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NY Knicks and Pastor John Love
NBA notebook

For Knicks, It's not all Love and Basketball 
April 22, 2001

Pastor John Love waited last week inside a small dressing room at Madison Square Garden, facing an arc of empty folding chairs that would soon overflow with Allan Houston, Charlie Ward, Mark Jackson and any drop-ins arriving for 10 minutes of pregame chapel. Love had been commuting to the Garden for 12 years to lead these services, plus the postgame prayer huddles, driving through rush-hour traffic up Interstate 95 from Baltimore ever since he heard from acquaintances there was a vacancy. ``I'm a real fan,'' he said.

About an hour before each home game, Love expounded on a Biblical premise he thought might offer a strong practical message to the players. Now, Love wondered why the New York Knicks' coach, Jeff Van Gundy, considered him a potential problem.

``I don't just want to be a distraction down the hallway,'' he said.

Love became an issue, personifying the thorny twine between church and basketball, after Van Gundy complained briefly in a New York Magazine article that his players should concentrate on preparing for games, that they should pray on their own time. The coach was galled that Othella Harrington would be pestered about chapel when his nose was in a playbook.

The complaint threw a spotlight on Love's little corner of the corridor, on his locker room access and on the pastor's links to his controversial, evangelical employers -- Greater Grace Church and its affiliated Maryland Bible College, where Love is youth director. The church owns a disturbing history that includes inconvenient departures by its founders from former headquarters in two states. In a previous incarnation, it lost a $6 million lawsuit to a department store heiress, and faced charges of overzealous recruitment and fund-raising against its senior pastor, Carl H. Stevens.

Love's credential as team pastor has helped him establish contacts and brought undeniable perks. One current Knicks player, who is not a regular chapel attendee and asked not to be identified, says he gave Love a $1,000 contribution. Love said others have donated money over the years, and that he has used these contributions to fund his round-trips to New York. Sometimes, Love said, he has spent his own money, because there were no other available funds. ``Gas, tolls, the parking alone is a lot,'' Love said.

He says he would welcome larger player donations for scholarships or one of his youth programs. He says he has never asked for such help.

``I'd love it if they'd want to,'' he said. ``But I try to stay away from that. It's just a ministry set up for them. I'm not here to take anything from them."
"I don't perceive them as rich athletes,'' he said. ``I see them as young men trying to grow in their faith.''

Love is often handed tickets purchased by players, most recently by Charlie Ward. He once received 40 of them from a former Knicks player.

The pastor often takes children from his youth ministry to the games. Sometimes, such as last Friday, he brings his wife and friends to the upper press box and other friends to seats below he has obtained for them.

There is no NBA Players Association licensing procedure for team pastors, as there is for agents. Love has a long-standing staff credential issued by the Knicks, which specifically instructs the holder, ``No autographs allowed.'' Until this season, Love nonetheless worked both locker rooms frequently for autographs after games. He sought signatures on donated sneakers and jerseys.

``I enjoy giving them to the kids,'' Love said.

On several occasions, equipment managers from other teams complained to the Knicks about Love's activities. The Knicks asked Love to stop this behavior last fall, and he has complied to an extent.

``It's kind of changed,'' he said. ``There was a time they said it was not a problem. Now, I just get them (autographs) once in awhile, if we happen to run into the players outside.''

Mark Jackson has appeared as a guest at the church's Poconos-based youth program, Camp Life, directed by Love. Jackson is now featured prominently in promotional literature on the camp Web site.

None of the players, and that includes Harrington, ever complained about Love. But some Knicks officials were quietly suspicious of the pastor, even before knowing the newsworthy background of his church.

Greater Grace Church claims a congregation of 2,000 in Baltimore and another 1,000 international missionaries, along with its thriving World Outreach program. There are affiliated churches in Brooklyn and Paterson, N.J.

Several of the same leaders founded Greater Grace after their previous ministry, The Bible Speaks, declared bankruptcy in 1987 and left Lenox, Mass.

``It doesn't surprise me they'd become involved with professional athletes,'' said Gordon T. Walker, a Boston attorney who won that case in bankruptcy court against The Bible Speaks. ``They're always looking for a millionaire,'' Walker said. ``They have a keen sense of, `Show me the money.' ''

Stevens, who is Love's superior and the 71-year-old leader of Greater Grace, has been publicly admonished in a court of law for such aggressive behavior.

In a ruling upheld through appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, Judge James F. Queenan Jr. decided at the bankruptcy trial in Worcester, Mass., that there was, ``an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice and subjugation on the part of the Church's founder, Carl H. Stevens. He has abused the trust of many good and devout members of the Church.''

