A Jesuit confesses his love for March Madness and NCAA basketball
Al had said, “God didn’t miss any of us.”
Euphoria was ceding to grogginess as I walked into my Monday morning philosophy class at Marquette University. At the lectern stood our professor, a paradigmatic old-school Jesuit: tall, black-suited and bespectacled; Omaha-raised and Innsbruck-trained; unfailingly kind and given to discoursing more on God than on the Heidegger he knew so much about. He was supposed to lecture on Kant. But Kant could wait.
We were going to the Final Four.
That long Wisconsin winter, I had settled into a rhythm of studying during the day and spending the evenings, alternately, meditating on the spiritual poetry of the Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross or watching the acrobatic poetry of Marquette’s All-American shooting guard Dwyane Wade.
God is found in the interstices, I tell my spiritual directees. That is, in the nooks and crannies and the spaces between. In the gaps, the breaks, the areas where things just don’t line up. But back then, this didn’t feel like an interstice; it felt like an unbridgeable gulf. I wanted to set out on a contemplative journey to God and to watch March Madness, and I saw no way of doing both.
The thrill of victory
Then came the March afternoon on which Wade dismantled the #1-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, posting a triple-double and sending Marquette to the Final Four for the first time since 1977, when they won the National Championship in legendary coach and wordsmith Al McGuire’s final game. Marquette’s campus erupted. Police closed Wisconsin Avenue, and the student body ran practically en masse through Milwaukee’s downtown to Lake Michigan. Al once said, “Sports is a coffee break.” That particular break stretched into an all-night celebration, the coffee itself being replaced by a certain beverage that had made Milwaukee famous.
I didn’t read any John of the Cross that night, nor, I imagine, did anyone anywhere in Milwaukee.
As class began the next morning, the old Jesuit set aside his notes on Kant’s categorical imperative and launched into an impromptu lecture on the aesthetics of basketball and on what this tournament run meant to our university. He knew how special this moment was—we weren’t Duke or North Carolina, after all—and he wanted us to reflect on the depths of it.
Something happened to me that hour as I listened to this holy priest who seamlessly loved God, philosophy and sound point-guard play.
Something happened to me that hour as I listened to this holy priest who seamlessly loved God, philosophy and sound point-guard play. Somehow the interstice started to close. The celebrated Catholic “both/and” began to replace the “either/or” that had been taking root in my religious worldview. I came to see that God’s grace does not destroy, but perfects human nature. And so, as the Jesuits were teaching me, all things could be done for the greater glory of God.
Al knew this. The McGuire catechism defines mortal sin as failing to let out the talents God has put in you.
I abandoned my plan to become a contemplative monk and entered the Jesuits instead.
Al was right: God doesn’t miss any of us.
The agony of defeat
All of this came back to me last Saturday as I stood on a Milwaukee street corner soaked, shivering and dejected, waiting for a bus in 35-degree driving rain next to a carcass of grimy snow. I had just watched Marquette lose to Georgetown in the regular season finale. The plan had been to see a championship banner unfurled that afternoon. Instead, I witnessed the coda of an epic collapse. Ten days earlier, Marquette had been ranked in the top 10 in the nation, stood at 12-2 in conference and needed to win just one of their remaining four games to clinch a Big East regular season title.
They lost all four.
The bus finally came. As we headed down Wisconsin Avenue, through fogged-up windows and sheets of rain, I caught a glimpse of the academic building where I had heard the philosophy lecture 16 years before. Four-game losing streaks cause you to question everything: pick-and-roll defense, your star guard’s usage rate, the spiritual principles that orient your life. The confidence I had as I sat in that classroom that I could live in the world without being of it now seemed naïve. Years of religious life had taught me other lessons. Any “both/and” contains an “either/or.” Grace not only perfects nature, but also strikes, interrogates and flutters around it. God acts in our lives not through neat-and-tidy formulas, but in a panoply of delightful, crucifying and unexpected ways. Gaps, ambiguities—interstices—remain.
Four-game losing streaks cause you to question everything: pick-and-roll defense, your star guard’s usage rate, the spiritual principles that orient your life.
They are on display every year as March Madness gets underway and the curious coincidence of basketball and American Catholicism comes into view. Articles appear trying to explain the phenomenon, pointing to American immigrant Catholicism being an urban phenomenon, or the readiness of Catholic universities to welcome black student-athletes before their secular and Protestant counterparts.
Al said he wouldn’t recruit players with grass in front of their homes, because that wasn’t his world—his world had a cracked sidewalk.
Ironies, incongruities and interstices abound in Catholic hoops. Like the presence of a priest—if not a nonagenarian nun—stationed between a team’s walk-ons and cheerleaders. (Al said you could tell if they were from a Catholic school by the length of their skirts). Or the foreign-sounding names of universities that cause the occasional fan to ask, “What’s a Gonzaga?” only to look it up and wonder how the name of a 16th-century Italian nobleman known for his mortification came to be emblazoned on the clothes of maniacally screaming college students who, at least in the moment, do not look particularly interested in mortification.
Or a Dwyane Wade triple-double leading to a Jesuit vocation.
Such are consequences of the Word having been made flesh and dwelling among us. Not in some theoretical other realm, but among us and our variegated human drama, in which we love, sin and occasionally gather by the thousands to watch young people play games involving balls and hoops.
