Of hoops, hopes, holy orders, and habits.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Catholic schools are good at college basketball,” writes ESPN basketball analyst Gasaway. It’s not so much that God is on their side but that over more than a century, Catholic schools such as Gonzaga, Xavier, Seton Hall, Villanova, and Georgetown have put their sports energies into basketball, sometimes forgoing football in the process. Granted, Loyola University Chicago had a 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean to cheer on the players when they reached the 2018 Final Four. “We pray hard,” she told the author, “and we pray before every game. Sometimes it’s only a prayer. Sometimes I give the scouting report then.” As Gasaway notes, there are some 250 Catholic colleges in the U.S., and 20% play Division 1 ball. What distinguishes many of these schools is consistent excellence in coaching, which, along with the prowess of its players, is what took schools like Seattle University to an unprecedented “four straight appearances at the NCAA tournament” in the 1950s and lands schools like Gonzaga high in the running today. Gasaway covers the lows as well as the highs, including a point-shaving scandal that shook Seton Hall in 1961, lending the school the nickname “Cheatin’ Hall” for some time after, and rivalries between Catholic high schools that spilled over into college, as when Georgetown froze out Washington’s DeMatha High for four decades owing to a coach’s grudge. The highs make up for those bad patches, and they’re appropriately mysterious and sometimes miraculous. As Gasaway concludes at the end of his survey of Catholic playing from the time of James Naismith on, “If there is a specifically Catholic secret sauce for basketball success, it remains elusive.”
Fans of college roundball, parochial or not, will enjoy Gasaway’s lively history.