Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball

“Basketball was the sport they picked because it was so cheap,” Byrne, the Hofstra professor, said. “They could do it in incredibly limited space with incredibly limited equipment.”

Over time, the schools became a magnet for black players, including luminaries such as Bill Russell (University of San Francisco) and the championship Loyola-Chicago team of 1963, which broke an unspoken rule by starting four black players.

Black athletes, Catholic or not, often landed at these colleges partly because they frequently played basketball for the local chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization, which was originally founded as a kind of urban, Catholic parallel to the predominantly Protestant Y.M.C.A.s. The C.Y.O.s set many black players on the path toward Catholic colleges.

“As more and more ethnic Catholics moved out of cities but parishes and schools stayed put, black kids were admitted regardless of religious affiliation beginning in the ’60s,” James T. Fisher, an American Studies professor at Fordham, said in an email. “Then the church turned demographic fact into theological virtue by embracing urban advocacy and racial justice.”

It also made competitive sense. Much as a New Yorker, Frank McGuire, won the 1957 title at the University of North Carolina by taking several first- and second-generation Irish- and Jewish-Americans from the New York metropolitan area down to Chapel Hill, another coach from New York, Al McGuire (no relation), used his personality — his charism? — to recruit black players to Marquette, in Milwaukee, in the 1960s and ’70s, when many state schools still had unwritten quotas.


Marquette University’s former coach, Al McGuire, on top of the scorer’s table after a win over Wisconsin, heavily recruited African-American players.

Paul Shane/Associated Press

“He sold kids and families on the fact that: ‘Hey, I’m a white Irish Catholic. I didn’t grow up in the neighborhood, but I grew up next door to it,’ ” Fisher said.

There is nothing in Catholic dogma that specifically elucidates the virtues of basketball. Yet several scholars pointed to elements of American Catholicism that helped persuade schools to embrace sports.

Jesuit philosophy — embedded at so many top basketball schools, such as Gonzaga, Xavier, Creighton and Georgetown — extends to all aspects of life. It preaches cura personalis, or “care for the person” — in not only the intellectual and spiritual sense, but the physical one, too.

Catholicism in America taught that all aspects of life could be sacred, Byrne said, maybe even basketball.

“It’s not that sports were particularly holy, but you could see it as a holy thing to do. It could have the potential to give glory to God,” said Byrne, referencing the Jesuit phrase “ad majorem Dei gloriam, or “for the greater glory of God.”

For St. Joseph’s Coach Phil Martelli, these teachings comport with the sport that he called the “greatest societal experiment.”

“In basketball, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor, city or suburbs,” said Martelli, whose wife, Judy Marra Martelli, played on those three Immaculata champions. “And in the Catholic faith, you shouldn’t be measured by those things — your W-2 or what you drive. You should be measured by your character.”

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