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The Catholic history of college basketball

Miracles on the Hardwood

John Gasaway | Twelve

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 03/22/21

A new book explores the question of why the sport plays such a prominent role in the Catholic university tradition.

Basketball historians know this surprising fact: basketball was invented by a Presbyterian. College instructor James Naismith invented the game as a way for his students to burn off steam indoors during the cold New England winters. It wouldn’t be long before basketball players would be tucking miraculous medals in their uniforms and crossing themselves at the free throw line.

A casual observer of today’s NCAA tournament can’t help but notice the number of Catholic colleges that make appearances in March Madness tournament each year. And so a question arises: Why is it that, of all things, basketball plays such a prominent role in the American Catholic university tradition? 

That’s exactly the question John Gasaway explores in his new book, Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Tradition in Catholic College Basketball. Tracing David versus Goliath victories, like unranked La Salle’s 1952 NIT title, or peculiarities like the physical structure of Notre Dame Fieldhouse (home to Irish basketball until 1968), Gasaway’s work opens up the story of Catholic basketball like never before. 

Miracles on the Hardwood
John Gasaway | Twelve

“All religiously affiliated programs aspire to lofty goals, at least in mission,” writes Gasaway. “Within this population of religiously affiliated institutions, the Catholic programs are a breed apart by virtue of their numbers, by their shared and instantly recognized identity, and, not least, by their legacy of indelible moments,” he asserts.

Basketball’s rise in the American Catholic university seemed unlikely at the turn of the 20th century. For the strict administrators of the time, basketball was one of many frivolities (like mail at Boston College!) that threatened good order and wholesome undergraduate life. “Educators at places like Georgetown and Notre Dame may have appeared to their superiors as though they’d ‘gone native,’” reports Gasaway.

Within a few decades that approach on campus changed, likely stemming from the success of youth outreach like the Catholic Youth Organization or the Holy Name Society basketball league. The rise of Catholic college basketball, argues Gasaway, is linked to the vibrancy of the parish basketball tradition.

Gasaway introduces us to legends like Providence’s John Thompson (who would go on to coach Georgetown’s Hoyas), Marquette’s Al McGuire and Villanova’s Jay Wright. As he chronicles the rise of these and other basketball greats, Gasaway illuminates how—in the public imagination—basketball came to be a defining characteristic of America’s Catholic universities. 

The story of college basketball involves America’s sordid legacy of racial discirimination and segregation. America’s Catholic institutions were by and large no different from the society in which they operated. There are, however, bright moments to be found. Manhattan College’s withdrawal from the NAIB, citing “Catholic principles of racial equality” helped spur the organization’s overturn of its ban on African American players.

Every March, America’s Catholic universities come to the fore as teams compete for one prestigious title: National Champion. While some eras are feasts and others famines, Catholic programs demonstrate resilience and survival. “Often in name and always in mission,” Gasaway writes, “Catholic programs loom large among a dwindling and ecumenical band of hardy survivors that preserve their spiritual ambition.” It’s remarkable that Catholic colleges have won twelve percent of national titles.

And so, at the end of the day, what are we to make of the Catholic basketball tradition? Gasaway muses, “The Catholic affinity for college basketball is more prominent in some eras than in others, yet it is always present as a recognizable, if prosaic, aspect of one of the West’s ancient faiths. The affinity is one remarkable and more or less continuous thread throughout college basketball’s history, one that spans many storied teams and holds the promise of wonders yet unseen.”

Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Tradition in Catholic College Basketball. John Gasaway (New York: Twelve, 2021). Find the book here.

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