Jazz chaplain has spent 3 memorable decades giving spiritual guidance to franchise's players and others
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Professional athletes are often looked upon as a bunch of rich, high-rolling dudes whose annual income is often, unfortunately, much higher than their moral standards.
Indeed, far too often, we hear about athletes getting caught up in all sorts of scandals involving steroids or other drugs, alcohol, violence, sexual abuse, adultery, and every other one of society's many ills.
Some, it seems, have the moral values of an alley cat. Wise judgment and common sense are, unfortunately, qualities they often seem to shun.
But that's certainly not true with all athletes. Far from it, in fact.
The Utah Jazz have a long history of trying to make sure their roster is filled with folks who are not only first-rate basketball players but, perhaps even more importantly, first-class citizens as well.
And, to that end, the Jazz team chaplain, 75-year-old Jerry Lewis, plays an invaluable role in giving team members some spiritual guidance and, as a member of the clergy, does his best to help them with their off-court concerns and personal needs throughout the course of the season.
With that goal in mind, he offers a short, non-denominational Christian chapel service about an hour before the opening tipoff of each Jazz home game. What's more, players and coaches from each visiting team are invited to attend the pregame chapel services as well, along with any interested EnergySolutions Arena employees.
"The Jazz have always been particularly attentive to moral issues among their players," said Lewis, who shares the same name as the legendary comedic actor and longtime muscular dystrophy telethon host. "Sure, there have been a few that have slipped through but, by and large, they are really good guys. The Jazz are always searching for quality people. And we've got a wonderful bunch of fellas this year.
"One thing that's been thrilling this year is that, around the league, there has been a real pickup of interest in attending chapel. There's been a real spiritual wave of some sort. ... I think perhaps, like a lot of people of our culture, they're troubled by all the grief that they're seeing in the world today."
Before each Jazz home game, Lewis gathers chapel attendees, gives a short sermon and conducts a prayer circle for those in attendance, who are encouraged to share any prayerful needs they might have.
The entire service lasts from 15-20 minutes and is held on the court-level concourse of EnergySolutions Arena, in a small meeting room adjacent to the Hot Rod Hundley Media Center and just a short walk down the hallway from the Jazz locker room.
The Jazz have had six regular attendees at chapel services this season — Gordon Hayward, Earl Watson, Mo Williams, Jeremy Evans, Alec Burks and Al Jefferson — and Lewis is grateful for their participation, especially since there have been some years in the past when they only had one or two Jazz players who attended regularly.
"I think it's really important," Hayward, Utah's third-year swingman, said of the pregame services. "I think anytime you can get a group of guys together who goes to every game and really focuses on what's really important in life, it's pretty special. We know the reason we are out there playing basketball, that there's a lot bigger things than just the game.
"It's also pretty cool when you see the other team. They have a lot of guys as well. Golden State, it seemed like half of their team was in there (Tuesday night). That was pretty cool."
Watson, Utah's veteran point guard, agreed with his Jazz teammate.
"I think that's one thing the fans don't realize, (that) every NBA team offers that before the game," he said. "More people go than you realize. For myself and the guys on this team, we go mainly just to show our appreciation and being humble and being thankful for the blessings that we have.
"A lot of us come from tough backgrounds and tough lives. I think we're like the true definition of prayer and doing the best we can. No one's perfect, but we're doing the best we can and continue to be blessed and give back to other people as well."
Watson is particularly appreciative of the service that Lewis renders, and the manner in which the Jazz chaplain does so.
"He's been here for a long time," Watson said. "He doesn't put a lot of pressure on us as far as trying to be perfect. He's always the first to reveal that he has obstacles to overcome, too.
"Sometimes I catch him sleeping in the locker room before the game while the video's playing," Watson said with a laugh. "Sometimes he has the best prayers before the game. Like if we get outrebounded, we pray as a team before we come out on the court and he's saying a prayer to God that we rebound better than last game."
Watson laughed again at that last statement, but then he quickly became reflective regarding the importance of staying close to the Lord.
"It's kind of like some funny moments through it all," he said, "but I think at the end of the day, the message is always the same — continue to try to get better, continue to try to grow through spirituality and grow through Christ, and never be afraid to (remember) your blessings or the person who got you to this point in life and beyond this point in the future."
Lewis, who's now serving in his 29th season as the team's chaplain, is also a minister for The Point Christian Church in Sandy, where he offers a sermon each Sunday to his congregation of 75-80 patrons. He was formerly a minister at the Southeast Christian Church in Holladay, serving in that capacity for 24 years.
And he's thankful that the Jazz franchise has made the team's chapel services more of a priority these days.
