About that prophetic USA Today story grilling Mark Jackson

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It’s time for a quick trip into my very large folder of GetReligion guilt, that place where I put stories that I think deserve attention — once I get done with the news of the day. And then a day turns into a week and then a week into two weeks and so forth and so on.

So let’s flash back to the recent NBA series between the Los Angeles Clippers and coach Doc Rivers and the Golden State Warriors and their coach, The Rev. Mark Jackson. Yes, “the Rev.” That series led to a very interesting, some would say prophetic, USA Today story about a quiet, behind the scenes controversy in professional basketball. Here’s the top of the story:

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 … told USA TODAY Sports.

Rivers made the decision, with a Muslim believer on his team, to shut down the prayers, saying that his players should keep their religious devotions private. The very next paragraph was what caught my attention.

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.

Now, no matter how you look at it, that’s a very interesting paragraph full of mixed signals. Why has this strong believer stopped going to church? What was the big idea that the USA Today team was trying to communicate? And what did this have to do with the Golden State series?

Well maybe this is the connection:

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.

Now, both of these teams include players with very high profiles as Christian believers. That’s not the issue here. The very first time I read this story I wondered if there was some bigger religion-linked issue that the USA Today team was trying to address, if only by circling around and around it without being specific.

The story does a fine job of giving background on Jackson and Rivers, but it gradually become rather obvious that (a) Jackson is the focus of this story, (b) he is now considered controversial and (c) that, yes, there was a larger subject looming in the background during the reporting.

The bottom line: Jackson was on trial in this piece. You can see that in passages such as this one:

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.”

The story also deals with the fact that Jackson’s faith grew out of pain. In 2012, “it was revealed” that “he was the victim of an extortion attempt related to an extra-marital affair that he had in 2006 with an ex-stripper.” Jackson noted that this was when his life turned around and his ministry work at True Love Worship Center International in Van Nuys, Calif., began several years after that.

So was that event the news hook for this story? No. Finally, way, way, way down in the piece there is this:

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.

The key words, of course, are “was seen by some.” That’s a major-league passive attribution.

The key is that, in this story, Rivers is a heroic figure of change and Jackson is a controversial person. The story ends with a final quote from Rivers that repeats the message of this sports-page sermon:

“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.”

The timing of this massive, and quite remarkable, feature was extremely interesting. Especially in light of the headlines days latter — when Jackson was fired by team management, after improving his team’s record in each of his years as head coach.

Looking back, one has to wonder: Was this USA Today story a feature about religion in the NBA or was it — rooted in tips from sources inside Warrior management (“was seen by some”) — an advance story on the impending dismissal of Jackson because of his controversial Christian beliefs?

Don’t get me wrong. This was a valid story, about an important topic. But the timing was really, really, really interesting.

YOUTUBE: Listen carefully. Lots going on in this Inside the NBA conversation.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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