Tapestry

Toronto Raptors chaplain explains why he doesn't pray for wins

Toronto Raptors and Argos chaplain Herbie Kuhn believes he has an immense duty to the players he supports. And sometimes that means he can’t ask God to intervene – even in the diciest games.
Herbie Kuhn serves as chaplain for both the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Argonauts. (Submitted by Herbie Kuhn)

Toronto Raptors and Toronto Argonauts chaplain Herbie Kuhn does not pray for wins. 

Kuhn ministers to players in both the National Basketball Association and the Canadian Football League. He's also been the announcer for the Toronto Raptors since 1995. But he still doesn't ask God to let them win, even when the Raptors are contesting the NBA finals.

"Believe me, the sports fan in me certainly wants to win," Kuhn said. "What I do is I say, 'Lord, you've got children on both teams. You've given them everything they need to succeed. I pray that they would do everything within their power, within their talent to have a great, successful game." And I leave it at that."

He spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the responsibilities of being a chaplain in different sports, in different leagues, and for different players. Here is some of their conversation.

Toronto Raptors chaplain Herbie Kuhn also serves as the team's announcer. (Submitted by Herbie Kuhn)

It strikes me that we're talking about two very different leagues here. Your NBA flock is full of pretty wealthy men. CFL players can have a really tough road financially and in terms of the security of the league. How does that fact shape what players might need from you as a chaplain?

They certainly do. Obviously, there are parallels. But Mary, let's be honest, you nailed it head on. The total team salary of a CFL team, that might be one quarter of one individual's salary in the NBA, for example. 

Football is different on a couple of levels. CFL football in particular is different because of the economic perspective that we just alluded to. But it's also different in terms of the violence level of the game. Every single football coach and player will tell you it is a violent sport. Yes, there is contact in basketball but it does not compare in its total physicality and, more importantly, potential for injury as football does. So I find that with football it's far more like going into battle. 

When you're going in a battle on a football field and if you're, for example, a running back and you have to block someone who's coming full steam ahead, that's 280 pounds and six-foot-seven trying to flatten your quarterback and make him look like a pancake. And you need to put your body in between, and you have to do that time after time after time, every single night. There's a level of realization that this could be really bad. This could be my last game of the season. This could be my last game of my career.

Guys don't think about that. They don't say those things out loud because you don't want those things to come true. 

There's a level of physicality and violence about football that for me changes the dynamic of how I approach things because I'm telling my guys, "Have a great game, have a safe game. God bless you." And I mean it with all of my heart – that I really want them to be able to walk off that field after the game under their own steam. 

I've been there when guys have suffered an injury and they're not heading back onto the court, onto the field, for another two or three months — maybe ever. And when you're dealing with that kind of thing, it just amps the level a little bit of the depth of it … looking into one another's eyes before they hit the field.

So either league — NBA or CFL — has a player ever brought you a question that really took you by surprise?

One of the unique things about pregame chapels in the NBA is that we actually have players, members of both teams together, in the same space for chapel. So you can have members of the Raptors along with the visiting team together at the same time. Earlier this season there was a player, a member of a visiting team at the end of chapel, who blessed my socks off and caught me by surprise by saying, "Chaplain, would you pray for me? I'm trying to discover better wisdom in terms of generosity. I'm looking to discover better wisdom and decision making and discernment in terms of generosity, and because it's God's money in the first place." 

I've almost never had a question like that before, certainly not so pointed. From a chaplaincy standpoint, one way to make yourself an enemy of someone really quickly is to ask them about money and to ask them for a loan or anything like that. You don't touch that. 

I'm not going to say I'm going to love anybody on either team more or less because of the colour of their jersey, but because they're a child of God.- Herbie Kuhn

He's acknowledging he's really blessed — that he has more potentially in one season than many people might earn in 10 years. And he's asking me for wisdom about how to handle it, steward his finances. I prayed with him right there and then and I said, "Lord, please give this young man wisdom. Please open the doors that need to be open. Shut the doors that need to be shut and give him clarity of thinking and decision making, surrounded by accountable individuals who are in it for him, not for his finances, in order to distribute things generously."

Is it OK to pray for a win, or is that just not done?

I'll tell you what, I'm not here to tell anybody else whether or not they should or shouldn't pray for a win. But what I will tell you, Mary, unequivocally, is that I do not pray for wins. No matter how badly I want to win that game, I do not pray for wins.

Kuhn hoists the Grey Cup after the Argos victory in 2017. (Submitted by Herbie Kuhn)

Even in the NBA final game? You're the only guy in town who was not playing for a win, praying for a win that night? And you're the chaplain!

Here's the way I look at it — and I've had several instances of this in both basketball and football, where you've had brothers who are playing on opposing teams. Case in point: former Toronto Raptor Joey Graham has a twin brother named Stephen Graham, who is currently part of the coaching staff of another NBA team right now. And there were several times over the course of Joey's career where we would play against the team that Stephen was playing for, and the two brothers would inevitably come to the middle of the court, and the official photographer would take a picture of the two twin brothers wearing their competing jerseys. 

So my question for you, Mary, is this for Joey and Rose — Joey Graham and his wife Rose sitting in the stands? Are you cheering for either brother? I think that would make an awfully awkward dinnertime conversation. 

No, what I do is I say, "Lord, you've got children on both teams. You've given them everything they need to succeed. I pray that they would do everything within their power, within their talent to have a great, successful game." And I leave it at that. 

"Please keep them safe. Please let them walk off the court, off the field in a wonderful, safe manner, able to hold their heads up high."

And that's the message I want to get across. I'm not going to say I'm going to love anybody on either team more or less because of the colour of their jersey, but because they're a child of God. So yeah, long answer to a straightforward question. I do not pray for wins.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and space. Produced by Arman Aghbali and Rosie Fernandez. Written by Arman Aghbali. 

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