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Inside NCR

The sky out here in the Midwest is slate gray today. Winter has found new force, a final push of wind and freezing temperatures. Enough to turn the thoughts to Lent. Or to the blossoming, through this grim chill, of March Madness.

OK, so let this be true confession time. One of my passions, not so secret if you hang around me in the wintertime, is basketball.

Blame, if you’d like, Greg Pierce and his workplace spirituality (see NCR, Feb. 2), that reach of the holy beyond the usual places. The realization popped into place, contemplating his idea, that basketball is thoroughly Catholic in my Catholic imagination, associated with all the holiest places of my younger years.

My introduction to Catholic high school was via a basketball game circa 1956, when I was about 8, and that school, St. Pius X, was even younger. It was a special team (yes, I can still remember the names of some of the starting five) that went 20-something-and-0 before losing and then on to the state playoffs.

I was hooked.

To this day I can smell the faint mixture of sweat and the old Voit rubber ball being pounded smooth on the blacktop behind St. Aloysius Church and School in Pottstown, one of the gritty cities of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

I can feel as vividly as yesterday the sting of cold air on lungs pushed to near bursting. I can feel it still, the rhythm of a certain ball movement, in crisp angles, maybe three, four guys touching it before it hit that player, that spot, that you knew would end in a made shot. My reverie calls up the fast break that could have been calculated on a drafting table, where everything works: stop dribble at the foul line, hit the cutter filling the lane from left or right, and a teammate finishing, with grace, as fine as … in our minds it could have been Walt Frazier or Bob Cousy or Oscar (The Big O) Robertson. Those moments, like saving grace, can wash away all the clunky times the ball rimmed out or bounced off a foot.

To say I eventually played for that high school would be overstating the case. I sat a lot of pine for two years before my short, skinny self was finally and unalterably cut. But in the mind’s eye, even the sting of that cut melts away at the memory of playing, if for only a time, on real hardwood, of getting a real school uniform, of the privilege of hearing the ring of a dribbled basketball in an empty gym before the start of an early morning practice.

Only a few high school games remain on the schedule out here. Then the NCAA tournament cranks up. I’m ready. Gray days in March do this to me.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001