Betsy Dovydenas, the plaintiff in that case, did not immediately recover the $5.5 million (reduced by appeal from $6.5 million) court award, because of the church's departure and subsequent reorganization by its leaders in Baltimore. However, she eventually assumed control of the 88-acre campus abandoned by the Bible Speaks near Lenox, and sold properties to regain the money she donated.

Dovydenas argued she was isolated from family through ``shepherding,'' and misled by Stevens' tales of needed monetary relief for everything from his wife's migraines to a prisoner in Romania. She contributed more than $6 million to The Bible Speaks, most of it without her husband's knowledge, before she was counseled by two cult de-programmers. Dovydenas said last week that she occasionally went on recruiting missions with Pastor Love in Lenox, that he was active in The Bible Speaks during the 1980s but never asked her for money.

Stevens' documented history goes back further than the Lenox debacle. A high school dropout who once supported his family by driving a bakery truck in Maine, he became a lay preacher in North Paris and then Wiscasset, Maine. There, his church dropped its Baptist affiliation to go independent, growing quickly through its radio ministry.

The Wiscasset church was partially destroyed by a suspicious fire in August 1972. Stevens, concerned for his own safety, posted armed guards outside his home. New England Monthly reported that angry churchmen, some of them apparently furious at their wives' devotion to Stevens, confronted the pastor. He was forced to escape his church out the back window, as three aides lowered Stevens by his belt to the ground.

The church moved to South Berwick, Me., in 1973, then to Lenox, Mass., as The Bible Speaks. ``The Book of Miracles,'' a publication since disavowed by the church, claimed, ``In the early 1960s when Pastor Stevens was preaching to a couple of very small congregations, God called him one day to the back of the woods near a lake. There the Lord Jesus baptized him with what Pastor describes as liquid waves of love.''

While Stevens separated himself from this sort of dogma, loyalists insisted he was one of the select few who had been delegated authority over others from God. Those who questioned his power were guilty of ``evil reports,'' and were exiled from the community. Disgruntled former members said The Bible Speaks eavesdropped on phone conversations without permission, and induced parishioners to sell their houses to fund the church.

``I believe Carl Stevens is an evil, venal, manipulative man,'' said Walker, who has begun to write a book, ``Evil Reports,'' based on his courtroom experiences.

Over the years, Greater Grace remained a lightning rod for controversy. George Robertson, still a faculty member at the Maryland Bible College, became chairman of the Foundation for Religious Freedom, an organization that has been publicly linked to the Church of Scientology.

Robertson denied this. In 1989, Robertson, tired of accusations about his affiliations by cult watchdogs, told the Bergen Record, ``All Christians are cults to the Jews.'' In 1993, he reportedly was given the Freedom Human Rights Leadership award by the Scientologists at a Hollywood ceremony.

Pastor Love joined Stevens and Robertson in Baltimore, migrating from Massachusetts along with other leaders of the ministry. He already had assisted in prayer sessions with the Boston Celtics, introduced there by a team chaplain, Bill Alexson, another pastor with The Bible Speaks.

Pastor Michael E. Marr, who is public relations director for the church, said a halftime pep talk by Alexson once helped to turn around a critical playoff game for the Celtics.

``It was a positive prayer that just tore `em up,'' Marr said. ``Some distraction.''

In Baltimore, Love remained in charge of the church's youth department, organizing members to ring doorbells, asking parents whether their children attended Sunday school. If the answer was no, they were urged to send their kids to Greater Grace. He also was an instructor at the Maryland Bible College.

Marr says the free tickets obtained by Love are ``a blessing,'' because they allow church-involved youths to see the games. Marr bristles at any innuendo of predatory intentions toward rich athletes.

``We haven't taken a dime from anybody,'' he said.

Love also defends Stevens, a long-time associate. He says Greater Grace is not really The Bible Speaks, that it's ``a new ministry.'' He wants to talk to Van Gundy about how he can help.

The coach is in no hurry to listen. He isn't thrilled with the pastor's presence. But Van Gundy says he is sorry to have publicly criticized Love, thereby poking into the delicate realm of personal faith, and that his own parents are probably the most disappointed in him.

Van Gundy's father, Bill, was a basketball coach for 42 years, and often would lead his teams in the Lord's Prayer during pregame huddles.

The ministries of church and basketball have always looked to each other for inspiration. Big money in the locker room, and a trail of court papers, just make it a little more complicated.