Many high school teams pray before taking the court

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Teenagers praying with heads bowed, arms locked and eyes closed.

The scene is a familiar one throughout locker rooms, but it's an uncommon one anywhere else in Western Pennsylvania's public schools.

God has found a place in local public schools, and that place is on high school sports teams.

A survey of Western Pennsylvania public high school basketball coaches has indicated that it has become more common for teams to say a prayer before games.

"I think that's pretty powerful, you know. I really do," said the Rev. Rodney Smith, lead pastor at Chippewa United Methodist Church and a former high school basketball coach at Ellwood City.

Smith said "it's sad that prayer was taken out of school," though he did not want to talk about the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on the constitutional separation of church and state. But he said there is "something unique about sports" that allows for the intimacy of prayer.

Western Pennsylvania basketball coaches agreed.

Wilkinsburg boys' coach Odell Miller said, "We try to look at this thing as a family." And in his family, they pray.

Jerry Cypher, boys' basketball coach at Chartiers-Houston, said his team says a prayer to thank God for the ability to come together and enjoy one another's company.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has "no role" in the use of prayer in extracurricular activities, said Mike Race, communications director for the department. Rather, he said, it is up to local school districts.

Prayer at Catholic and Christian high schools is a given. At some, it takes place in front of the entire crowd, like the national anthem.

But at public schools, its existence is behind closed doors.

Teams and coaches vary in how they conduct the prayer. Some are student-led while others are not. Some recite the same prayer before every game while others improvise.

But all teams have two things in common: Prayer is not mandatory, and nobody asks God for a win.

Cory Gadson, boys' basketball coach at McKeesport, said his team tries to avoid "traditional" prayers before games. Each player who wishes to participate leads a pre-game prayer throughout the year.

"It brought a little perspective," he said. "The guys need to realize that it is a privilege what we're doing."

Gadson said the prayers sometimes are emotional, like recently when a player prayed for the people in Haiti.

One of McKeesport's players last year was Buddhist, and Gadson encouraged him to delve into his spirituality. Gadson said it was a valuable learning experience for his team, allowing them to experience diversity.

He said he got the idea to pray after reading Phil Jackson's book "Sacred Hoops."

While coach of the Chicago Bulls, Jackson used Zen Buddhist practices to help his team focus.

Gadson said the book taught him valuable lessons about coaching a team.

"The spiritual side is very important," he said.

At Chartiers-Houston, the Bucs start by saying the Lord's Prayer. Then, Cypher steps in and says a few words. He usually asks to keep the teams safe and free from injury.

"We have prayed every game, and I say that with pride actually," he said.

Courtney Parisi, a senior forward at Ambridge, said the Bridgers have said the same prayer before every game since her freshman season:

"Our Father who art in heaven / Help us play this game / To the best of our abilities / Dear Lord, please look out for both teams / So that no one may get hurt / Amen."

She said praying is a "natural" thing to do before a game.

"God is looking out for us," she said.

She said the locker room is the only place in school where she prays with others.

The same is true for Moon basketball player Brett Hoffman, a junior. The Tigers hold hands in a circle and say the Lord's Prayer before games. Hoffman said it puts basketball in perspective.

At Wilkinsburg, the team recites a similar prayer before every game, but Miller always asks for strength and focus and anything else on his mind.

"There's some spirituality there," he said.

Reggie Wells, girls' basketball coach at South Park, said he asks for God to bless his team and protect both teams' players from injury.

Smith, the Chippewa pastor, said he is encouraged that so many Western Pennsylvania public high school basketball coaches pray with their teams.

"It's such a powerful thing when you're trying to be a role model with kids," he said, adding that it is especially powerful when so many sports stars are far from being role-model material.

But Smith also noted the strides many sports figures have made to embrace their spirituality.

Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy wrote a book about his faith, saying he retired from football to focus on what he believed was a higher calling.

Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has thanked God in news conferences and has written verse numbers on his black eye strips.

When he was a coach at Ellwood City and at Kane High School, Smith said a prayer with his team before every game. Only once did a parent complain, which reminded Smith to reiterate the voluntary nature of the pregame prayer. That player chose to join the rest of the team in prayer.

He worries that a day will come when prayer is forbidden from locker rooms in Western Pennsylvania public schools.

But coaches like Cypher hope that is never the case.

"We've got a bunch of healthy kids who are out there enjoying something that they love to do, and they're doing it with friends and a sense of camaraderie," Cypher said. "There is a blessing in that and we should acknowledge it."

Michael Sanserino: or 412-263-1722. First Published February 5, 2010 5:00 AM


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