Athletes turn to Lecrae for rap inspiration

Lin has touted the Atlanta-based rapper Lecrae as his musical inspiration. Reach Records

The date was Jan. 27, 2012, around 5:30 p.m., two hours before tipoff between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks. That's when Jeremy Lin met with the Heat's chaplain inside the bowels of American Airlines Arena. They prayed together that Lin would stay with the Knicks, who were considering releasing him in just a couple of days.

Well, we all know what happened next: Linsanity.

But what many people don't know is that Lin, who's a devout Christian, is still searching for answers -- nine months since his coming-out party -- because he hasn't yet adjusted to all of the global attention.

Lecrae, whom Lin calls his favorite rapper, found that out firsthand when the two of them met about three weeks ago after one of the rapper's shows in Houston, where the point guard is now living.

"What Jeremy talked to me about was just the reality of everyone kind of pulling at him, and a lot of people expecting him to make decisions that would please them," Lecrae told ESPN Playbook earlier this week. "He's kind of a reserved kid, a reserved young man, and it's not really his demeanor to be all in the mix like that, and to be pulled every which way.

"He was talking about that struggle and that wrestle, and I'm a firm believer in God. That's one of the things I was encouraging him, which I do with my music as well. I'm a firm believer that God has the answer, and God will provide the solution that you ultimately need. I just told him to stay connected to him in every which way. That's kind of what we talked about."

It turns out that Lecrae, who specializes in Christian hip-hop and recently dropped his sixth studio album, "Gravity," is highly sought after by players around the league -- and even team chaplains -- for his prayer sessions. Lecrae either does them at the arena or stadium or the visiting team's hotel, typically starting two hours before the game and lasting 45 minutes.

They're usually scheduled when Lecrae is in a certain city performing, or when there's a game featuring a team with whom he has a good relationship. Since initiating his chapel services last year, free of charge, he's developed relationships with Team USA men's basketball and the Kings and Timberwolves in the NBA; the Giants, Falcons and Buccaneers in the NFL; and the Yankees, Braves, White Sox and Diamondbacks in MLB. His next chapel service is on Dec. 16 with the Giants in Atlanta, where they play the Falcons.

While taking a break from his current nationwide "Unashamed Tour 2012: Come Alive,” Lecrae spoke with ESPN Playbook about his spiritually driven hip-hop, how he helps the pros and his own sports interests.

So I hear you have a special connection with a lot of athletes because of the unique messages in your music.

Yeah, everywhere I go -- different states, different cities. In Pittsburgh recently, we got to hang out with Andrew McCutchen and some of the Pirates. In Chicago, some of the Cubs came out. We hung out with some of the Cardinals when we get to Arizona, so it's been good, man. Professional athletes are showing a lot of support, and I'm really honored.

Why do you think they relate so much to your songs?

I think a lot of players have foundations in their faith, and they really see that permeate in every other aspect of their lives. Music is just one of the areas, and I think a lot of guys love hip-hop or rap music, but they tend to not have hip-hop or rap music that kind of co-signs their views on life. So I think that's kind of what I provide them. Also, I just like to get guys amped up before games as well. Myself being athletically inclined, I like to have music that pumps me up, too.

When did you first start developing relationships in sports?

I did a concert at a sports camp in Missouri [in 2003] and it was for a lot of inner-city kids, and I think there I started developing relationships with a lot of college athletes. Over time, some of them have gone on to play in the leagues, and we've kept in touch. And then on top of that, they've just been spreading the word, and I think a lot of guys love being able to give their teammates some music that will inspire them.

Which athletes are you closest with today?

Bubba Watson and I are pretty close. We hang out from time to time, and he comes to Atlanta, where I live, and I go out to Phoenix, where he lives. Dwight Howard and I are buddies, Justin Forsett who plays for the Houston Texans, Anthony Tolliver who's now on the Hawks -- there are a lot of guys. Nolan Smith from the Trail Blazers. They're just buddies, man. It's just friends. We enjoy athletics, we enjoy hip-hop and we have similar backgrounds, similar stories.

What was your reaction when you heard Lin say last season that you were his favorite rapper?

