Half-naked dancers and public prayers in Oklahoma City

Half-naked dancers and public prayers in Oklahoma City March 1, 2014

“Gonna wear my Thunderwear in Times Square.”

My friend Randy Roper, the preaching minister for my home congregation in Oklahoma, came up with that winning slogan in a 2009 contest sponsored by the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a result, Roper earned a free trip to New York for the NBA Draft Lottery. (That was, of course, before the Thunder emerged as one of the league’s top teams.)

At least once a season since then, the Thunder have asked Roper to lead the public prayer that precedes each home game.

I thought of my friend when I read a New York Times sports feature this week headlined “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” The top of the 2,000-word story by NBA writer Andrew Keh:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Before the plumes of smoke and the shimmering pyrotechnics and the two dozen or so dancers gyrating in microscopic shorts and the hip-hop and the hairy mascot on stilts and the sponsorships — “Tonight’s free throws are brought to you by Hooters!” — there is prayer.

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the N.B.A.’s Oklahoma City Thunder, so fully incorporates the complete assortment of flashy sports entertainment tropes that the building has been called Loud City.

But amid the cacophony here, there is one significant difference: preceding each game is a stadiumwide prayer of invocation that on most nights briefly turns a raucous sports event into something resembling a megachurch gathering.

“We feel people’s faith is important to them,” said Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president for corporate communications and community relations, who noted that the prayers are nondenominational and that those offering them have ranged from Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy to Jewish rabbis to Native American spiritual leaders. “Gathering to support our team, we feel it’s appropriate to build in a time of reflection.”

Actually, I think Keh’s lede nails it.

I’m in the minority in Oklahoma City in that I have not become a devoted Thunder fan. My allegiance remains with baseball and my beloved Texas Rangers, three hours south of the Sooner State’s capital city. But I attend a Thunder game or two a year — usually when I can find a cheap seat up high.

And I can attest to the irony that the Times writer captures: a spiritual leader asking for God’s blessings followed by half-naked dancers gyrating all over the big screen, as this father does his best not to blush with his teenage son and daughter standing on each side of him.

But back to the journalism: Keh does an excellent job of explaining the history behind Oklahoma City’s prayer. In addition, he puts the tradition into the larger context of both the community and the NBA and sports world:

What would likely feel a little out of place in numerous American sports arenas comes across as essentially normal in Oklahoma, where 72.6 percent of the population identifies as Protestant and only 19.8 consider themselves nonreligious, according to a Gallup poll released this year. And if there are those in the city who express unease about the practice, they tend to acknowledge that they possess a minority view.

Moreover, the Times provides specifics on the nature of the prayers:

The invocation precedes the national anthem at Thunder home games. The lights are turned off, and the arena goes still. Those who deliver one are asked to keep it under 30 seconds and to make sure it is nondenominational, leaving out words like “Jesus” that might be deemed exclusive. The organization requests drafts of every invocation and reviews them, and it may ask the speaker to insert some relevant topic into the prayer.

Roper confirmed Keh’s account in an email to me:

Yes, they give the invocation leaders a few basic guidelines: non-denominational language, 15-20 seconds in length and “tasteful and of good moral standard.” Leaders must submit their written invocation for approval beforehand. To me, the Thunder invocation speaks to the way the Thunder organization values and reflects its community. Btw, one time after I led the prayer and was walking off the court, Coach Greg Popovich (San Antonio) patted me on the back and said, “Good job!” 🙂

One last thing: If anybody from the Thunder happens to be reading this, my preacher friend wants you to know that he’s ready and available to serve as team chaplain.

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