A sports arena might seem like an odd place for public prayer, but invocations are given before every basketball game at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The unique display briefly turns the oft-times rowdy venue into “something resembling a megachurch gathering,” according to a recent New York Times article.
The prayers aren’t strictly Christian in nature, even though the majority of the population in Oklahoma is either Protestant (72.6 percent) or Catholic (9.3 percent); they are nondenominational and have been delivered by pastors, rabbis and Native American spiritual leaders, among others.
Each prayer, which is reviewed by the team before it is delivered, is less than 30 seconds in length and generally keeps out words like “Jesus” to ensure the inclusive nature.
The Thunder has distinguished itself as the only team in the NBA to hold official pre-game prayer. The Times reported that among the 141 teams in men’s major professional sports, only one other — the NFL’s Carolina Panthers — holds a regular invocation before games.
“We feel people’s faith is important to them,” said Dan Mahoney, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s vice president for corporate communications and community relations. “Gathering to support our team, we feel it’s appropriate to build in a time of reflection.”
The Thunder’s prayer program actually started in North Carolina with George Shinn, a Baptist who is the former owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Shinn added prayer to the beginning of every Hornets game after he founded the team in 1988.
While invocations became a popular fixture for the Hornets — and one that helped sell tickets to Christians who would attend games to see their pastors deliver prayers — a decrease in the team’s popularity eventually led Shinn to move it to New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets played most of the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons in Oklahoma City, the Times reported. And that’s when the prayer tradition began to evolve.
When the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, the newly re-branded team adopted the Hornets’ prayer tradition.
After Shinn sold the Hornets, the team’s prayer was dropped, leaving the Thunder as the only team in the NBA to hold pre-game prayer.
Not everyone appreciates the invocations; some atheists have said the prayers alienate them. But Mahoney told the Times that it’s not necessary for non-believers to participate.
“If someone doesn’t think it’s appropriate based on their beliefs, they can use it as their own moment of reflection however they see fit or they can just not be in their seats yet,” he said.
Read the full New York Times story here.
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