It was really encouraging. It was really inspiring to be able to have that support. Because really, at the end of the day, these are guys, these are people, and they don't have it all figured out. They're playing professional sports, and there's a lot of demands on them, and so you just want to be able to be in their corner and serve them. And I think my music does that in a lot of ways. I'm relating to them, just giving them insights on life.

Why do you think Christian hip-hop has recently become more popular?

I tend not to call it Christian hip-hop because I think it would be limited to being only for Christians. I think it's responsible hip-hop. I think it paints a broad picture of life, and it doesn't just limit life to just kind of instinctual pleasure, power pleasure and possession.

You see [the "30 for 30" documentary] "Broke" and see all these guys who are losing funds. It's a reality that's happened for them, but there's a lot of baggage that comes with that. And guys are looking for answers and are looking for wisdom in a lot of areas that a lot of people aren't giving to them. And so that's one of the things that I look to do. When I get an opportunity, I try to do chapel services for some of the pro players, just to try to give them reality.

When you run your chapel services with players, what are some of the biggest issues you discuss with them?

I think one of the biggest issues is really just significance and purpose, and not having your identity wrapped up in your performance on the field, because you're more than a professional athlete. You're more than your talent and your skill. You're a whole person. It's just encouraging guys when they get injured or when no one's cheering for them anymore -- that they're still significant. They still have purpose. That's pretty much been a general issue for a lot of guys -- it's the performance trap.

It's interesting how even the team chaplains invite you. What significance does that have?

It's good for the athletes when somebody looks like them, talks like them, grew up how they grew up and dealt with some of the pressures in some ways. That's always hopeful.

At your New York City show two weeks ago, you performed "Falling Down" from your newest album, which I related to sports in that even if you have a bad game, you pick yourself right back up for the next one.

Yeah. I think that's the whole basis behind my album, "Gravity," is that life is waiting, and there are issues and circumstances that pull us down. And as they pull us down, you've got to remember that these circumstances are building endurance, perseverance and they're molding you into the person that you're supposed to be. I just remind them that one moment doesn't define your whole life -- you're not defined by a failure and there's more life left to live.

So what's your sports background?

Mostly recreational. I just enjoy getting out there and doing it. I fell victim as a kid. I was the tallest kid. I'm 6-4, but I fell victim to all my coaches saying, "Put him in the post." Then all of a sudden, you're 16 and all you know is post moves, and you never worked on your handle or anything like that. So I'm a late bloomer.

Where do you play basketball now?

We did an arena tour last year and we got into these arenas and just played. We were in Dallas and got to get on the Mavericks court. In Phoenix, we got to get on the practice court and just get out there and play a little bit. Fortunately for me, none of the guys have come out there and embarrassed me.

Who was your childhood sports idol?

I was a big Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles fan. I just loved seeing the Villanova-Connecticut battle when I was a kid, just seeing that go down. And I loved Allen Iverson. Every kid loved Michael Jordan. He's an icon.

Which modern athlete do you love to hate?

That's gotta be Kobe Bryant, man. He's just a phenomenal player, but if you just want to see your team do well, here comes Kobe and your people can't hold him.

What team would make you happiest if it won a championship?

The Hawks would be the one, man. They're always so close and they do well in the season, but just something happens. I don't know what's going on in the front office or anything like that, but hopefully there will be some adjustments and some things changing.

What is your favorite sports memory as a fan or participant?

The big memory for me would probably be when I was a little-bitty kid [in elementary school in Denver], and I remember the principal told us that some pro basketball player was going to come speak at our school. They sent me to the office to go get him, and he was Dikembe Mutombo. And I just remember being scared out of my mind about how massive that dude was. I was like, "What in the world?" I got to walk him to my classroom. I was petrified. He was so big and his voice was so deep.

What is your most prized piece of sports memorabilia?

One is a Juan Pierre signed jersey and then my big one is a football that Tony Dungy signed for me. He sent it to my house with a message. He just said, "I'm really proud of you, really encouraged by all the things you're doing and how you're trying to transform these people's lives." He sent me a commemorative football, and it was signed by him.

He had some people that worked with him actually introduce him to my music, and he had a campaign trying to encourage fathers. And I had a song called, "Just Like You" that was about young boys who grow up without their fathers. Just fatherlessness. We just kind of teamed up for his All-Pro Dad campaign. Man, he's just been a great leader and somebody who I really admire, and I've been honored to serve him any way I could.