The little-known connection between hoops and holiness

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The start of basketball season always coincides with the American holiday of Thanksgiving, lending a proper season to be grateful for the American-born sport. But precisely how grateful should Catholics be for basketball (or any other sport, for that matter)?

In a homily on Oct. 29, 2000, St. John Paul II celebrated the world of sport and all it does to prepare Christians to become “athletes of the spirit” who are able to win the imperishable crown of everlasting life.

“Sports contribute to the love of life, [teach] sacrifice, respect, and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person,” John Paul II remarked.

From creativity to solidarity, from old-fashioned fun to heartbreaking sacrifice, these four viral videos exemplify something of the little-known connection between hoops and holiness and why Catholics can be grateful for the sport of basketball.

An exercise of body, intellect and will

Six years ago, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal debuted their viral basketball video “Renewal in Motion.” After two million views on Facebook, their remix of basketball dunks, music, and trick shots continues to delight fans of the game and illustrate just how creatively sport can engage body, intellect, and will — a combo that must be engaged in proper proportion in the pursuit of holiness.

The ability to form habits — the repetition of acts needed as the basis for strengthening virtues — requires creativity, dynamism, and dedicated practice.

Solidarity in action

By telling the epic story of a parish gym that became a neighborhood phenomenon, Detroit Catholic captured the social essence of the ability of sports to solidify human relationships in a video that garnered 2,300 views on YouTube in 2021.

The parish gym would come to be known as Ceciliaville after it opened its doors beyond parishioners of St. Cecilia Catholic Church to persons of all faiths, races, and backgrounds.

Ceciliaville was a marquee of the best of Detroit’s NBA players and hopefuls in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and contributed to the rebuilding of tensions after race riots in 1967, according to two-time NBA champion and Detroit native Earl “The Twirl” Cureton, making this video a unique chronicle of building the virtue of solidarity through sport.

Old-fashioned fun

An entire genre of punny humor and sport collides to provide 35 seconds of pure, old-fashioned entertainment in the viral video produced by the nuns who served at a local Catholic high school to cheer on Miami Heat star Kendrick Nunn during the 2019-2020 NBA season.

Some 5,000 viewers enjoyed this video made by principal Margaret Anne and her Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, proving the old basketball pun “you don’t want nun of this” to be false and proving true that cheering others is an assist in the spiritual life.

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Heartbreaking sacrifice

In 2019 ESPN produced this heart-wrenching video that garnered 72,000 views about the life of Shelly Pennefather, the leading all-time scorer for both men’s and women’s basketball at Villanova University who traded her professional basketball career for the cloistered Poor Clare convent. A poignant story of sacrifice and love, it shows the ability of sport to open the soul to transcendence and gives a glimpse into the discipline required to lay down the ball and move on to a higher calling.

Pennefather sank a baseline jumper in her final professional game in Japan after a prayer and a promise. The prayer: to make the shot that would win the game and $10,000 bonuses for each player. The promise: to volunteer at a convent if she made it. Twenty-five years after becoming Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of the Angels, the video brings home what it means to become an athlete for Christ and, like St. Paul, to “have accepted the loss of all things and … consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

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