About that prophetic USA Today story grilling Mark Jackson

YouTube Preview Image

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.

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

Why it’s no surprise the LA Clippers have a Jewish owner

A long, long time ago — pre-Internet for me — I wrote an “On Religion” column about Rabbi Robert Alper, who was billing himself in the early 1990s as the nation’s only rabbi who was “doing stand-up comedy — intentionally.”

You can’t talk to a funny rabbi without digging into a question that, for some people, remains somewhat touchy: Why do Jews dominate the landscape of American humor? Some of the possible answers to that question are, in fact, fine examples of the kinds of jokes that Jews can tell about each other, while those same jokes would be offensive and out of bounds if told by the goyim.

I have thought of that complicated equation several times during recent weeks while — as a hoops fan — watching the tidal wave of mainstream media coverage of the complicated personal and professional affairs of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Several GetReligion readers have sent me notes asking, either directly or indirectly, when this blog was going to ask why more journalists were not exploring the fact that Sterling is, to one degree or another, Jewish.

This raises another question: To what degree is Sterling a secular, cultural, Jew as opposed to being a person who is actively practicing some form of the Jewish faith? Ask that question and others come tumbling along in its wake: Does it matter whether or not he is Jew (secular or religious)? Why is that relevant to his life as a businessman? Why connect that question with his muddy past on matters of business, sports and race?

I would imagine that these were the questions being debated, by Jews and non-Jews, in many major American newsrooms. However, I didn’t see these questions make it into print in the mainstream press. Let me state right up front: I have no idea how to answer any of those questions because I know little or nothing about Sterling’s life and work. Period. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

However, I am glad that the team at The Jewish Daily Forward decided to tackle (mixed metaphor alert) this subject in a very constructive and newsy manner. It sort of makes you wonder why we didn’t see this angle elsewhere. If, say, The Los Angeles Times team DID write this angle and I missed it, please let me know.

Here’s the top of that story which is provocative, to say the least:

It will be hard to find Jews on the court in the National Basketball Association playoffs. But toss a basketball into an NBA owners’ meeting, and you’ll probably hit one.

There are only three Jewish players in the NBA, and no Jewish head coaches. Yet nearly half the principal owners of NBA teams are Jewish, as are the league’s current commissioner and its immediate past commissioner.

No other major pro league in the United States has such a high proportion of Jewish owners. The NFL comes closest: Roughly a third of that league’s owners are Jewish. Just a handful of pro baseball and hockey owners are Jews.

OK, you know that a big question is coming. Right?

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

NBA MVP Kevin Durant thanks God, but media fail to notice

YouTube Preview Image

I am not a big NBA fan, although I did attend Monday night’s Oklahoma City Thunder playoff game, thanks to my 16-year-old son Keaton, who bought me a ticket.

I am becoming a big Kevin Durant fan.

It’s hard to witness Durant’s rare combination of extreme talent and uncommon humility and not be impressed. The latest example came Tuesday when a teary-eyed Durant won his first NBA Most Valuable Player Award and — in a speech for the sports ages — deflected the attention from himself.

Some of the Twitter reactions from my friends:

My own reaction:

And yes, one friend made a specific request for this GetReligion critique:

My friend obviously noticed that Durant began — and ended — his speech by thanking God:

First off, I’d like to thank God for changing my life. (He) let me realize really what life is all about. Basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people, and I realize that.

At the end:

I’d just like to thank God again. You’re the first and the last. Alpha and Omega. I thank you for saving my life.

In between, Durant made a third reference to God when talking about Tony Weaver, the Thunder’s vice president and assistant general manager:

God directed our paths to work together, and it’s been everything and more.

Also in the speech:

Dad, it’s been an up-and-down road for all of us, but you’ve always been there supporting from afar, texting me Bible verses every single day. Telling me you love me every single day. That builds me up, and I thank you so much.

So God made Durant’s speech, but did God make the media reports on the speech? Not so much.

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

Getting faith into SI story of patient D-League hoops star

Once again, I realize that the world of GetReligion readers seems to contain a stunningly low percentage of sports fans, especially in comparison with the American public as a whole. Nevertheless, I follow sports quite closely and I have always been fascinated by the unusually high percentage of sports stories that include faith angles.

Most of the time — take the whole Baltimore Sun ignoring Ravens religion-angles thrend — my GetReligion posts on sports have been rather negative. You know the kind of story I’m talking about. A sports star plays the God card or offers a highly specific comment about the role of faith in his or her life and a journalists never looks into the details or offers any context for these words.

The negative tone is so common, in fact, that people drop me notes from time to time wanting to know if anyone covering sports ever gets one of these stories right. Well, remember that amazing Sports Illustrated story about the great UCLA hoops patriarch John Wooden and the challenge he faced, and met, learning to embrace the great center Lew Alcindor as he made his pilgrimage into Islam and became Kareem Abdul Jabbar?

Well, now a member of the SI staff — one Lee Jenkins — has provided another wonderful example of getting the faith-angle right. This time around, we’re talking about a back-of-the-book feature about a player who is just as obscure as Jabbar is famous. The man’s name is Ron Howard of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Mad Ants franchise in the NBA’s Development League and he recently broke the career scoring record for a player in this minor-league circuit.

