Preach! How NBA chaplains are lifting up teams during the suspended season
A discussion with team chaplains on faith amid the coronavirus pandemic
Los Angeles Lakers players recently received a text message from team chaplain Rev. Romell Witherspoon that read:
“Isaiah 43:2. ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; The flames will not set you ablaze.’ ”
The Lakers are still mourning the death of Kobe Bryant in January. They are dealing with a suspended NBA season, in which they were the No. 1 seed in the West. And they are facing the challenges of daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic. During these trying times, Witherspoon is hoping to ease their minds.
“To say that this has been a trying year for the Lakers organization, between Kobe and COVID, is an understatement,” Witherspoon told The Undefeated. “The challenges of life are unavoidable and oftentimes cannot be contained with natural logic. That’s where I become their MVP and try to answer questions that they may not even ask. …
“My main message to the guys is to lean heavy on the ideology that durability is greater than ability. I challenge them to be extremely durable in all areas, mentally, physically and spiritually.”
During the season, all 30 NBA teams offer a combined nondenominational chapel service to players from both teams an hour before tipoff that typically lasts about 15 minutes. Holding chapel services before NBA games date to the 1970s, and players of all faith groups are welcome or can be offered a room for prayer.
With the NBA season suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, team chaplains have been keeping in contact with players and team personnel through texts, video conferencing, phone calls and email. The chaplains also have a monthly conference call with each other.
The Undefeated recently talked to Witherspoon, Golden State Warriors chaplain Rev. Earl Smith, Boston Celtics chaplain Rev. Robert Gray and Toronto Raptors chaplain and public address announcer Herbie Kuhn about their roles with the teams before and during the coronavirus pandemic.
How are you staying connected with NBA players during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Gray (Celtics): I’ve talked to some guys and I send them verses on text and other things to stay in touch. I do a chapel once a week with the players over Zoom. Some of the coaches, training staff and others come. I do it for 15 minutes, the same amount of time I would do it at the arena. Then we open it up for questions. It’s interactive. They’ve been very well-attended. All the guys who attend chapel usually come on. … All that stuff about not having time to study the word. Well, you have time now.
Kuhn (Raptors): Text messaging is a wonderful thing. And in some cases, I’ve been able to stay in touch with some of my athletes via FaceTime and Zoom technology. I’m very grateful for the advent of technology and to message back and forth. But I will be very honest, not only is it not the same as face-to-face interaction, it’s far more challenging to stay in touch on a regular basis.
Smith (Warriors): Texting. I heard from H.B. [Harrison Barnes] the other day. He’s not with us anymore, but I still have a group of [former players] I still connect with. I’ve been asking them how they are surviving and how their life is. I try not to talk about basketball, because I don’t know anything about it. I want them to tell me something funny that happened. I want to add humor to the conversation because I need them to know that it’s OK in this day and age where it’s chaotic that you need some kind of break from this. Everywhere you look, there is pressure from this virus and it seems like doom and gloom.
Witherspoon (Lakers): Every Sunday, similar to church, we still do chapel. I do a conference and I’ve had as many as 14 people one Sunday. Some people will text me afterward. I make a point to text all the guys throughout the week. I still try to feed their spirit, their confidence with what they’re going through right now. I’ve been talking to about 15, 16 players, not just with our team.
What do you miss most about being around the players?
Gray: My chapels are open. We get some of the dancers. The ball boys. The players. A coach or two. What I miss is one-on-one time with all of those folks, especially the players, because they don’t have an outlet like normal people. Normal people go home at the end of the workday. The players get on a plane to their next work assignment. I love sharing the word with them because they can’t just share with anybody or it ends up on Instagram or Facebook.
Kuhn: Community! Hugs. Vigorous handshakes. Eye contact. ‘Hey, Norm [Powell], what’s up? OG [Anounby], you good? How you doing Pat [McCaw], you good?’ That’s what I miss the most. When you see the hunger in their eyes and you see them around the corner to get to our chapel because they are ready to learn and receive the word, the absence of that is difficult. I can’t lie to you.
Smith: Being able to laugh and joke with them. The Warriors’ chapel is really fun. We invite the players from other teams. But when it’s just our guys, you can clown with each other. You want to be able to have fun.
Witherspoon: The relationships. The element of presence. Just seeing their smiles and knowing I’m giving them something the world may not necessarily be able to give them or they can pay for. Mentorship. Answering questions that they don’t ask. Being there for wins and, more importantly, being there for losses afterward. Helping support their families in the family room. Speaking to their wives and their families.
What is your biggest triumph and challenge conducting chapel?
Gray: The biggest triumph in doing chapel is that when they start coming regularly, they become closer to the Lord and start becoming new people. The light goes on and they say, ‘This God thing is real,’ and they start altering their life in order to fit the image that God has for their life.
The biggest challenge is when people get a taste of God, but because of the NBA lifestyle and what is going on, the notoriety, it’s hard for them to maintain that. You all write about them, they’ll have a bad game or a bad stretch, and then that begins to reflect on their spiritual walk.
Kuhn: The biggest triumph is when a young man comes to an understanding of their identity in the Lord.
The biggest challenge is in the context of a very multicultural and pluralistic society. It’s not a challenge to stay the course for Christ. But it’s a challenge in terms of there are many options out there for people. Having said that, it is a challenge that we are able to overcome with the Lord’s words and relationships.
Smith: I remember the season [1996-97] that we went to San Jose when they were redoing [Oracle Arena], I probably had maybe 10 chapels where someone attended. People from other teams came occasionally. I was going from Marin to San Jose for games, sometimes back-to-back, not knowing if anyone would come. But we needed that to happen to get to where we ended up being.
