It’s a recent Saturday afternoon at New York City’s Chelsea Piers sports complex. A pickup game of locally born basketball notables is in session, and a 36-year-old Virginia Beach native named Carl Lentz is the loudest motivator on the court.
“Great pass, great shot P.J.!” Lentz yells to P.J. Davis, who played at Hofstra University with former NBA player Speedy Claxton. “Great shot, let’s get back on D!” he tells his teammates, who include NYC streetball legend Adris “2 Hard 2 Guard” DeLeon. “Good shot, Clue!” he directs to popular hip-hop personality DJ Clue.
After his smooth three-point shooting and smart off-the-ball playmaking gains his team a win, Lentz loosens his Kevin Durant Nike sneakers and sits down on the bench. This is where it gets even more interesting.
Lentz starts to scroll through multiple text conversations on his phone. Without seeing the messages, some of the names are clear: Durant. Carmelo Anthony. Tyson Chandler. David Lee. Kyle Korver. Jeremy Lin. Mike Miller. J.R. Smith. J.J. Redick. Iman Shumpert. Landry Fields. Beno Udrih. The list goes on and on, including some of the best ballers in the world not mentioned above.
They are messages of encouragement, of Christian prayer and even networking—with one player sharing another’s number so Lentz could connect with him and provide a positive voice during a difficult time.
“There are only two times when I’m talking: balling and preaching,” Lentz said.
So who exactly is Carl Lentz?
He is one of the most connected people in NBA circles—but not for the reasons you may think. He’s not an agent, business representative or in any way connected to players financially. You could even pass him for a fashion stylist or rock-band member with his scruffy beard, half-shaved head and slicked-back Mohawk, ripped jeans and leather jackets, graphic T-shirts and tattoos representing his family and faith.
A former college baller at N.C. State in the late 1990s, Lentz is one of the most sought-after pastors in the country. His base is New York City’s nontraditional Hillsong Church, which attracts a younger congregation with its liberal style and musical sermons. While 8,000 people attend the church weekly, it also has foreign locations—the main one is in Sydney—and its own record label has sold 16 million albums and generates $100 million a year, according to Lentz.
This past December, before his 36th birthday, Lentz was named to Esquire’s “37 People Under 35 Who Are Reshaping The World,” along with the likes of LeBron James, Beyonce, Channing Tatum and Mark Zuckerberg. The story called Lentz “the hipster Joel Osteen,” a pastor who’s even befriended Justin Bieber and many other celebrities who attend his church.
And through all of his work in the NYC community and global travels to preach—while playing basketball three times a week and being a husband and father of three children—the Brooklyn resident has become a personal pastor and friend for dozens of current NBA players. His relationships go much further than any pregame chapel, as he calls his involvement with them “24/7.”
“I speak the same language as them. It’s a huge advantage for me,” said Lentz, who’s also close with some NFL players. “Basketball and life are so parallel; everything on a team dynamic is a life dynamic.”
As much as his words may inspire players’ hearts, Lentz’s down-to-earth, relatable approach—bridging the gap between the court and the church—wins over their heads.
“When I first met him, I was like, ‘You’re a pastor?'” Fields said. “It was brand new, shocking, but his appearance helps. He’s a guy that you can easily relate to, and he’s unlike anybody else in terms of the Christian pastoral world. Carl is an unbelievable preacher. It helps for people, especially me and other players that are kind of new to the faith. It’s an easier transition than just meeting up with some old white guy behind a pulpit. He’s just a godsend honestly—somebody that God is using to bridge that gap.”
Durant echoed the sentiment. “He’s definitely relatable,” he said. “He came to me as a friend first, and I can say that he genuinely cares. We just grew from there, and then our relationship as far as being attached to the church. I went to church growing up, but I didn’t really pay attention, honestly. I knew the basics. I just wanted to learn more and grow as a man, and he taught me a lot about the Bible and learning from God.”
No mere hanger-on, Lentz does his outside Hillsong work all without pay, finding motivation in trying to connect NBA players and celebrities to the pastoral world in which he feels they’re often neglected.
“What you find with people who are really famous is that often they’re isolated,” Lentz said. “They have so much money that they can’t trust anybody, or anybody that tries to help them always has a hook trying to get something from them. So our [church’s] big advantage is we don’t need anything from [them], and we’re not pursuing anybody except for who’s in front of us. So most of the [NBA] guys I’ve met have been super organic.”
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