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."
Lentz initially thought a career in basketball was in his cards after he teamed up with NBA preps-to-pro player Korleone Young and a dozen other Division-I prospects at Hargrave Military Academy. They were one of the top teams in the country in 1997-98.
"I had an insane tape that has vanished," Lentz said. "In that game, we scored 126 points with like 60 vicious dunks."
Lentz was recruited by a few Division I universities, including Harvard and Liberty, but he couldn't pass up a walk-on offer from N.C. State coach Herb Sendek to compete in the ACC. While Lentz rarely took the court, he still cherishes two games: playing at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium with 40 seconds remaining "not even running plays, but just trying to get points," and putting 20 points on the board with his bench teammates against Army with about two minutes left in the game. The overall experience helped him reassess his life goals.
"My time at N.C. State for me was like a life-defining thing," he said, "because I got everything I thought I would want, saw the highest level of what basketball is like, and just thought, 'I don't know if this aspect is going for me.' I couldn't get the ball from the baseline to the free-throw line. I was like, 'This is out of my pay grade, but I'll find a way to just survive.' I ended up realizing that basketball was more about relationships and people, which made me think about coaching."
Lentz found an outlet in preaching, which began as an epiphany one day during his sophomore year at N.C. State, when his parents took him to church. He had been before, but something clicked this time.
"I had just one of those moments where I felt like I heard something new, and responded to it," he said. "I thought I heard God speak to me in a different way and it changed things about my life."
After Lentz transferred to Virginia Wesleyan College in 2000 to learn about the Bible, later that fall he started off on his specialized religious passage at The King's College and Seminary in Los Angeles. But the college was too traditional for him, and he looked for a different outlet. That's when he heard about Hillsong International Leadership College in Sydney, Australia.
"I was at a Princeton-type Bible college in L.A., but I have more of a UNLV Runnin' Rebels mentality," he said. "That was Hillsong; I could be me. People weren't, like, 'I have to do this.' It was, like, 'I get to do this, I want to do this.' I just didn't know church could be like that. Australia was an eye-opener for me."
That's where Lentz had three big life-changing experiences: He met his wife and current co-pastor, Laura; became friends with Hillsong's senior pastor Brian Houston's son, Joel, which led them to establish the first-ever U.S. location in NYC; and he realized that athletes didn't have strong pastoral support.
"I got to be really good friends with some professional rugby players," he said. "And that's when I found out that there's a pretty unique lane here, where the mind of an athlete is different than anybody else. Often, athletes get pushed outside of the church world because nobody understands them—NBA guys are part of one percent that will ever play at that level. I understand that athlete psyche. Even back then, I always had a natural pull toward helping guys who typically churches couldn't handle."
One of the first things Lentz did when he moved to New York in the fall of 2010, to open Hillsong, was attend a Knicks game. Shortly after, a local pastor named Rex Duval introduced Lentz to former Knicks All-Star Allan Houston. Then came Tyson Chandler and other team members.
"He's my mentor and provides consistency in my life," said Chandler, who turned to Lentz last season when he was dealing with a serious family situation, flying to and from games to be with his loved ones. "To see someone who doesn't want anything and just be there for you during a time of need is the most valuable thing that someone can give.
"Whenever I felt overwhelmed or things got tough, I would just shut myself from the world. He helped me. The locker room is kind of our sanctuary, where things just stay in there, and we're not necessarily getting into life advice. He makes you open up."
Lentz got so close with the Knicks that their longtime pastor, John Love, wanted him to become a voluntary member of his support staff. Love oversees pregame chapel, while Lentz sometimes helps with game-day duties and leading prayer at the team's practice facility. But he makes sure he's much more connected to them beyond the basketball arena, as some players feel pressured with time to engage in regular services.
Through his Knicks friendships, Lentz was there for Jeremy Lin during his historic run in 2012. One day, while heading to his wedding anniversary dinner with Laura and friends, Lentz made a detour to pick up Lin and bring him along to answer his questions about the gospel and Christianity.
"He's pretty remarkable," Lin said. "He definitely helped me through that time in my life. To receive that much attention, fame and power all overnight is very contrary to the gospel, because it talks about humility and giving God the glory. So while society was talking about how great I was, I had to really fight back and really remember that God gave me the blessing that's here because God wanted me to be here. Carl helped me understand that. It's still an ongoing process that I have to continue to work through."
In November 2013, Metta World Peace asked Lentz to be the pastor for the funeral of his half-sister, Shalice. "It was a special honor for me to do that," Lentz said. "It really impacted me."
Last July, Lentz officiated Landry Fields' wedding, which wasn't the only time he gave the former Knick an assist.
"New York became hard times basketball-wise," Fields said. "Then I got to Toronto and I was going through nerve damage in my right arm—that still affects me to this day. I was going through some personal stuff with pregnancy with [my wife] Elaine, and we were trying to get married and kind of find our way. I was getting away from my core values and my faith. Carl helped me reconfigure my life to not make basketball [define] me, but to make Jesus my foundation and everything else just kind of blossom from that. That turn of perspective has brought a lot more joy and peace in my life."
The Knicks are only one focus of Lentz's service. Five years ago, he became friendly with current Cavaliers forward Mike Miller. They met through their mutual friend, Adam Harrington, who was Lentz's teammate at N.C. State and is now the shooting coach for Durant and the Thunder.
"Meeting Carl has really changed my life in a lot of ways," Miller said. "He's really made me a better father, a better husband, a better friend, a better teammate. He has the unique way of bringing light to every situation, and it's been a blessing to have him in my life. I really consider him basically my life coach. Carl is and will be a big shift in the culture of the NBA. I introduce him to as many teammates as I possibly can just because I know what kind of impact he's had on my life."
