Bob Bestler

Holy water has nothing to do with Catholic schools' dominance in basketball

I graduated from a Catholic high school and played three sports — baseball, football and basketball.

As a result of that, and with a little help from the nuns and the priests, I've always been partial to sports teams from Catholic universities, especially Notre Dame and, because of my tenure in Milwaukee, Marquette.

Last Sunday, I watched Notre Dame women defeat Mississippi State on a buzzer-beater by Arike Ogumbowale, her second in two games, to win the NCAA championship.

The next day, I watched Villanova, another Catholic university, demolish Michigan and win its third NCAA championship in three years.

National championships by two Catholic schools seemed impressive indeed — and then I read a New York Times article, "Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball."

I had not thought about it, but the basketball excellence of Catholic schools is extraordinary, even among women's teams: Immaculata University won the first women's NCAA championship in 1975.

As for other Catholic schools that excel at basketball, take a look at what may be only a partial list: Loyola, Georgetown, Holy Cross, La Salle, St. Johns, Gonzaga, Fordham, Xavier, Creighton, Boston College and University of San Francisco, where Bill Russell once starred.

What's going on? Is it the holy water? The Hail Mary? The sign of the cross, often made by Catholic players?

None of these, according to The Times, which said it is no mystery why Catholic schools prefer basketball to football.

"Several decades ago," wrote reporter Marc Tracy, "many American Catholics were working class urbanites, clustered in some of the same cities — New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans — in which those schools rose up.

"In basketball, with its inexpensive overhead, compact field of play and small number of participants, they found a sport that suited them."

Julie Byrne, a Hofstra University professor specializing in American Catholicism, agreed:

"Basketball was the sport they picked because it was so cheap. They could do it in incredibly limited space with incredibly limited equipment."

Many urban areas offered Catholic Youth Organizations, a kind of counterpart to the Protestant YMCAs. The CYOs attracted children from working class families, including those from black families who then tended to gravitate toward Catholic universities.

"As more and more ethnic Catholics moved out of cities but parishes and schools stayed put, black kids were admitted regardless of religious affiliation in the '60s," said Fordham professor James Fisher.

"The church turned demographic fact into theological virtue by embracing urban advocacy and racial justice."

It didn't take long for other schools to begin recruiting from the inner cities. Marquette coach Al McGuire began recruiting black players from his native New York in the '60s and '70s, welcoming them at a time when many state schools had unwritten quotas.

His efforts helped his Warriors (now Golden Eagles) defeat North Carolina in 1977 for the school's only national championship.

I was there at the time and can assure you it wasn't the holy water.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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