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Ilia DelioApril 01, 2022
Villanova Wildcats players Ryan Arcidiacono, left, Phil Booth (5) and guard Mikal Bridges (25) celebrate after the team’s championship win of the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four in Houston.Villanova Wildcats players Ryan Arcidiacono, left, Phil Booth (5) and guard Mikal Bridges (25) celebrate after the team’s championship win of the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four in Houston. (CNS photo/Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

I have always been a basketball fan, so when I joined the faculty at Villanova in the fall of 2015, it was an added delight to learn that the school’s basketball team was on a winning streak. As the team headed into the 2016 March Madness tournament, my colleagues and I gathered at a local pub to watch the games that led to the historic, game-winning shot at the buzzer by Kris Jenkins and the Wildcats NCAA tournament win of 2016. The campus was electrified by the team’s victory, and the city of Philadelphia celebrated with a splendid parade.

Now we are once again in the Final Four of March Madness. The mainline Philadelphia area is buzzing with the success of the Villanova team. In the midst of the excitement, the world feels close to normal again, and it is easy to forget, at least momentarily, the pandemic struggles that all of us have faced these last two years.

Watching the way the Wildcats have dealt with these struggles has been inspirational to me. The men’s basketball team had a rocky start in 2021, but they persevered. When I look at the values they exemplified in order to continue their success, two words come to mind: Augustinian and Christian.

When I look at the values Villanova exemplified in order to continue their success, two words come to mind: Augustinian and Christian.

It is heartwarming to see the presence of the team chaplain, Rob Hagen, O.S.A., at virtually every Wildcat game. He is usually sitting on the end of the bench, dressed in clerical attire, attentive to every move of the players, including the huddles with Coach Wright. I am sure he offers words of wisdom and spiritual comfort to the team, but his presence alone expresses what is most valuable to the Augustinian charism: fraternal community.

The Rule of St. Augustine is one of the oldest monastic rules in the church. At its core is the description found in the Acts of the Apostles 4:32: “The whole group of believers was of one mind and one heart. No one claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common.” Based on this passage from the New Testament, the Rule of Augustine established that the community must live in harmony, “being of one mind and heart on the way to God.” The essence of the Rule is to value community life over seeking for oneself. All work is to be accomplished for the common good of all. All members are to exercise mutual care and vigilance for one another. For this reason, all members are to share what they have, and are to receive only according to their need. These values are summarized in the motto of Villanova University: Veritas, Unitas, Caritas. When we live in truth and the unity of love, God is revealed.

The essence of the Rule of St. Augustine is to value community life over seeking for oneself. These values are exemplified in Villanova’s basketball team.

The key values of St. Augustine appear to be exemplified in Villanova’s basketball team. This is a team that strives for excellence through unity, charity and truth, all wrapped in a smile and embrace, on and off the court. There is a humility that marks this team, beginning with the example of Coach Jay Wright, who is constantly praising other coaches and teams, as well as his own players, for whom he shows brotherly care and respect.

More than one type of success

In our highly competitive world today, there are two types of success: One type is the lone ranger who outruns and overpowers everyone else to reach the summit and become the sole master. The other type is the one who is happy to be part of something great, win or lose, because success is measured by the joy of participation itself. The Villanova Wildcats show that a successful team is not measured by the number of wins alone, for every team will win and lose; rather, success is measured by the capacity to share joys and sorrows together, to love the good in the other.

Victory begins with a team that is united in heart and mind. Only when bonds of interdependence are stronger than bonds of individualism can team members rise above the raw emotions of a lost game or hurtful words hurled by an opponent or serious physical injuries. This kind of community only can be possible if there is genuine care for one another, a deep sense of empathy and sincere respect for one another, embracing one another in the midst of difficulties or unresolved differences.

Last year Villanova’s Caleb Daniels contracted myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. Daniels could not play for five months and was devastated by his condition, wondering if he would ever play basketball again. “When I found out I had myocarditis, I was pretty crushed,” Daniels told The New York Post. “I never knew what it was before.... It brought me to my knees a little bit.” As he waited to learn from one checkup to the next whether the inflammation had gone down, it was his Villanova teammates who rallied to his side. “They’re my brothers,” Daniels said in that same interview. He realized that the support of his teammates was part of his healing process: “They helped me see things on a positive side.” Collin Gillespie, the decorated team captain, told the Post how he and the team “tried to rally around him.”

During those brief moments of waiting to see how the game will be played out, the ordinary is suspended, and we are part of a community that is doing something extraordinary.

While I am predisposed to admire the culture of the Villanova basketball team, college sports more generally can offer a secular version of ecclesia. Through teammates and fellow fans, unrelated persons become something more together; the isolated ego is transcended by a common cause. Sports fans don the equivalent of religious garb in the form of the team’s logo or the players’ numbers emblazoned on a t-shirt, sweatshirt or baseball cap. Team chants are sung in unison, and the roar of sheer glee that follows a basketball dunk, for example, can be deafening. Players thank God for the success of a game, while the synchronized voices of the audience chanting either their support (or disapproval) can sound like a charismatic revival.

College sports are not perfect. Especially at Division I schools, important questions about equality must be raised, particularly around the compensation of coaches and players. Still there are good lessons to be learned from them. In an age of climate change, greed and consumerism, college sports at their best reflect what we can be when we choose to work together. We are made for community, for shared life, to transcend our isolated and self-protected egos. A team does not win for itself alone; that win is felt by all who participate, whether in person, in spirit, in thought or in prayer. In this respect, sports has an eschatological feel; in Christian terms, the victory of the risen Christ. During those brief moments of standing or sitting together in suspense, waiting to see how the game will be played out, the ordinary is suspended, and we are part of a community that is doing something extraordinary, revealing the truth that St. Augustine knew: We find happiness together because we find God in one another.

It is my hope that, if we can begin to see God alive and present on the basketball court, then we can begin to see God in other aspects of life as well.

Of course my sports community and yours may be naturally at odds; that is the nature of competition. But I think the Villanova men’s basketball team, for me, has provided a model of how to strive for success while not becoming too caught up in the competition. They exude the joy of playing together, having a shared purpose, recognizing others who may have more talent, being at home with oneself and one’s gifts and, above all, loving one another. These are the qualities that make a team worth rallying around.

It is my hope that, if we can begin to see God alive and present on the basketball court, then we can begin to see God in other aspects of life as well. In his ecological encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis highlights the need for a new consciousness of interdependence, a new awareness that we belong to one another and to the earth.

Is there a connection between basketball and “Laudato Si’”? Yes, it is summed up in the sacramental principle. As Michael Himes reminds us, any person, place or thing that causes us to notice God’s love, which supports all that exists, is a sacrament. The earth is sacramental, and basketball is sacramental, because play and how we play reveal the presence of God. Bernie DeKoven writes that we are so inherently playful that it is built into our bodies, into our genes. When we stop being playful, we stop being creative, and when we stop being creative, we stop being loving and become instead warring individuals. All activities, including the play of basketball, are sacramental when they awaken, enliven and expand the imagination and enrich the sensitivity of the human being. When we are playful together, God is active and alive, creatively drawing all into a new future fullness of life—a win for all.

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