When Miller and other players are in NYC for a weekend game and it fits their schedule, they will bring along some of their teammates to one of Hillsong's six services on Sunday at Manhattan Center—one block from Madison Square Garden. This season, Miller and James Jones brought Kyrie Irving. Fields came with Greivis Vasquez. During All-Star Weekend, several players attended Hillsong.
Lentz met Durant after a March 2013 game at MSG. They talked that night for 30 minutes, and Lentz said they've been in touch every day since through phone calls or texts. Lentz even baptized Durant in 2013 in the Thunder All-Star's pool at his Oklahoma City home. For his appreciation of their friendship, Durant has supplied sneakers for Lentz's Hillsong Hustlers basketball team, which plays in different NYC leagues, including the EBC at Rucker Park—where the reigning MVP himself made an appearance in the summer of 2013.
"It's an emotional roller coaster that you're on—the ups and downs of the NBA season—and he just calms me down after some games," Durant said. "I sometimes react off the moment instead of relaxing and taking a few days. He's always there, sending me encouraging texts. It's [about] realizing what's most important in life and that everything can be worse, and realizing who you are at the moment and enjoying it. I think that's the biggest lesson from him."
Lentz was with Durant during All-Star Weekend, and helped him learn from his media outburst when he told reporters, "You guys really don't know s--t."
"We talked about it," Lentz said. "He likes most of the media, but he just vented about a singular moment in public. He is just tired of people trying to manipulate him in general, in his public and personal life. I told him that leadership is learning how to communicate passionately from a place of reflection and response, rather than reaction and frustration. His point was that he doesn't want to be a victim of an agenda and narrative somebody else has, and be controlled by it. And that's a great thing. It's a sign of growth that he spoke out, and he's going to channel that correctly now."
Kyle Korver also noted Lentz's commitment to regularly checking up on him during the season. As Lentz does for Korver and other players, including regular folks who can't attend Hillsong on Sunday, he'll email songs, sermons and scriptures to make them feel included. One of his recent sermons was called "You've Got To Keep Your Head Up," using CrossFit as a reference to preach fighting through weariness by standing by your faith (see video below).
"He's just been a super positive confirming voice for me," said Korver, a devoted Christian, who met Lentz in Brooklyn in 2013. "Some days you're feeling a little low or a little down, and he picks your energy back up to a 9 or a 10. He just fills up your spirit, man; it's super attractive. He knows how to speak truth and affirmation, and people really feel his sincerity. You can see that by the way the church has grown in New York."
Another player is Beno Udrih, who was raised Catholic growing up in Slovenia yet struggled to get in touch with the church still many years after coming to the states in 2004. Since English wasn't Udrih's first language, Lentz made the transition easier for him when they met last season in New York. Udrih was having a hard time with the Knicks and in his personal life.
"He definitely helped me out to see the world in a more positive way," Udrih said. "After meeting Carl, that definitely gave me a little push in the back to come out strong, and make that first step toward the right direction. His schedule is way more intense than ours; I don't even know where he is most of the time. So just to get a text message from him every now and then is amazing."
Lentz said the two biggest issues that he helps players deal with are "taking care of their family and trying to find peace in the middle of turmoil."
What message does he emphasize the most?
"Don't get caught dreaming so much about the future that you miss the power of the present," Lentz said. That has a special meaning in his connection to players.
"I tell them, 'Use basketball, don't let basketball use you, because it will milk you for all you're worth and squeeze you dry,' " he said. " 'If you're going to be famous, use your platform. If you're a Christian, your life should be about helping other people. Becoming a better man makes you a better player.' "
Lentz sometimes takes players to NYC's Bowery Mission to feed the homeless, and he credited them for being more active in their community "than people will ever know." He talked about how David Lee makes time to visit a children's hospital in different cities. He talked about how after Hurricane Sandy struck, Chandler would take off from Knicks practice—still sweaty and without changing—and drive all the way to Queens' Rockaway Beach to hand out food to those in need.
Lentz also talked about how whenever he's about to pray for someone in a hospital, Durant will always—even before he's about to take the court—send him a text message for the patient saying something like, "Hey, man, it's Kevin Durant. Carl says you're going through some stuff. Keep your head up, much love."
"It's all very unpublicized," Lentz said. "Reporters forget these guys have lives, they forget there's deeper meaning. I know Kevin's big thing is he wants his summer camps to be more than basketball. He doesn't want kids to show up, get a free pair of shoes and do some pickup games. He wants them to have mentoring, he wants to have them learn financial budgeting. It's really awesome."
When the conversations with the players turn from the church to the court, the tone becomes playful. Like two teammates chatting in a locker room, some of the players poke fun at Lentz's hoops game.
Fields still jokingly blames Lentz for a twisted ankle he suffered playing with him last summer at Chelsea Piers. Chandler kids that Lentz "thinks he's good," but it's because nobody wants to foul him. "It's like playing against the president," Chandler said. "I'm pretty sure the secret service doesn't play him too hard."
But some of the players also compliment Lentz's shooting touch, and confidence. "He wants to roll out with me during a three-point contest," Korver said.
However, what can be overlooked watching Lentz play are the little things he does: setting screens, scrambling defensively, diving for loose balls, finding the open man and constantly encouraging those around him. That's the game he developed at N.C. State, wanting to be the best teammate he could possibly be, and that reflects the pastoral hat he never takes off.
It's a regular paying job, with plenty of pro bono acts of kindness—many that have changed the lives of NBA players.
"This is the life I pursued and have a passion for—serving others without getting anything in return," Lentz said. "I'm very happy doing what I'm doing."