If there is ever a time for some good old Catholic triumphalism, this may be it: Catholic universities have won the NCAA Division I championships in both women’s and men’s basketball. Victories by the women of the University of Notre Dame and the men of Villanova have raised the question of “Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball,” as The New York Times put it. Or, as USA Today headlined, “Villanova and Loyola reaching Final Four brings to light Catholic embrace of basketball.”
As Times sportswriter Marc Tracy explains, that embrace may be the result of necessity, since it costs much less to field a basketball team than a football squad. He also offers a demographic explanation: Catholic parishes and youth basketball leagues have remained in inner-city neighborhoods, drawing some excellent players. He calls it “an undeniable fact: In college basketball, Catholic schools have long punched well above their weight. The reasons stretch back a century—and, some would argue, to the New Testament itself.”
I hope that the Division I theology faculties at Notre Dame and Villanova will shed light on how Catholicism might contribute to championship-quality basketball. In the meantime, I suggest that the key to Catholic schools’ basketball success is teamwork, rooted in some important, Scripture-based principles of Catholic social teaching: community, the common good, and solidarity.
The razzle-dazzle individualism—the culture of celebrity—that so shapes entertainment, including sports (and our politics) has no place in the traditional Catholic school basketball ethic. Showboating is frowned upon. Or, as The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, “The human person may never be thought of only as an absolute individual being, built up by himself and on himself, as if his characteristic traits depended on no one else but himself.”
Old-time Catholic coaches insisted that their teams excel on defense. There was an emphasis on discipline and basketball fundamentals--crisp passes that target the open player. It was about the team, not individual prowess.
The coach at my high school, Jim McMorrow, exemplified these traits and passed them on, just as he had received them. He had played for one of the archetypal Irish-Catholic coaches, Frank McGuire, on a 1952 St. John’s University squad that made it to the the NCAA final, where the team lost to Kansas. (McGuire beat Kansas in the final five years later, coaching University of North Carolina.)
McMorrow was a man of few words, but each word rang with authority. It was difficult to interview him when I was sports editor of the newspaper at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn; he offered zero self-promotion, and he was measured in his appraisal of the team. He prized strong defense, sharp passing, and high-percentage shots. No one on his team could be a show-off. It was about teamwork, one for all.