Men of Sunday. "Our faith is that foundation, and it dictates a lot about how we've handled things both in the good times and the bad. Is life going to be perfect? No. Is football going to be perfect? No. Is your faith going to be perfect? Well, the heavenly Father's plan is perfect, but we've all got our weaknesses trying to follow that plan. "So you need something to fall back on, a structure in your life with some rules and guidance. That's why I think it's great for players to be exposed to faith through their peers, as long as it's not forced on them. Not everyone is a believer." Photo: Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, left, greets Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, in Philadelphia. The Eagles won 24-23. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Buffalo Bills Coach Chan Gailey
Chan Gailey has had a stellar coaching career. He coached the Dallas Cowboys to two playoff appearances, coached on Super Bowl teams in Denver (XXI, XXII, XXIV) and Pittsburgh (XXX), returned to college and became the first person in school history to coach Georgia Tech to bowl games in his first six seasons, and now he's back in the pros for his third season with the rebuilding Buffalo Bills. Through all the highs and lows in Gailey's career, the former University of Florida quarterback maintained an even temperament that he says was based on his faith in the Lord and the teachings of Jesus Christ. "God is in control of the big picture," Gailey said. "Your responsibility is to take the talent and ability you have been given and do the best you can with them each and every time you walk out there on the field. That's it. That's all you're responsible for. Having that faith really helps guys through the ups and downs. "I pray that I will honor God with my life. That's what I pray for. I want His wisdom and His strength and His power and His discernment to filter through me, and if you have a close enough walk with Him, it will. "Sometimes I mess it up, but He doesn't. And I just pray that I would honor Him with my life, and the only way you honor Him is you listen to His Word only, you obey His Word only, and you look for approval from Him only, and if I can do that on a daily basis, then I think I have a chance to make quality decisions for everybody involved." Photo: Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey talks with an official during the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a preseason NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)
Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis
Marvin Lewis has managed the Bengals to the playoffs twice in the past three years and believes this year's squad is ready to build on last season's 9-7 finish that landed them in the postseason. Always a regular at chapel, Lewis says one of the highlights to his busy week is his one-on-one session with the team chaplain and potluck dinners the team sometimes schedules around a Bible study. The 2009 NFL Coach of the Year said he thinks everyone should be exposed to faith at least once in their lives if only to demystify the experience and let them see the benefits of believing in something bigger than themselves. "I'll basically mandate that everyone goes to chapel at least once because I want them to have the experience of it," he said. "I'm not going to force my beliefs on them, but it's important for them to know it's not a bad thing; it's a good thing. Then I'll leave it alone. They can't feel pressured. We want the environment to be comfortable to them, but not overbearing. They have a choice." Photo: Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis instructs cornerback Brandon Ghee (21) during the NFL football team's practice, Sunday, July 29, 2012, at training camp in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Minnesota Vikings Assistant Coach Mike Singletary
Former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary was a made-for-TV star of the 1980s. Leaning forward in his stance, his big, saucer eyes bulging behind his facemask with intensity, Singletary looked like a man with bad intentions. What a lot of people didn't understand about the Hall of Famer linebacker is that his love for football came a distant second to his love of the Lord. He was so committed to his faith, that he sometimes went to extremes to avoid sin; something he now wishes he would have handled differently. "The only thing I regret is that I was so black and white," he said. "I wouldn't go anywhere with anybody. 'I'm not going to the bar with you. I'm not going to the show with you. I'm not going to see this or that.' You know, there was a difference in me, but it was more pride than love. "What I do now is I'll go out with a couple of coaches. If they order a beer, that's fine. I'll order a sparkling water. And let them talk about whatever subject they want. We can sit there and talk. But I want them to know that I love them and that I'll do anything for them. I'll meet them halfway, just so long as I don't cross the line where I'm overstepping my bounds with the Lord. The Holy Spirit will guide me with that." Photo: Minnesota Vikings linebackers coach Mike Singletary, front left, demonstrates a drill during NFL football training camp Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, in Mankato, Minn. Players, from left, are Ross Homan, Heath Farwell, Kenny Onatolu and Chad Greenway. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
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