The city of Louisville and no doubt much of the Archdiocese of Louisville spent last week embraced in community-wide happiness.
The home-town university men’s basketball team won the national championship, and in a city that is known around the nation for its roundball addiction, that accomplishment was enough to send thousands of people into paroxysms of joy.
National organizations that keep tabs on such things said late last week that 81 of every 100 television sets in the city that were turned on at the time of Monday night’s championship contest were, in fact, watching the game between the University of Louisville and the University of Michigan.
And if that number isn’t enough to prove the area’s dedication to its local team and to basketball in general, then the 23,000 or so who showed up for the victory celebration last Wednesday should add to the evidence. That rally included both the U of L men’s and women’s team — the women also made it to the final game of their season, losing the championship to the University of Connecticut.
It’s true that everyone loves a winner, but the jubilation surrounding this year’s U of L teams seemed deeper, with perhaps more substantive roots. Granted, the Cardinals men’s team won 35 of the 40 games they played, but a close look reveals something more grand than their winning ways alone.
In all 40 games, there was never an incident of unsportsmanlike behavior; never a moment that would be an embarrassment for either the team, the university or its city. The young men playing the game were uniformly well-behaved, at least from the distance of court-side seats or TV screens. The Cardinal players had one of the highest team grade point averages in the entire NCAA tournament field. In fact, the university said in a press release late in the season that only two of the 17 players on the team (including walk-ons) had grade point averages beneath 3.0.
Everyone knows the story of Kevin Ware’s broken leg in the game against Duke University. What wasn’t known at the time was that the player who came to pray at Ware’s side, team co-captain Luke Hancock, was dealing with adversity of his own — his father’s serious illness.
The entire team appeared to be a humble group of young men — with the possible exception of Russ Smith, a product of Brooklyn’s Bishop Mulloy High School. And even Russ’s outgoing manner was tempered during the late-season display of humility. Perhaps he was affected by fellow guard Peyton Siva’s quiet, respectful and openly-religious nature. Siva, as every fan now knows, helped his father side-step suicide when Peyton was just 13 years old, and as a U of L player he’s always been quick to mention the guiding principles of faith when asked about his accomplishments. He always seemed to begin each post-game interview with “I just want to thank God…”
The large young man from Senegal, Gorgui Dieng, was another reason the team was so easy to like and follow. Always humble, wise beyond his years, Dieng marveled at the wealth of American society and consistently gave thanks for the opportunity to receive a college education.
Put all these factors together, and it’s easy to understand why the community rejoiced when the Cardinals won their third national title, why there was such a feeling of affection for this team in our basketball-crazy community.
We all need reasons to be happy; we all need examples of people doing the right thing for the right reasons. We all need to depart, from time to time, from the world of unemployment reports, political gridlock and name-calling, from the sabre-rattling intrigue of Korea and the never-ending killing in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East and Africa. We all need moments of relatively mindless entertainment that can be provided by movies or athletic competition — especially when the competitors seem to represent the best in us.
Last week Pope Francis, himself a soccer fan, noted that Christians have an obligation to let people know about our faith — as several of the U of L players did throughout the year. At times we “try to lead a double life,” nurtured by “what Jesus tells us as well as what the world shows us,” the pope said. “But God the father gives us the (Holy) Spirit, without limit, to listen to Jesus and go along Jesus’ road.”
It takes “the grace of courage” to live life publicly as a follower of Jesus, he noted. But we are all called not only to follow God’s commandments, but to think like Christ, “to act like him, love like him.” Christians the world over have an obligation, he said, “to be visible, clear, brilliant signs of hope.”
Perhaps that’s what people saw in the temporary diversion offered by a basketball tournament. They saw evidence — and had hope — that hard work and lives lived well, can bring joy.