Stories about athletes, sex and crime show up on sports pages and in sports shows.
But athletes and religion? Not so much.
Still, Utah Jazz chaplain Jerry Lewis has been helping professional athletes deal with issues of faith and repentance for 28 years now. And he's not alone.
"Every NBA team has a chaplain," says the Rev. Lewis, who also worked for the Salt Lake Gulls baseball team for three years prior to coming on board with the Jazz. When the local hockey team also requested his services, his wife told him, "It's them or me."
There are a lot of athletes looking to keep their lives lined up out there.
For the chaplains, it's all volunteer service. Lewis held a day job as a minister of The Southeast Christian congregation for 23 years. He is currently the senior minister of The Point Christian Church that meets in Sandy. His relationship with the Jazz started through Mark Eaton. As a rookie, Eaton attended the church where the Rev. Lewis was pastor at the time.
"Mark put things together with Frank Layden," the minister says. "And Frank was all for the idea. He greased the skids for the most part. I've been doing it ever since."
Normally, a 15-minute service is held before every game. Players, coaches and families are invited. The visiting team also is invited. However, this year, space is at a premium, and there is no regular place to meet. A few times this season, the visiting team has requested chapel service, and "all we could do is go back under the bleachers someplace and just have prayer time," says the Rev. Lewis.
"The service is of distinctly Christian orientation. But I've had atheists and others," the minister says. "I'm glad the players aren't here very long, because I can use the same things over and over."
Right now, only three or four Jazz players show any interest. In the past, he has had as many as 11 or 12 come to his short presentations. Kyle Korver could easily be called the most religiously interested person on the team, and his reputation preceded him.
"I was really happy when I heard he was coming to Utah," says the Rev. Lewis.
Korver comes from a religious family: His father was a minister, as were his grandfather and a couple of uncles.
"I grew up across the street from a church," says Korver, "I used to play basketball in it."
It took him a long time to figure out that "it's one thing to play church, and it's another thing to live church," he says. "It was a while before the relationship between me and Jesus was my relationship instead of my parents' relationship. You grow up in a family where everyone is looking at you because you are the preacher's kid, the preacher's grandkid. I had a lot of people looking at me. It took me a while to figure out it's more than about being a good person, it's about the actual relationship with Jesus. It actually took me until I got to the NBA to learn that.
"My whole life before that was about trying to be a relatively good person. When I got to the NBA, I realized I had all the stuff the Lord has to offer. I'm happy — but I'm still not full, and I knew deep down there was more. That's when the relationship became the main focus."
The image of NBA players would seem to make it difficult to lead a religious life. Not so, according to Korver. "Everyone talks about the temptations that come with the NBA," he says, "You can make it whatever you want to make it. If you want to make it a party, you can make it a party. If you don't want to, it's very easy not to. If you put yourself in certain situations, you might mess up. If you don't put yourself there and find yourself with good people, it's really not that hard."
But he also adds, "It doesn't really matter who you are, you get temptation every day. But if the holy spirit is alive in you, it really takes away a lot of that."
The Rev. Lewis would like to get back to holding regular chapel service; however, he understands the economics. And he emphasizes, "The Miller family has been totally supportive of the program."
Over the years, the minister has tried to select a theme for the entire season — such as the character of Jesus, the Beatitudes, resisting temptation and dealing with problems. He also provides individual counseling. A couple of years ago, a player attended chapel and after a sermon on the character of Jesus, came up to the minister and said, "I want to be a man like that."
Karl Malone and his wife were married by the Rev. Lewis. And the minister says Malone regularly attended his service.
"I also had Mark Jackson preach when he was here," the Rev. Lewis says.
Still, the minister says, one Hall of Fame NBA coach — the Rev. Lewis declined to disclose his name — does not allow any of his players to attend chapel when his team is in town. He doesn't allow it at home games, either, unless it is at least three hours prior to the game and held off site.
"He says it detracts from the players' focus," the pastor says.
The Rev. Lewis — and the many he has helped over the years — believe the coach may need to re-focus.
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