How Tariq Abdul-Wahad changed Doc Rivers as a coach

Former NBA player Tariq Abdul-Wahad

Former NBA player Tariq Abdul-Wahad

In an article for USA TODAY titled “For NBA teams, religion can be unifying or divisive,” author Sam Amick explores the dynamics of faith in pro basketball, primarily through the stories of L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers and (since fired) Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson.

The opening vignette has Rivers recalling the moment in 1999 when he was forced to rethink the idea of holding a team prayer, leading to a powerful exchange with Muslim shooting guard Tariq Abdul-Wahad, who was playing for Rivers on the Orlando Magic. Abdul-Wahad played for four teams in six seasons in the league — and just half-a-season with Orlando — and during his career was less known for his religion and more known for being the first NBA player to hail from France.

As his players took part in the pregame prayer that was part of their routine, 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 said. “So the next game, we were standing up in a circle, and I said, ‘Hey guys, we’re no longer praying.'”

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.'”

By focusing primarily on Rivers and his very openly Christian rival Jackson, the rest of the article does not mention Islam or any other Muslim players.

Another thing that stood out to me was the description of the formal (nondenominational) pregame prayer held in Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the NBA’s Thunder are one of just two major sports franchises in the U.S. — along with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers — to hold an official pregame invocation. OKC’s pregame prayer has been delivered by Protestants, Roman Catholics, rabbis and Native American spiritual leaders. No mention of any Muslim imams or sheikhs, despite Islam being the world’s second-largest religion and the NBA having at least a handful of Muslim players in its ranks.

Still, Amick’s piece is a good read, an interesting look into a part of NBA culture that is rarely discussed in mixed company or in national forums.

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