The biggest triumph is watching the guys grow as a team and support each other. Having Fellowship Night, where after a game, players would share a testimony or a scripture with a fan, and having other players stay to support them.
Witherspoon: The biggest challenge is it doesn’t resonate with most organizations as far as the impact. If you really understand the impact, you would probably make it more accessible for us, because we bridge the gap between Staples Center and home. There is always life outside of the arena and you want to protect your investment. Oftentimes, a guy’s performance on the floor can be impacted by their home address. Also, getting more players to hear it. That’s why I changed the name from ‘Chapel’ to ‘The Scouting Report,’ because [the latter] sounds more appealing. …
I give them an offensive Scripture, a defensive Scripture and a 30-second timeout on life, giving them a nugget of inspirational tips and spiritual cadences that can help them. But one of my triumphs is that I started off with one person, Brandon Ingram, three years ago, and I’ve had as many as 24. The biggest triumph is the retention rate. Whenever a player comes, I’ve never had them not come back.
How has your own ministry been impacted by this?
Gray: I’m a pastor. We have had a couple people get COVID-19. We minister with their families, but you can’t meet at the church. We have a livestream and do a lot of things on that and do a lot with Zoom. It has caused us to have a different point of view about what we are supposed to be about.
Kuhn: It has changed things dynamically. It has necessitated a separation of the person-to-person consistency and intimacy that I’ve become accustomed to and, to be honest, I’ve taken for granted. It has also forced me to be more acquainted with virtual online meetings.
Smith: In terms of football and basketball, you are not visually in touch with guys. So, I’m a visual guy who likes to see people, laugh, clown, share with them and hear their stories. That’s been impacted. But also, prison [ministry]. Prisons are closed now. You can’t go in. I don’t work anymore as a state employee. I’m a volunteer, so I can’t visit with guys like I want to. Prison ministry is a big part of what makes me do the other stuff that I do.
Witherspoon: I like to teach more hands-on. I’ve had more guys reach out now than ever. … It’s not over until you win, and that’s my thing. I try to magnify and make my ministry inflammatory to the dynamics of the powers that be, in terms of the COVID-19. This is not the first time our world has seen this and it may not be the last. This might be the first time that your faith is on trial. Any time someone goes on trial, you’re innocent until proven guilty. God wants to see whose faith is real, so we all have to go on trial at some point.
Which bible verse would you recommend with Easter approaching?
Gray: During times like this, I always recommend the Lord’s Prayer. … Things like the 23rd Psalm and Romans 8:28 are powerful to me. The Lord is your shepherd. He is shepherding you through all sorts of things. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death is what you’re doing now. The bottom line is: God says, ‘Look I’m with you.’
Kuhn: The message I’d like to get across to the players is this: God wins. The disciples were scattered. They were heartbroken. They didn’t know where to turn. Today, people are frustrated. They are thrown off their routines. And many people don’t know where to turn in their isolation. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, remember in the end that God wins.
Smith: There is a Scripture that is a story about women who have everything they need to minister to the body of Jesus. And as they’re walking, they look at each other and say, ‘Who is going to roll away the stone?’ For a lot of people as they’re dealing with things today, there is a need to have that stone rolled away so Christ comes out. And as it’s rolled away, a lot of things are rolled away. These women did not concern themselves with waiting for the stone to be rolled away. They had faith it would be.
Witherspoon: There are so many messages to be taught from Easter. You’re dealing with the resurrection of Christ. At one point, he died and the enemy thought they won. The real message is either you’re buried or you’re planted. When you’re buried, you’re dead. When you’re planted, you’re buried, but then you rise again with more power than you had before.
What apps or websites would you recommend?
Gray: I listen to a lot of Tony Evans on tonyevans.org. Dr. Charles Stanley just teaches the word. And go on YouTube putting in names of preachers you really know. Use your ears and expand your heart. Don’t just grow because coronavirus is here. Use this time to grow by leaps and bounds.
Kuhn: The Bible app by YouVersion. On that app there are thousands of daily devotionals and readings available, as well as multiple translations of the Bible.
Smith: Word Search. They can do Bible study. There are daily studies. Commentary. Different Bibles. My guys also read The Daily Bread and we talk about it together. Mark Batterson has a book called Draw the Circle. I would recommend reading that.
Witherspoon: I like to use an app called Abide because it gives you a Scripture of the day. There is a daily page for people who are elementary in their faith and need to have something.
WhEn the NBA returns, what do you envision your first chapel message being?
Gray: My first message is going to be about how God can bring you through a crisis, because if we are back that means we made it. I would really focus on Philippians 4, where it talks about not being anxious about anything. Don’t feed the anxiety, because that is when it will grow. God gives you a prescription. You ask for what you need and before you walk away you thank God for hearing your prayer and answering it before you see it. I would have a combination of that and the 91st Psalm, which talks about God’s protection.
Kuhn: It will be an echo of thanksgiving. There will be an outpouring of gratitude and celebration for making it through with reflection on what we’ve come through.
Smith: I will probably go to 2 Chronicles 7:14. It’s something that has really been on my mind. I’ve studied it over and over. People called by my name will humble themselves, pray and seek my faith. This virus has caused the world to focus on one thing. Never have I heard in my 64 years that church was canceled. Where you couldn’t go to a place of worship. It all goes back to this virus and what is going on. It’s taken the world.
Witherspoon: There will be glory after this. Any time you think about the word ‘glory,’ it’s associated with winning. I would go with Hebrews 4:16. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Anything you ask in Jesus’ name, he says he will do it. Maintain your prayer life.