As Jenkins states it (heads of fans up great sports flicks):

On March 29, Howard sank yet another pull-up from the left wing at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The game stopped. The crowd of 4,024 stood for three minutes. Fans sobbed. Joyner ran to the parking lot and fetched the carrot cake with cream-cheese icing, cooling in her car. Howard’s 4,254th point set a D-League record, recalling Crash Davis’s 247th home run. “A dubious kind of honor,” Crash says in the bush league classic Bull Durham. “I think it’d be great,” Annie Savoy replies. “The Sporting News should know.”

Like Crash Davis, Howard has been to the Show, if only for a sip of coffee. After his first year in Fort Wayne he signed with the Bucks and played in the preseason. When they released him, coach Scott Skiles said, “You’re good enough for the NBA.” Since then the D-League has reported 235 call-ups, but none for Howard.

Now, as it turns out, that carrot cake and the fan named Cindy Joyner are in the story’s short, lovely lede — which offers the first hint at the religion angle in this piece:

The night he made history, Mr. Mad Ant drove back to the seminary and ate carrot cake.

The dessert was a gift from Cindy Joyner, who bought season tickets seven years ago, when the NBA’s Development League awarded an expansion franchise to her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. The team was dubbed the Mad Ants after the city’s namesake, Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne, and there were open tryouts to fill the roster. More than 120 hoop dreamers showed up at Indiana Tech in October 2007, paying $150 a head. Ron Howard, an unemployed 24-year-old living in a Chicago apartment with his wife and daughter, was an hour late.

“Who arrives an hour late?” recalls Howard, confused by the time change between Chicago and Fort Wayne. “I was too embarrassed to go in.”

Back to the seminary?

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

Final Four ghosts in long story on Kentucky’s Julius Randle

YouTube Preview Image

While in Arlington, Texas, on Monday for my beloved Rangers’ season opener at the newly named Globe Life Park, I noticed a big banner outside the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium next door.

Apparently, Jerry Jones’ gigantic shrine to losing football is hosting some sort of college basketball tournament this weekend. If I understand correctly, it’s called the NCAA Men’s Final Four and involves a malady known as “March Madness.”  Hopefully, there’s a cure, but everyone involved probably would appreciate our prayers.

Speaking of the aforementioned tournament, The Dallas Morning News has a big profile — 2,000-plus words — out today on one of the teams’ players. Julius Randle, who played high school hoops in Texas, is a big star for the Kentucky Wildcats and, it seems, could win a lottery ticket from the NBA. (I’m not endorsing gambling. I’m just reporting what I read.)

In all seriousness, there’s a lot to recommend about the Morning News’ profile, headlined “How a Dallas billionaire helped Plano’s Julius Randle become Kentucky’s biggest star.” On one level, the writer does an excellent job of digging below the surface and helping readers understand the unique path that Randle has taken to tonight’s big stage:

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Visibly drained, Julius Randle ambled into Kentucky’s $30 million basketball facility. Reporters awaited. Randle knew the drill.

Towering above his inquisitors, he leaned his 6-9, 250-pound frame against a wall, the one facing eight national championship banners. It
was a surreal contrast from his very first interview, with his hometown Dallas Morning News.

Back then he was 6 foot, 145 pounds. He was 11.

“Yeah, I remember,” he said with a soft laugh.

On Saturday night, the local kid will re-emerge in North Texas as a 19-year-old man in the grandest possible basketball homecoming, with Kentucky facing Wisconsin in the Final Four semifinals before an expected crowd of 80,000 at AT&T Stadium.

A national TV audience no doubt will be reminded that Randle is the only locally produced player among a Final Four of out-of-state teams, having led Plano Prestonwood Christian to three TAPPS state titles, the most recent in March 2013.

Later that month, having already signed with Kentucky, he attended the South Regional at AT&T Stadium, watched Michigan beat Florida to make the Final Four and visualized himself playing in the vast stadium this year.

But as I read the otherwise compelling piece, I found myself frustrated by the religion ghosts (if you have no clue what a religion ghost is, check out GetReligion’s primer on “Why We’re Here”).

In keeping with the theme, I’ll rank my Final Four ghosts:

No. 4 seed:  Mention of Plano Prestonwood Christian.

Yes, it’s entirely possible that an extremely talented basketball player would be recruited to play at a Christian school and that there would be no real religion angle. But Randle’s association with a school that’s a ministry of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch, made me wonder.

A quick Google search might even turn up this Baptist Press headline:

Randle takes ‘solid’ faith into Final Four

– No. 3 seed: Mention of billionaire Kenny Troutt’s vision going beyond basketball:

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

Another vague WPost story on Stephen Strasburg’s soul

Once again, spring has arrived here in the land of the two Beltways — after snow showers yesterday, if you can imagine that — and it is time for baseball.

