“Protestant and Protestant-affiliated and public institutions were a little bit richer, and they could draw from a higher or broader class range, and they could offer more sports,” said Byrne. “It wasn’t that they didn’t have basketball, but they had football too. For the Catholic urban schools, they did basketball because it was the cheapest, and they did basketball exclusively.”
As a result, schools could devote more resources to their basketball programs. Even today, only two Catholic universities compete in the top echelon of college football, and many don’t have football teams at all.
Catholic schools also benefited from a strong network of Catholic Youth Organization leagues.
“A lot of that (basketball success) has to do with CYO teams, back in the day, which were open to students from poorer neighborhoods who tended to go to Catholic schools,” said Deanna Howes of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
Altogether, Catholic immigrants came to the right places at the right times to develop a strong basketball tradition.
“If Jewish people had been the most populous immigrant group in the cities at the same time, then it would have been Jewish basketball,” said Byrne.
But Catholic basketball it was. Immaculata College, a small Catholic school in Philadelphia, won the first three women’s college championships. Between 1945 and 1965, four Catholic institutions won a combined five national men’s championships.
One of those titles went to Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit school that was, controversially, among the first integrated NCAA teams to regularly include more than three black players in its starting lineup.
Today, basketball offers national publicity to small colleges. Jesuit schools, said Howes, have recently been exploring ways to “use basketball as a means of reaching out to the broader public about the beauty and the value of a Jesuit higher education.”
To some, the hypercommercialized world of NCAA Division I athletics — dominated by television networks, multimillion-dollar budgets and minor scandals — might seem like a questionable place for religious institutions to compete.
But the Rev. Michael Steltenkamp, a Jesuit priest, argues that Catholicism and college basketball are fundamentally compatible. Steltenkamp, a professor at Wheeling Jesuit University and a self-described jock, gave a talk to the WJU men’s team this year, “trying to familiarize them with the Jesuit tradition of basketball.”
During his talk, Steltenkamp recited a prayer written by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. “Teach me,” the prayer concludes, “to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not ask for any reward except for that of knowing that I do your will.”
Recalling his preseason speech, Steltenkamp adds a hard-court gloss to the 16th-century prayer: “Leave it all on the court.”
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