God in the locker room
College basketball is a big-time business and a scandal-ridden world. One might think it is not a compelling irony, but instead sin, that Catholic schools sponsored by religious orders whose members have vows of poverty spend and make millions of dollars on sports.
Marquette plays in a sparkling new arena. But it was built with $250 million of taxpayer money in a city marred by poverty, violence and segregation. Marquette schedules prime-time non-conference matchups. But sometimes they do so on American warships. Marquette has some of the snazziest uniforms in sports, continuing a long tradition of being on the sartorial cutting-edge of college athletics (and, I like to think, an even longer Jesuit aesthetic tradition of baroque exuberance). But this gear is manufactured by a company about whom sweatshop-labor concerns never quite seem to go away.
Al said, “Life is what you allow yourself not to see.”
There are risks to a world-affirming spirituality. It can lead to complacency, to baptizing what should not be baptized and to condoning what should not be condoned. One can blithely invoke the phrase “all things for the glory of God” as an excuse for all sorts of worldly behavior.
But such an outlook also allows one to spot the wheat among the weeds, even in the overgrown terrain of college basketball. Like when Marquette’s coach Steve Wojciechowski broke down in tears talking about the “selflessness” and “the pure heart” of one of his seniors. Or the joy of watching two brothers, Sam and Joey Hauser, playing together no longer in their family’s central Wisconsin driveway, but in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. Or the night the Big East Player of the Year, Markus Howard, scored 53 points in a game and then remarked “I give all the glory to God.” Whether it’s leading service trips to Costa Rica or talking openly about mental health, Howard seems to mean it.
When asked if God is in the locker room, Al said, sure he is, otherwise these players wouldn’t be there.
Before the Marquette-Georgetown game on March 9, I met some friends at a sports bar to watch Villanova play Seton Hall. The place was teeming with blue-and-gold-clad Marquette fans. Having lived most of the past five years in Europe, I had grown accustomed to listening to games alone in my room via an internet radio stream. A certain spirit overcame me: not quite Dionysian, but communitarian; not nostalgia, but a sense of belonging.
Something a friend says came to mind. The genius of the Jesuit charism is how it can take someone’s inordinate attachments and direct them toward the good: Father President may fundraise out of vanity, but it results in poor students receiving a Catholic education.
Sometimes I worry about my inordinate attachment to Marquette basketball. I fear that when I arrive, cravenly, before the judgment seat of God, I will hear the Lord say, “You wasted too much time watching college hoops.” To which I will respond, “Lord, if you didn’t want me to watch, you shouldn’t have made Dwyane Wade and Markus Howard so entertaining.”
I fear that when I arrive, cravenly, before the judgment seat of God, I will hear the Lord say, “You wasted too much time watching college hoops.”
In the meantime, I find peace in how God uses this attachment for the good, above all in the bonds that are formed, preserved and strengthened through a shared love of this game—with family and friends, with brother Jesuits and a Dominican friar (who, naturally, is a die-hard Providence Friars fan) or, as happened this February on a snowy evening in downtown Chicago at a Marquette-DePaul game, with some random guy wearing yellow pants and a blue sport jacket with whom I chatted for two hours.
Is this superficial? Perhaps. But in a culture where familial and societal bonds are fraying, this is not nothing, either. It is a lot easier to talk to a Jesuit confrere about our prayer if we’ve been texting for the past three months about basketball, or to ask a former student about his father’s failing health as we watch a game together.
Grace works slowly, but steadily, in the interstices. Al laid down the principle: “Help one kid at a time. He’ll maybe go back and help a few more. In a generation, you’ll have something.”
After the loss to Georgetown, as I got back to the Jesuit community and into some dry clothes, I tried to console myself by saying that a basketball season as a complete work is a chiaroscuro, that without these dark patches, the bright ones wouldn’t mean anything. It wasn’t convincing. I ran into one of the fathers and asked if he had watched the game. “Nope, I can’t anymore, I get too into it—ever since 1954. It just makes me too depressed.”
That’s where much of the Marquette fanbase has been this week. But as I look at the still-immaculate NCAA tournament bracket, I do find comfort. People forget what a team does during the regular season. Al’s 1977 team lost their final three home games, and he was booed off the court the last time he coached in Milwaukee, but no one remembers that. They remember NCAA tournament runs. Catholic schools have made some of the best of them: Loyola Chicago’s Final Four last year; Loyola Marymount’s 1990 Elite Eight after the tragic death of star Hank Gathers; the 1985 Cinderella Villanova team, for whom the clock never struck midnight as they defeated heavily-favored Georgetown in an all-Catholic final. The list could go on.
As I think about the experiences of those teams and the communities behind them, I remember something my old professor said to us the day after Marquette punched its ticket to the Final Four in 2003: “The experience you are having cannot be reductively explained by the effect of a ball going through a hoop. No, something else, something beyond the material—dare I say, something transcendent—is at play.”
The annual carnival that is March Madness reminds those of us hopelessly attached to this trivial game that the interstice between the spiritual and material, between the sacred and profane, might not be as wide as we often suspect. For in that interstice, God is active.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.
They asked McGuire what he was thinking as tears streamed down his face in the closing seconds of the National Championship Game.
And Al said, “Just the wildness of it all.”