One of the realities of sports journalism is that, year after year, the newspapers that cover professional teams have to find some kind of hook that justifies a feature story on each of the local superstars. This is not easy work. Think of it as the sports equivalent of the annual challenge faced by religion-news reporters who are asked to find fresh, valid angles for news reports linked to Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, Easter, etc.

Yes, we can also assume that for many people baseball is a religion in and of itself (Cue: Annie Savoy).

Thus, the team at The Washington Post is required by the unwritten laws of journalism to produce an annual feature story about pitcher Stephen Strasburg until he fades, is traded or pops his elbow again. From the very beginning these stories have been haunted by a religion ghost, as shown in this passage from his first year, when he was the most analyzed rookie in baseball:

While the Nationals might wish he were more PR-savvy, in other ways he is exactly what you would want in a future superstar. His humility earns him universal praise from those around him. In his postgame news conferences, he speaks passionately about the team and the game’s outcome.

He is deeply religious without being public about it. He’s a devoted husband and a homebody.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find out that people are still asking what that means. What about his name? Is he Jewish? It appears not. A Mormon publication once wrote about him. Is he a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Good luck researching that. Is he just vaguely “spiritual” or what?

The key, apparently, is that Strasburg does not appear to be Tim Tebow religious, which is what really matters to public-relations pros who work for major-league teams.

Anyway, this brings us to this year’s obligatory Post profile of the superstar. The headline certainly hints at subjects beyond the pitcher’s mound:

Stephen Strasburg takes new approach, perspective into Nationals’ 2014 season

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

Just another generic do-gooder on a Baltimore pro team

At this point, I have just about decided that the editors of The Baltimore Sun sports section have banned the use of the word “Christian” in stories about local and national athletes. Several times a year (for an imperfect survey, click here), the newspaper that lands in my front door prints a sports story that, from beginning to end, is full of religious themes, yet stops short of printing a few crucial facts.

Consider, for example, this profile of Jemile Weeks, who is competing for a second-base slot in the Baltimore Orioles line-up. This is very ordinary sports-page stuff, although it is pretty obvious what Weeks is from a rather unusual family (and I’m not talking about the fact that his big brother is the better known pro Rickie Weeks).

The X-factor in his family? The only word that leaps to mind is “ministry.” Note the hook at the end of the opening anecdote.

In early December, Jemile Weeks’ baseball career was thrown upside down. He was traded away from the only organization he had ever known, the Oakland Athletics, and sent to the Orioles for one of the franchise’s most popular players, closer Jim Johnson, in what was immediately deemed a salary dump.

Although the 27-year-old second baseman viewed it as a new opportunity, the external pressure was once again descending on Weeks, a 2008 first-rounder who grew up playing in, and around, the shadow of his All-Star big brother, Rickie.

But Weeks didn’t have time to get caught up in the hoopla; he was too busy trying to figure out how to feed 1,000 people and how he could borrow a bounce house or two.

Feeding the 1,000? What is that all about? As it turns out, the event is linked to a charity near his old stomping grounds in Orlanda, Fla.

Spot the key word in this summary of the roots of this project:

A month before the deal, his offseason schedule got particularly complicated when he announced at a periodic family meeting — yes, two pro ballplayers and a community-relations professional sister still have occasional family meetings with their parents — that he wanted to host a community event for charity near where he grew up in Orlando, Fla. Never mind that Weeks had never attempted such an event or that Christmas was a month away. That was what he wanted to do. And so it was going to happen.

“With my own hands, I reached out to people I know and my sister did, along with my mom’s church,” Weeks said. “I just phoned friends. I got the bounce houses and the food, pizzas and ice cream, and asked for live performances from people I knew.”

Simple as that.

Now what, precisely, does the phrase “my mom’s church” mean? Also, what does it mean — a few lines later — when the story notes that the event featured the work of an “inspirational rapper”?

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

What can we make of the prayers of Oscar Pistorius?

When it comes to famous Bible passages, even those favored by athletes, 1 Corinthians 9: 26-27 will not appear near the top of many lists:

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

Nevertheless, anyone who pays close attention to the left shoulder of runner Oscar Pistorius will be able to see most of that verse in a tattoo that juts out from underneath his sleeveless running jersey.

Why is it there?

I have no idea. I also have no clue as to the nature or seriousness of this controversial man’s faith after reading the following Agence France?Presse report about an emotional day in his tabloid-friendly “blade runner” murder trial in Pretoria. Here’s the top of that:

Pretoria (AFP) – A weeping Oscar Pistorius shielded his ears as a witness in his murder trial on Thursday gave harrowing evidence about desperate attempts to save Reeva Steenkamp’s life after she was shot.

Rocking back and forth in the dock, Pistorius put his hands over his ears as neighbour and radiologist Johan Stipp recounted how he entered his house to find the distraught Paralympian bent over, attempting to resuscitate his girlfriend.

Stipp noticed a wound on Steenkamp’s right thigh, right upper arm, and “blood and hair and what looked like brain tissue intermingled with that” on top of the skull.

So what does religion have to do with this scene? Stripp’s graphic testimony included the following:

[Read more...]

Print Friendly


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X