"One of the issues has always been having a meeting place. For a long time, I have sinned and I have coveted this room," he said with a wry smile. "It's just a good location and players aren't exposed to fans much and it's not too bad for the others (visiting players).
"For a long time, they rented this room out to corporations for small gatherings, and that's all right because they're in the money-making business and I understand that. I have no complaints; I don't fault them one little bit. There were times when we were lucky to hold our chapel service anywhere, and I didn't know if we'd have a room from game to game.
"But the Miller family and the folks here at the arena have just bent over backwards to try and accommodate this because they know the players don't get much of a chance for spiritual exercise, so to say, because they're either playing, practicing or traveling on the weekends," Lewis said.
"Here they operate somewhat on the proposition that (former Jazz coach and GM) Frank Layden put forth. He said, 'There's chapel; it won't hurt you to go, and this is your opportunity to be reminded of the things you forgot that your Momma taught you.' "
Jefferson, Utah's veteran big man and leading scorer, said chapel services give him a chance to have some measure of spirituality in his life during the hectic pace of the NBA season.
"Going to church is kind of tough, especially during the season because it scares you," Big Al said. "Then when you do get a Sunday off to go ... you really want to just lay in bed. So (I) just go to chapel before every game. It kind of gets you what you've been missing from church.
"Jerry do a great job with it. He always makes sure we have a room available. It's really good to get that good talk in before games. Every chapel be different but helpful in its own way. It's always good to go have fun with it."
It should be pointed out that this is not a paid position Lewis holds. Sure, he's given a lower bowl season ticket for his efforts, but he realizes that his real reward in all of this is not at all financial, but in the spiritual service that he's able to render to those in need.
And in the priceless opportunity he's had to get acquainted with Jazz legends (and former faithful chapel attendees) Karl Malone, John Stockton, Mark Eaton and Thurl Bailey, along with the privilege of rubbing chapel-service shoulders with the likes of former NBA stars Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, David Robinson, John Lucas and A.C. Green, former Jazzman and current Golden State coach Mark Jackson, current NBA stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeremy Lin, and former Jazzmen Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, among many others.
He considers them all as "high-quality people," although he laughingly admits that sometimes when players get out on the floor in the heat of battle, they act like "Mongol warriors and jerks."
Interestingly, on the night that Malone's well-placed elbow knocked Robinson out cold in a frightening incident back in 1998, Lewis recalled that the two of them had attended chapel service and held hands in prayer together with Lewis earlier that evening.
The Jazz chaplain knows his chapel service isn't for everyone, even though it is indeed offered to virtually everyone.
"Some players establish a pregame routine which precludes them from attending chapel service," Lewis said. "You learn early on not to make judgments about the players whether they're here or not. ... Anybody in the Jazz organization is invited to come.
"I don't consider my ministry here limited to just 12 guys. Anybody that is interested, I'll try to help them any way I can. I've had Muslims ask me to pray; I've had atheists, LDS, Baptists, Catholics, and those that are so confused they don't know what they are. There's a lot of those around, too.
"I give a 7- to 8-minute sermon; then we have prayer time. Players will bring in prayer needs, like 'Mom is home with the flu,' the same types of concerns that most citizens have," he continued. "They'll speak with the entire group and we pray for those who are in need. A lot of people in the arena will know I'm going to chapel and they'll say 'Hey, would you mind saying a prayer for my wife?' or 'one of my kids who broke their leg.' I've been here long enough now that a lot of people know me. They know what I'm about. So they don't hesitate to ask for a prayer. Once in a while, they'll ask me, 'Hey, would you go call on my wife or somebody who's in the hospital?' And I'll say, 'Sure, I'll be glad to.' "
Lewis' experiences have been many and memorable. He got the opportunity to perform the marriage ceremonies for Malone, Scott Layden and former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, a man who he admires greatly.
"Jerry's a real friend of mine," Lewis said of Sloan. "Our vocabularies are not always the same, but he's a man's man for what that's worth.
"One of the key words of our society today is integrity, and that man's got it. I'd trust him with anything I own — and I'd also want him on my side if I got in a fight. He was always very supportive of the chapel.
"Every team in the NBA has a chaplain, but I'm probably the most blessed and have the greatest access of anybody in the league," he said. "There's been some real rewards, but because of the fact you don't have prolonged access to the players because of their hectic schedule, it's hard to have a bible study with them. But I counsel with them, and occasionally a player will come and want to go to lunch with me."
So just how long does he plan to continue in his vital role as the Jazz team chaplain?
"Well, I just turned 75, but you might want to put in there that he looks like he's 20 years younger," Lewis said with a chuckle.
And he intends to keep serving those tremendous high-profile, professional athletes — all of them God's children, as far as Lewis is concerned — on the Lord's errand for as long as he possibly can.
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