The 8th Sacrament

Among Catholic high school alumni of a certain age with vivid, if not entirely reliable, memories of their athletic exploits, one sport is regarded with almost sacramental reverence: basketball.

Count me among those whose identities as Catholics and proud members of their urban parishes were formed by the grace of the city game. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (and available here) by columnist Frank Fitzpatrick reminded me of how deep the connection runs.

A life-long Philadelphian, Fitzpatrick is a product of the city’s parochial school system and is still actively involved in all things Catholic (and athletic) in the area. He admits to pulling out his high school yearbook “at least three times a week” and is immodestly proud of his ability to “still recite the 1967 all-Catholic basketball team.”  

In another place and time, his musings could be chalked up to nostalgia. Not in Philadelphia, however, where, he notes, “Philadelphia's parochial-school graduates are as parochial as they come.” A good number of his contemporaries, many of them successful college and pro basketball coaches, still live and work in the area. And they share a common bond:

Life's journey, for many of us aging Philadelphia Catholics, will always be more comprehensible and pleasant because of the basketball-flavored network of parishes, gyms, and Catholic League high schools we have in common.

Understanding this phenomenon begins with our childhood parish, the Rosetta Stone to our identities. When we ask, "Where you from?," it's the parish, and not a neighborhood or town, we want to know.

The parish tells us which nuns, priests, and coaches shaped you. It pinpoints the corners and playgrounds where you likely hung out, the athletic talent you played with or against, your friends, your rivals, your taste in sandwich shops.

The same can be said, I imagine, for most Catholic city kids who played varsity ball in high school or who were members of their parish CYO teams.

For those of us who moved away from our home towns and parishes ages ago, the past might not intrude on our daily lives the way it does for Fitzpatrick and his cronies. But the game’s influence on our lives and Catholic identities is somehow ever present. Some of us, like Dan Barry, continue to play in cramped church gyms, “breathing in the stale, familiar air of the Catholic Youth Organization past.” (His wonderfully evocative account of his “Sunday Obligation” can be found here.) Others, like former pro basketball player Earl Cureton, return each year to the schools that launched them.

And for the rest of, no matter the distances we’ve traveled—or the current state of our games—basketball remains a signal experience in our lives.

James Hannan is Commonweal's business manager.  

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