At one point, as many as 10 Utah players congregated before tipoff. The past few years were quiet. But the 2011-12 Jazz are unique, blending the old with the new to produce increasingly tight bonds, delivering a unified front that's already stronger than anything Utah approached during recent seasons. In turn, the Jazz's pastor again has a crowd one Utah players believe is topped only by Oklahoma City. And the movement has only grown stronger during the Jazz's recent rise in the Western Conference.
"Religion been a part of my life ever since I could remember. My two grandmothers always made it very clear about God and Jesus Christ and all that good stuff. So it's always been a big part of my life. And without it, it'd be easy to lose faith and give up," said Jefferson, who wears a black wristband with the words "God Can't Fail" etched in white.
"When you're not able to go to church like you want to, that chapel is a wonderful thing," he said. "This year is really the only year that I've really been going every game. … We've got a great group of guys that like to go and the young guys like to go, so me and Earl take it upon ourselves to make sure we go with them every day."
The room, the walk
Utah is on the verge of creating something special with its season-high six-game winning streak, 26-22 record and sudden climb to the sixth seed in the West. But in a league filled with glitz and glamor, the numbers are nothing compared with the sight of Jazz veterans and rookies making their pregame chapel walk an hour before tipoff.
Big Al, G-Man, The Human Pogo Stick, D-Fav and The Bulldog briefly put away their public personas, leave behind the lush comforts of their locker room, walk straight, hook a left, and enter Room 145 on ESA's ground level.
Fifteen players listened to Lewis on Tuesday, with nine Thunder members including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook absorbing a Bible verse about perseverance in the face of adversity. Utah's pastor hand-selected the words the same day the Jazz announced forward Josh Howard was expected to miss the remainder of the season due to left knee surgery.
"I tell them ahead of time everything is going to be based on the Bible. And if it doesn't suit them, all right," said Lewis, a minister at The Point Christian Church in Sandy. "We've had Muslims and atheists attending, and nobody's complained yet about that."
He added: "It's very, very helpful [for the team]. It is really a good thing, and it's typical of what's happening with the Jazz on the floor and in the locker room and in the chapel."
After Jefferson suffered a career-altering anterior cruciate ligament injury during 2009 and recently dealt with the death of the grandmother who raised him, religion has never been more important to him.
The soft-handed, soft-hearted big man's belief in God has evolved to the point where he views a simple sunrise as proof of grace.
"When you wake up, you should get on your knees to thank God. It's also a blessing to play this game and have the talent to play this game," Jefferson said. "I count my blessings, man. Because I know at the snap of a finger, it can be taken away from me."
Religion is equally personal for Watson, who's overcome personal tragedy. But the fiery veteran point guard didn't deny what's become obvious. The Jazz's belief in God and dedication to pregame prayer is having a team-wide effect. Utah feels rock-strong on and off the hardwood. The words Lewis carefully chooses for every chapel session? They remind the Jazz of what they want to be, and what they can still become.
"It shows unselfishness, because we actually focus on other things besides basketball. We focus on the right thing, which is spirituality and spiritual growth," Watson said. "And more than anything, it's unity. Families go to chapel or church together. … So it shows a bond and the continuity and the close-knit. Our group is becoming a family."
Jazz at Hawks
P At Phillips Arena (Atlanta)
Tipoff • Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 26-22, Hawks 29-20
Last meeting • Hawks, 110-87 (Jan. 5, 2011)
About the Jazz • After Memphis lost to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, Utah moved into a four-way tie for sixth place in the Western Conference. The Jazz were just a game behind the fourth-place Los Angeles Lakers with 18 contests to go. … Utah has moved up to sixth in the NBA in average scoring (98.3). … The Jazz are 3-0 since C.J. Miles and Gordon Hayward teamed up in the starting lineup.
About the Hawks • Atlanta defeated Washington on Saturday. The Hawks have won five of six. … Joe Johnson leads Atlanta in scoring (19), while Josh Smith tops the team in rebounds (9.8) and is averaging 18.1 points. … The Hawks rank fifth in points allowed (91.9) but are 22nd in scoring (93.9).