NEW YORK - Carl Lentz speaks openly about his friendship with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and other star athletes. He happily tells the story of how he baptized Justin Bieber — in NBA player Tyson Chandler's bathtub.
The preacher knows that A-list stars draw attention to Hillsong, the congregation he has helped grow into a multi-location megachurch, and he thinks that's a good thing. It can mean more resources to help people like the homeless veteran who found shelter at Hillsong after Lentz met him on a street corner and convinced him to come to a service by buying him a beer.
"I think everybody's a star in their own right," Lentz told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "God has created everybody with really special unique things about their life and about who they are."
Minutes into a hour-long interview, he choked up talking about a single mom fighting cancer who volunteers at Hillsong, which draws about 10,000 people weekly to its locations in Manhattan and Montclair, New Jersey. He described her as "a star."
"This is a hero," he said. "So when people say I'm a pastor to the stars, I just assume they're referring to that woman alone."
Lentz was already well-known for establishing the U.S. arm of the Australia-based Hillsong seven years ago and building it, with campuses in Los Angeles and Phoenix. But his name really started taking off on social media as some journalists credited him for helping Bieber clean up his act , others blamed him for convincing Durant to leave Oklahoma City to join the Golden State Warriors , and rumours flew that Lentz forced the Irving-Lebron James breakup in Cleveland.
"My job as a pastor is to pray, to support, to give wisdom when asked and I had zero to do with Kyrie Irving having any trade desires ," Lentz said. "It was fun to watch the fake news cycle. Kyrie's an amazing man on his own. He doesn't need help navigating his career. If he needs help to hear God's voice or to know Jesus better, or to have a no-strings relationship, that's what I'm here for."
It can be difficult for celebrities and star athletes to trust people, even family members, agents or others in their entourage. For multi-millionaires, it's hard to discern genuine friends from those with ulterior motives. But Lentz insists he has no agenda and he's not afraid to speak truth into their lives. He doesn't get paid for his gig as team chaplain for the Brooklyn Nets or take money from his famous pals.
"If my only agenda is to love you, I can call it like I see it," he said "I can actually give you an objective, loving viewpoint, and I think guys do appreciate that."
Durant considers Lentz a "life mentor" and spiritual guide.
"He wants me to see the difference between who I am as a basketball player and who I am as a man," said Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP. "I believe in Jesus and he helped me realize what that's all about. He's a huge part of my life."
NFL star Russell Wilson met Lentz through Judah Smith, a Seattle-based pastor who leads a megachurch with a campus in Los Angeles (and introduced Lentz and Bieber).
Lentz is "my guy," the Seahawks quarterback said. "I think you see his love for people. It doesn't matter where they come from or what they look like or whatever."
Lentz, a 38-year-old Virginia Beach native who affectionately calls his hometown hero and NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson "Bubba Chuck," played 11 basketball games at North Carolina State in the late 1990s. He scored eight career points as a walk-on, but his time, however limited, in the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference gives him credibility with athletes.
"Understanding the psyche of an athlete has been huge," Lentz said. "I feel like God put me through that season so I can translate some of that into what I'm doing now. You work hard when no one watches. You put in the time when no one else is putting in the time. You go over and above to make your team better. All these things are not athletic traits. These are Jesus traits, so if you take even half of that effort you did to be the best athlete in the world, you're gonna kill this."
In his inspirational book "Own the Moment," which comes out Tuesday, Lentz recalls playing a two-on-two pickup game with Durant. With the game on the line, Lentz took a contested jumper instead of passing the ball back to Durant. He missed, they lost and Durant won't let him forget it.
Lentz looks, dresses and talks like the millennials who flock to his church. He has tattoos, wears skinny jeans and rocks a stylish haircut.
Worshippers are willing to stand in long lines waiting to get into a Hillsong service. They're greeted by smiling volunteers eager to welcome guests.
Lentz encourages everyone to dress however they like. One guy carried his skateboard into a recent service while another came straight from the gym in a tank top. A pregnant woman sat on a step in the back while a family from the Philippines arrived early to avoid the long wait.
"Jesus looked physically a lot more like Colin Kaepernick than he did Tom Brady," Lentz said. "Jesus didn't put on any fronts, he didn't try to be anything other than who he was. We might be cool today but the truth is we're not really cool. We're just who we are."
Pastor Levi Lusko, leader of Fresh Life megachurch, compared Lentz to President Theodore Roosevelt.
"It is said of great men like Teddy Roosevelt that after being around them you feel so energized by their personality and charisma that you almost feel it is electric," Lusko said. "That is the grace that is on Carl. He is the most instantly likable person I have ever met. God gave him an incredible gift of interacting with and influencing people and he uses it not for a selfish agenda but to point people to Jesus."
Lentz knows that many find him — and his church — to be unconventional, but he believes he can win them over.
"The way we preach, the way we lead, it's not new to us, but for many people, they grew up watching a priest talk very softly," he said. "So we look like we're insane. Just broaden your view, just learn, watch and hopefully over time this becomes more understandable to people who are outside looking in."
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley and Tim Booth contributed to this report.
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