One of the topics that surfaced in the build-up to the Celtics-Nets playoff series is far more important and impactful than the others.
And it will directly affect two key players in Sunday afternoon’s Game 1 at TD Garden.
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown and Nets guard Kyrie Irving have previously observed Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, where followers abstain from food and drink from dawn to sunset, meaning neither player, if they are practicing, will be allowed to drink during the game, which starts at 3:30 p.m.
This year, Ramadan began April 1 and ends May 1.
It’s an extraordinary commitment, one that neither takes lightly.
“I try to keep my personal life private,” Brown said. “Ramadan is a special moment, a special time, definitely the relating to your relationship with God and your relationship through adversity, persevering through distractions and any negativity, and anything that pulls you away from being your higher self.
“Ramadan is something special, it’s something that saved my life in a lot of ways. Shout-out to all the people who are participating and shout-out to anybody who shows respect because in reality some things are bigger than basketball.”
While Irving has been criticized for his decision not to be vaccinated, his abrupt departure from Boston after pledging to sign with the Celtics long term, and various statements he has made over the years, he has privately embraced his Native American heritage as well as other religious customs.
“This is a journey with me and God, so I appreciate the recognition on different platforms, but it’s really sacred to me,” Irving said. “It’s really protection for my brothers and sisters who are doing the same with me. It’s just a blessing to be able to do it and be able to perform. It’s not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. So you can’t take any moment for granted during the day. I don’t have any time to give energy to any distractions. I come in here, just pay attention to the details, remind myself that I’m breathing, and that’s enough. It just really simplifies life and puts it in a greater perspective. The day starts at 5:35 in the morning or even before that, and you can’t really think about hungry or anything like that. I’m not alone in this and I’m grateful to know that.”
Ibrahim Omar, operation manager of the Islamic Society of Boston in Roxbury, said millions of Muslims, and even non-Muslims, observe Ramadan throughout the world.
“It means several things, the most important of which is not taking the most basic of the bounties of God for granted, things like food and drink,” he said. “By choosing to abstain from food and drink as a form of worship to God, you teach yourself self-restraint and get to experience what it means to be deprived of food and drink so that you may appreciate more those most basic of bounties of God that you may have otherwise taken for granted and enjoy mindlessly. It also allows you to give yourself time for reflection and serving your community.”
If a person is not physically able to fast, they are obligated to help feed people during the one-month period. Omar said Muslims and those who observe Ramadan arrange nightly dinners and get-togethers to break their fasts.
On weekends, the Islamic Society of Boston organizes iftar (breaking of the fast) dinners in the evenings for approximately 500 people.
“This spirit of service is abundant during the month,” Omar said. “Every day you would find yourself either invited to one family’s house or someone is your guest.”
“It’s all mental. It’s all focus. It’s all adversity. It’s all perseverance. It’s all life,” Brown said. “So just being able to be the highest version of yourself is important. Being able to be there for my teammates. Being able to be there for family, for myself, is important. Just everybody just trying to be the best version of themselves.”
Brown and Irving are hardly the first NBA players to observe Ramadan during the postseason. Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, for example, fasted during his career.
Omar said that while he was growing up in Egypt, teenagers fasting for Ramadan would play soccer and other sports during the month and become accustomed to going without food or drink.
“We wouldn’t want to do anything but play football,” he said. “So from a young age we would be used to doing all sorts of activities, work, sports, even when you’re fasting. The Egyptian Football League doesn’t stop during Ramadan. The rule is life goes on normally.”
Omar said he is approached by many non-Muslims who are curious about Ramadan and want to practice because of the disciplinary challenge. The Islamic Society of Boston recently hosted patrons from a local Lutheran church and Jewish temple to discuss their spiritual differences and similarities.
Omar said he has seen nothing but progress in relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in recent years, and Ramadan serves as a means of bringing people together in faith.
“I encourage people to ask questions, I’m encouraging people to be curious,” he said. “Just ask questions. That’s what I keep telling people. Be curious instead of being judgmental.”
Love’s buy-in key to Cavaliers’ growth
One of the primary reasons the Cavaliers were able to get into the play-in tournament was the comeback season of 33-year-old Kevin Love.
Just a year ago, Love was an aging player on a bloated contract playing on a younger, rebuilding team. Love would not accept a buyout and had little trade value because of the length of his contract, so the sides worked matters out. Love turned into a valuable sixth man and veteran leader for a team looking for respect.
Love is the last remaining member from the 2015-16 title team, and that experience is invaluable.
“We all know that [the postseason is] different. It’s not the same as regular season,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “How you’re able to play the game, how the game slows down. Intensity, the physicality, the importance of each possession. He understands that and we’re going to depend on him to lead us, him and [Rajon Rondo]. He’s got to be a calming presence for our guys, no matter the ups and downs. You’ve got to understand the consistency and steadiness and he’s got to get our guys in that mind frame.”
Love made the best of a difficult situation. While some veterans on bloated contracts decided they didn’t want to play with rebuilding teams or demanded trades, Love stuck around. The final year of his contract is next season, so he could be a trade chip. But, as of now, he’s one of the Cavaliers’ leaders.
“He’s got to be a teacher in moments that our guys have never seen before,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re going to count on him a bunch and lean on him as a player with his skill set. He’s aware of his importance to our group. He knows how his teammates feel about him, look up to him, and respect him. He’s one of the few guys on the team that’s been in these moments before. That’s not lost on him. He understands how important he is.”
One of the key elements to Love’s success has been good health. He played in 74 regular-season games after playing a combined 103 the previous three years. It was the most games he had played since the championship season. And Love’s story is also an example of how aging players can fit into emerging franchises.
