Playing and praying: Behind the scenes with 2 Jesuit college basketball chaplains
Fans of college basketball will never forget the Cinderella story written by the 2018 Loyola Chicago Ramblers. The men’s team that year rode a wave of improbable victories all the way to the Final Four.
For all of the unbelievable moments of that great run, including a string of three straight game-winning shots, perhaps nobody was more captivating on the stage that the Big Dance provided for the Ramblers than Jean Dolores Schmidt, B.V.M.
Better known as Sister Jean, the Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and team chaplain for the Ramblers stole the hearts of Americans with her jovial appearances on the Loyola Chicago bench throughout the 2018 tournament. The Sister Jean craze grew and grew as the Ramblers made it deeper into the tournament, and fans were even willing to shell out $300 to buy Sister Jean bobbleheads on eBay. She recently detailed that magical 2018 run and other stories from her life in a memoir released earlier this year: Wake Up with Purpose.
Loyola Chicago’s success story in the 2018 tournament was not just a one-off for collegiate Jesuit basketball programs. For years now, Jesuit colleges and universities have fielded elite men’s basketball teams; since the 2015-2016 campaign, there has been at least one Jesuit institution in the Top 10 of the A.P. Preseason Poll in every season but one.
In this year’s preseason rankings, the Marquette Golden Eagles have soared all the way to #5 (their highest ranking since the 1977-1978 season), joined by the Creighton Bluejays at #8 and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at #11.
As the season tips off, national household names like Tyler Kolek (2022-2023 Big East Player of the Year) and Shaka Smart (2022-2023 Big East Coach of the Year) from Marquette and Mark Few from Gonzaga (who is entering his 25th season as the head coach, with two National Championship appearances under his belt) will continue to make headlines. But fans should also know that both of these teams have their own Sister Jeans, chaplains committed to the spiritual formation of their athletes as they balance basketball with their personal lives.
Both Marquette and Gonzaga have their own Sister Jeans, chaplains committed to the spiritual formation of their athletes as they balance basketball with their personal lives.
The Golden Eagles
“The way I see my purpose,” said John D. Laurance, S.J., the chaplain of the Marquette men’s basketball team, “is to be a presence and to be a sign of transcendence, to show that these relationships [the players] have with one another, they’re grounded in something deeper.”
Father Laurance, 85, is an emeritus associate professor in Marquette’s theology department and has been serving as team chaplain since 2015. He admits he didn’t see himself doing this. “The role was sort of dropped on me,” Father Laurance recalls. He went to lunch with a member of Marquette’s mission and ministry staff nine years ago, and to his surprise was asked to assume the role of chaplain.
“I took a day to think about it and called my brother and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Sounds perfect.’”
While Father Laurance may have nothing to do with formulating defensive schemes or assisting with free throw shooting techniques, he still proves a valuable resource for the Golden Eagles off the court. Being ranked as the #5 team in the country is enough to make any player feel huge amounts of pressure, but Father Laurance treats them as more than just athletes.
“All these guys are just being humans. They’re looking for meaning in their lives.”
Father Laurance could be content with just serving as a figurehead of Marquette’s Jesuit identity for the television cameras to pick up, but he wants to push back against that.
“I often say to people that you put on a Roman collar, you sit on a bench, and you become famous. But I think the reason that I’m doing this in my old age is because Christianity is ultimately a person,” he said. “Basketball itself is a team sport, and [like Christianity] it’s also a relationship of persons. And I think that’s what my ministry is; to give athletes personal relationships through bonding, because I think it’s through that they experience God in their lives.”
And perhaps most important of all, Father Laurance wants to remind his players to have fun: “People talk about the need for play in human life. I think the way I look at it is that we have to have time when we just delight in being. I think to delight in being, it’s really like playing before God, like David dancing before the Ark.”
After Marquette’s convincing 92-70 win over Northern Illinois in their season opener, the Golden Eagles will look to keep dancing all the way to a deep N.C.A.A. tournament run to avenge last season’s early second round exit.
"People talk about the need for play in human life. I think the way I look at it is that we have to have time when we just delight in being."
Further out west, Bryan Pham, S.J., serves as the team chaplain for Gonzaga University’s men’s basketball team. Like Father Laurance, his appointment as team chaplain also came as a bit of a surprise. Father Pham, who has degrees in canon law as well as a doctorate in civil law and is an assistant professor of law. He also teaches some undergraduate courses at Gonzaga.
“I did my undergrad at Gonzaga back in the 90s, but I was not really into basketball and wasn’t really a sports person,” Father Pham recalled. “When I came back here in 2019 and they needed a chaplain, I was asked by the athletic director and the president of the university if I would be willing to do it.
“Certainly I was on the younger end,” Father Pham, 48, said with a laugh. “I teach undergrad and at the law school. I’m very involved with student activities, so they thought, ‘Well, maybe this may be a natural fit.’”
While the success of any basketball team relies in large part on how well a coach can meticulously draw up plays for their athletes, Father Pham says his role is done much more on the fly. “My experience has been very positive, since I’m going into my fifth year as chaplain. And because there’s no playbook, you get to determine for yourself how that would look like.”
When you’re watching Marquette or Gonzaga tonight, keep an eye out for the men in black at the end of the bench.
Father Pham believes he also contrasts from the role of a coach as he sees himself as more of a listener for the players. “They have needs, they have things that go on in their lives that they can use a set of sympathetic ears for. I have to be attentive to wherever they’re at. So it’s not about pushing the sacraments or making them pray. I think all of my players know that I’m praying for them.”
It’s also not lost on Father Pham that he’s not working with professional athletes; in fact, many players on the team are still teenagers. “They’re student-athletes, right? But at the same time, they’re also 18, 19 years old. So they deal with your typical teenage adolescent anxiety and insecurities while managing their own egos, managing their own expectations.”
Like Father Laurance, Father Pham also notes that while being a chaplain can seem to be a fun and easy job on TV, the most important work is what the cameras don’t pick up. “I think a lot of times when people see me as chaplain, it’s on the bench on game day, whether it’s in person or on TV. So I think that’s the glamorous part of being a chaplain,” he said. “But really my role as chaplain is what happens leading up to game day and in between game day. It really is a privilege for me to walk with them and to be with them, because my job is to remind them that as important as basketball is, they’re much more than that.”
The ministry of Father Laurance, Father Pham and so many other chaplains reminds us that for all that college basketball players are incredible athletes, they are more than their field goal percentage or national seeding. When you’re watching Marquette or Gonzaga tonight—Marquette matches up against the Rider University Broncs, while Gonzaga opens their season against the Yale Bulldogs—keep an eye out for the men in black at the end of the bench.