I was 8 years old in March 1982, a third grader at Our Lady of Good Counsel just starting to fit in, a gawky youth-league basketball player whose sole advantage was being a head taller than everyone else on the court but the ref. And, thanks to regular broadcasts on local TV stations in the Washington, D.C., area, I was a Georgetown Hoyas fan.
Patrick Ewing, all 6-foot-11 of him, was my hero. Hoyas head coach John Thompson I imagined as my basketball uncle. It was a big deal at school that a Catholic university was in the NCAA men’s final.
So when the kids in Mrs. Shane’s class lined up by whether they’d be cheering for underdog Georgetown or the favorite, North Carolina — led by James Worthy and a freshman hotshot whom the papers were still calling “Mike” Jordan — and I found myself in the shorter queue, I couldn’t believe it. In my heart, you could bounce a basketball across the Potomac River from the OLGC parking lot and land it on the doorstep of McDonough Gym. And Georgetown was Catholic! Where was the loyalty?
I didn’t know then that the Big East was just a few years old but up-and-coming as a power conference. I didn’t know that Thompson and Tar Heels coach Dean Smith were close friends, or that Thompson was a “controversial” figure who had endured years of racist slurs and opposition even from Hoya fans, or that, at the exciting tip-off that Monday night, March 29, he faced the prospect of becoming the first African American coach to lead a Division I team to a national basketball championship. I just knew Ewing and point guard Eric “Sleepy” Floyd were unstoppable — and I had to calm down or I was going to make myself really unpopular while gloating at school the next day.
Jordan’s late game-winner, foreshadowing the heroics of his NBA career, extinguished my first round of Hoya hubris.
All this came rushing back to me this week when, rather than studying up to fill out yet another futile March Madness bracket, I finished reading ESPN columnist John Gasaway’s brand-new book, Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope and a Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball. I’d picked it up because I wanted to understand better my annual sucker’s attraction, come tournament time, to teams with names like Creighton and Dayton, Providence and Villanova, St. Bonaventure and St. Joe, and how it is that any of us think these little Catholic climbers have a chance against supposedly better-heeled powerhouses like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and, well, North Carolina.
I’d asked myself this question years ago when I came to Notre Dame a with thoughts of becoming a historian of American religion — the traditional kind — and American sports, our collective pagan passion: Just how is it that Catholic schools “are so good at” college basketball?
Gasaway offers this quick resume for just the last 20 years: Villanova’s two NCAA titles, Gonzaga’s runner-up finish; Georgetown, Marquette and Loyola-Chicago’s Final Four runs and Xavier’s three appearances in the Elite Eight. You don’t see this kind of consistent success among Catholic programs in any other high-visibility sport. The late, great Frank Deford could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting Notre Dame football when he wrote, after the 1985 classic title matchup between Villanova and Georgetown, “For many Americans, college basketball is the outward and visible sign of Catholicism in the United States.”
Miracles traces the deeper roots of this phenomenon, without maybe going too deep. Where I’d started by looking at the 19th century ballfields and boathouses of schools like Notre Dame for something I wanted to call “Muscular Catholicism,” a way for Irish and German immigrants to prove themselves on a cultural landscape hostile to their inner convictions, Gasaway nods at James Naismith, the YMCA gym director who got his kids to start shootin’ hoops. In the book’s opening line, the author notes bluntly, “Basketball was invented to save Protestant men’s souls.”
True, and then the game born in 1891 took off like a Loyola Marymount fast break circa 1989. Its popularity was immediate, and in Gasaway’s phrase Naismith had created “the perfect city sport.” Papist kids loved it, too. That made it an indispensable ingredient in the antidote to rapidly declining enrollments at Catholic colleges from coast to coast in the early 20th century. Drop the Greek and Latin and the year’s worth of philosophy and theology requirements, the thinking went, and go find yourself a good basketball coach.
As a strategy for institutional salvation, this approach seemed to work. But Gasaway’s account really begins in the late 1930s with the emergence of — and decadeslong blood rivalry between — the “parish” and “plains” traditions in the college game, and their formal if loosely defined expressions in the NIT and NCAA tournaments.
For Notre Dame readers, that origin story leaves out anything more than a passing mention of the dominant Fighting Irish teams of the pre-tournament era and their national championships in 1927 and ’36 under George Keogan, whose squads beat Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats seven straight times, leaving the chastened future coaching legend to admit how “Notre Dame taught me what should be done to improve my teams.” (Rupp, Gasaway writes, “was also said to be unnerved by the presence of so many priests at Irish home games.”)
Chapter by chapter, the author gives basketball fans an entertaining litany of athletic success, as one high-flying program and its on-court stars passed the baton to the next: George Mikan and DePaul during the war years; Bob Cousy’s postwar Holy Cross machine; Bill Russell’s game-changing style of play for the University of San Francisco mini-dynasty of the 1950s; Al McGuire’s flashy Marquette Warriors, the last independent college team to win it all, in 1977. Gasaway’s retelling of the 1963 “Game of Change,” the NCAA regional semifinal between Loyola-Chicago’s all-Black starting five and a Mississippi State team that had to fake out police just to get out of the state to play, and of Loyola’s victory days later in the championship game over Cincinnati, are a thrill 58 years later, as good as basketball writing gets.
Miracles on the Hardwood is especially attentive to Catholicism’s role in the desegregation of the sport, from Chicago Bishop Bernard Sheil’s declaration that “Jim Crowism in the Mystical Body of Christ is a disgraceful anomaly” to John Thompson’s ultimate NCAA tournament victory in 1984 — two years after my dashed third-grade hopes.
While the Catholic record is positive on balance, it is not unmixed. Notre Dame, Dayton and St. Louis University all withdrew from the four-team 1956 Sugar Bowl Invitational rather than leave their Black players at home. Yet Thompson, struggling in his third season at Georgetown in the early 1970s, was still being greeted by disgruntled home-team partisans unafraid to paint the n-word on a banner. Other Hoya fans pulled down one such sign, and the school condemned the bigots, but questions about why Thompson was offering scholarships almost exclusively to Black athletes who attended an all-but-entirely-white college would linger for at least a decade. After Ewing and company beat Houston in the 1984 title game, I don’t recall hearing that anymore.
Soon thereafter, basketball became an armchair pastime for me, and when I went south and public for my education, my heart for the Hoyas faded away. But my bracket-time hopes for Georgetown and other Catholic “upstarts” endure. In fact, as Gasaway demonstrates with one odds-defying narrative after another, there’s nothing really upstarty about them — Catholic colleges account for 12 percent of Division I institutions, 12 percent of the teams that have played in national semifinals and 12 percent of the national titles. They punch their weight. And that alone is kind of a miracle.
The book comes up short in the search for a “Catholic secret sauce,” and Gasaway waves off notions of any “one true church” of roundball. I see now I was asking the wrong question. Being “Catholic” has little to do with what makes teams from Jesuit, Dominican and Holy Cross schools so good. What’s interesting is how fans like me see these good teams year in, year out, and identify with them collectively as such.
As we head into the opening weekend of the 2021 tournament, with seven Catholic colleges among the final 64 and the Bulldogs of Spokane, Washington’s, Gonzaga University (undergraduate pop. 5,237), taking the overall No. 1 seed, I worry my weakness for picking “Catholic” is about to bust my bracket yet again.
John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.