“I think the past couple of years since we’ve been in Cleveland, he’s been battling injuries and those injuries lead to internal frustration,” Bickerstaff said. “When you take away what guys love to do, it’s difficult, you become isolated and more and more frustrated.
“His health has been the most important thing. That’s a huge jump for him. The willingness to sacrifice he made at the beginning of the year put him in a grateful place and put his teammates in a place where they respect him so much. There’s been a chemistry that’s allowed him to play passionate, positive, spirited basketball.”
The nucleus of Cleveland’s ascension has been All-Star point guard Darius Garland, who scored 34 points in the opening play-in loss to the Nets. Bickerstaff said he’s made sure to create a close bond with his point guard, ensuring he understands his importance to the Cavaliers’ long-term success.
“What we’ve tried to establish is a relationship,” Bickerstaff said. “He and I talk every single day. As the season has progressed our conversations have continued to progress about what the moment calls for now. On top of that, what the big picture looks like, so we don’t get caught up in the small things. We talk so much that he has a clear idea of what he needs to get done.”
WNBA plots expansion path
The WNBA completed its draft this past week and all 36 picks are hopeful of having long professional careers. But the WNBA is the hardest league to make of any in professional sports because of the limited roster space in a 12-team league. The television ratings for the NCAA Tournament were way up. The sport is expanding in popularity, but the WNBA has no immediate plans to expand.
It’s on the priority list, but there is still no definitive plan.
“I think the great conversation to be having is about expansion of the number of teams,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “When you’re only in 12 cities in a country of our size and scale with a global fan base like we have, we do need to be in more cities.”
There is a pressing need for more teams. Even first-round picks aren’t guaranteed to make rosters because of teams’ depth. On Friday, Natasha Mack, the 16th overall pick from last year’s draft, was waived by the Minnesota Lynx on the eve of training camp.
“I think the conversation about the number of players making teams is also one showing the depth of the quality of the play in this league,” Engelbert said. “I mean, it’s amazing. So it is hard to make a team, there’s no doubt about it. I think as we think through and get through these past two COVID years, get into our 26th season this year, I think you’ll be hearing more about this from us.”
In order to expand, the WNBA needs investors and potential ownership groups, and these groups have to be convinced the league is profitable and fruitful. The league recently received a $75 million grant from investors, including Boston Globe CEO Linda Henry.
“As we get into hopefully having much bigger fan bases, our owners are feeling more confident,” Engelbert said. “We want to have any new owners coming into the league faced with the potential of a successful franchise. We’re still building that economic model I’ve been talking about, but we’ll definitely be talking about this more this summer. I know the challenges of the rosters, but I think it just shows the depth and quality of the league. And look at the popularity of this game at the NCAA level.
“I was in Minneapolis. The fans there were so amazing, no matter what team they were rooting for. I think that’s coming from a position of strength, coming off two pandemic years. I wish I could be in a different position to talk about it, but we’re going to get there and it’s definitely in our future.”
One of the biggest issues as training camps begin is the absence of Phoenix center Brittney Griner, who remains jailed in Russia on drug paraphernalia charges. There is no timetable for her release.
“Obviously, we’re in a very complex geopolitical situation with Russia, Ukraine,” Engelbert said. “This continues to be complex. Obviously, we’re getting a ton of support from the government, from specialists. Her representation is able to visit with Brittney. We know she’s safe. But we want to get her home. It’s just a very complex situation right now, and we’re following the advice.
“I know we’re all frustrated, but we do need to be patient. I know the players have been amazing at following the advice that they’re getting and we’re getting in order not to jeopardize her safety in any way. We just continue to follow that advice and continue to work on it. I used to tell my daughter when she was little, and still now that she’s in her 20s, ‘I would go to the end of the earth to help you if you’re ever in trouble.’ I say the same thing about Brittney Griner.
“It’s really important to me that we get her home safely as soon as we possibly can, but it’s a complex legal and political and diplomatic situation right now that we’re working through.”
The Kings are again starting over when they decided to replace interim coach Alvin Gentry as the team missed the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season. General manager Monte McNair said the club is looking for a veteran coach who can bring the franchise to a playoff-competitive level. The Kings have the talent to compete in the Western Conference but have been a dysfunctional franchise for years. Gentry was the team’s 11th coach since the team last reached the playoffs in 2006. So, who would want the Sacramento job? There are a handful of quality, veteran coaches such as Mark Jackson, Mike D’Antoni, Sam Mitchell, or even Earl Watson, who may be interested. But McNair needs to be careful about this hire because it can’t be another short-term solution. The Kings disposed of Mike Malone before they should have and he has brought the Nuggets to new heights . . . Another coach who could be on the hot seat is Charlotte’s James Borrego, whose club was blown out of its play-in game for the second consecutive season. League-wide, the belief is Charlotte had too much talent to be a play-in team, let alone a 10th seed, and the Hornets again melted in their biggest game of the season. Miles Bridges, one of the league’s rising players, is a restricted free agent and could demand more than $100 million on the open market. Gordon Hayward has two years left on his maximum contract and has missed the past two play-in games because of injuries. He hasn’t been completely healthy since joining the Celtics five years ago. The Hornets are going to have to take a step forward soon or that talented core could be broken up. Does Michael Jordan have faith in Borrego to take the franchise to a playoff level? That could be determined in the next week . . . College players are beginning to declare for the NBA Draft and one of the curious early entries was UCLA forward Peyton Watson, a former McDonald’s All-American who never broke into the Bruins’ starting lineup. Watson, athletic and 6 feet 8 inches tall, averaged just 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game and played only three scoreless minutes in the Bruins’ Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina. Watson would be drafted strictly on potential and is likely headed for the G-League to sharpen his skills.