Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee
My blood pressure has risen and my pulse is elevated. No, it’s not spring allergies, but rather “March Madness.” Basketball was a passion in my life. But, I came late to the dance. As a boy growing up, my neighborhood was dominated by two sports, baseball and football. Basketball was a minor sport played by some, but not at the level or intensity of baseball and football. One played baseball from early spring to mid-autumn, and that was all types of baseball: league ball, which is hardball; softball, the 16-inch kind; and fast-pitch rubber ball, played with a box drawn on a wall. Football (touch, tag and pickup tackle) occupied mid-fall and winter.
However, when I made my commitment to the minor seminary (Quigley Preparatory Seminary South in Chicago), I soon discovered that basketball was “king,” and all other sports were secondary. My personal desire to be a priest was tied into being a part of the seminary community, and because basketball was king, I needed to be a part of that optic.
In my freshmen year, I tried out for the team, but my skill level was poor at best. Unable to handle dribbling the ball, and my inability to make a left-handed layup sent me to the cut line. I watched others who had played the game, some since second grade, and admired not only their skill, but also the flashiness of their gym attire. Thankfully, I had a coach, Mr. Anthony Janicek, who saw something in me, maybe “athleticism,” and who encouraged me to develop my skills.
I was determined that I would not stay on the sidelines when it came to defending the reputation of the minor seminary in competition with other high schools. So, I put on gloves and made my way to the park (there was no indoor gym), and in the late fall and early winter, I practiced my dribbling and left-handed layups on the outdoor concrete basketball court at our local park. It was cold, but I started to make progress, and by spring was looking to be a part of any and every pick-up game that I could find. Skills are perfected in competition, and the better the competition, the faster the progress.
In my second year, I made the team, and because I was a “tweener” (in between medium and big in size), I got to play all of the positions. This gave me an insight into the necessity of playing as a team. Oh, there are moments when a single individual can dominate a game, but the majority of the time games are won by teams. Players who think in terms of the larger picture, and selflessly participate in the achievement of the goal, are winners not only on the court, but also in life.
I continued to play basketball until I left for Rome in 1979, and even in Rome, I was asked to coach a college club team who wanted to play like Americans. I hung up my Converse All Stars after my hip replacement 25 years ago, but the desire to be out on the court and compete has never left.
When I coached, I would often tell my players, especially when we were facing a tremendously talented team, “You don’t have to be the best team in the nation, and that might be the other team, yet you only have to be the best team tonight to win the game.” I never entered a game playing “not to lose” (and I did a lot in my career), but with the expectation to win.
Perhaps that’s why I so enjoyed basketball. It’s filled with lessons for life. You don’t win until you’ve played the game. A team might look good on paper, but you must play the game on the court to win. After the most devastating loss, the sun still comes up tomorrow. Everyone makes mistakes, but don’t compound them.
March Madness brings back memories and the love for the game. In life, as in basketball, you play to win, and you win if you LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Note: This blog originally appeared as the March 26, 2019 "Love One Another" email sent to Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. If you are interested in signing up for these email messages, please click here.