Sports Nut

The Wildcat Faithful

How to balance religion and basketball in Kentucky.

Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats.
They’ve got a prayer: Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks to his team during the SEC/Big 12 Challenge against the Texas Longhorns on Dec. 5, 2014, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Just after his school’s first-ever NCAA Basketball Tournament victory, Hampton University coach Edward Joyner was reminded that his squad, the only entrant in this year’s field to begin with a losing record, faced Kentucky next. By the start of Joyner’s postgame press conference, odds-makers had made Hampton a 33-point underdog to the 34–0 Wildcats. One sportswriter quoted a recent prediction by analyst Reggie Miller: “It’s going to take almost an act of God” for Kentucky to fall short of reaching the school’s ninth NCAA title.

Joyner laughed and picked up his cellphone. “I told you I had Jesus on speed dial,” he said to the reporter. “Hey, Jesus,” he said. Joyner then asked Jesus about his team’s chances to advance past their next game.

“Hello?” Joyner said. “Hello?”

Jesus had hung up.

The coach’s appeal for spiritual help was one of the tourney’s first, but between St. Patrick’s Day morning and the day after Easter, when the tournament’s final game will be played, hundreds of similarly aimed entreaties from participating players and coaches will have been cast. Add in the fans in the stands and those watching on television, participants with no rooting interest beyond their own office pool, and the number of prayerful pleas lifted skyward could run into the millions.

But do the faithful, such as those who live where Kentucky basketball is itself a kind of religion, really believe in the power of prayer come tournament time?

For the past dozen years the Rev. Jim Sichko has served as the parish priest at St. Mark Catholic Church, in the Lexington, Kentucky suburb of Richmond, just about a 30-minute drive, door to door, from Rupp Arena.

“Coach Cal,” says Sichko of Kentucky coach John Calipari, “a lot of people don’t know, he’s a daily communicant. He’s at Mass every morning, when he is in town. I was personally presiding at Mass yesterday and he was there.”

Early in his 2014 book Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out, Calipari writes about how he goes to Mass every morning: “It’s how I start my day and it’s my moment of peace, almost meditation.” In the very next paragraph, however, he writes, “If you kill one of mine, I burn your village.” Come tournament time this more fiery sentiment is reflective of the spirit of the Kentucky faithful. How to temper that passion with faith is a challenge that Sichko faces this time of year.

“There is something about being born and bred into Kentucky basketball,” Sichko says. “There is a passion and a drive among those who were born and bred into this area, where they bleed blue, so to speak.

“But there has to be a proper balance,” he continues. “You have to have a proper balance, whether it be UK basketball or professional sports or dancing or religion. There has to be a proper balance, and sometimes people don’t have that balance and it serves a great injustice all around.”

Here’s my confession: When it comes to college basketball, specifically University of North Carolina basketball, I am not known for my “proper balance.” For instance: Just last Friday night, at the start of the UNC game against Virginia, I sat down somewhat awkwardly on my couch, in a spot where I had to strain my neck in order to see the television. Surprisingly, UNC took a quick 5–0 lead over the Cavaliers and never looked back (except for a frightening second-half Virginia run to close to within a point). I was stuck, afraid to change positions until the game was over. 

The Rev. Sichko doesn’t believe in such superstitions.

“I believe that nothing you’re going to do or I’m going to do is going to be able to change the outcome,” he says. “Now if I’m a player, that’s different. My practice, my focus, my commitment, my being invested? Sure. But nothing I’m going to do as a person is going to affect the outcome of that game.”

But what if, I posit, Sichko journeyed to the rectory refrigerator for a cold Diet Coke during the first half of a game and returned to find the Wildcats 20 points to the good during his absence? Might he not be tempted to repeat a similar trip to the kitchen in the second half?

“No,” says Sichko. “We have to go back to that word again: balance.”

So what about prayer? What about those thousands, tens of thousands, millions of late-March pleas to God, rising in volume during the final minutes of particularly close games? What about asking for a jump shot straight and true, for a 12 seed to take out a 5, for the Wildcats to beat Hampton by 34 or more? Is it OK to pray for someone, anyone to beat Duke?

“Do you find yourself only praying for things that you want, instead of what we need?” Sichko asks. “In other words, is God really concerned with the outcome of a basketball game when there is so much destruction, and war, and hate in the world?”

Probably not. At least, we should all hope not.

“I think we have to get back into that reality that it’s a game,” Sichko says. “Those who are bred into this probably say, No, Father. You’re mistaken. This is not a game. It’s a life. It’s a way of life. And for them, so be it.”

If all goes as Reggie Miller and at least half of the gambling world predicts, and the Kentucky Wildcats wake up on April 5 with a 39–0 record, looking for a moment of peace, a moment of meditation before following their head coach into an opposing team’s village to try and burn it down the following night, Sichko will not make reference from the pulpit. Championship Game Eve, this year, is Easter Sunday, “the holiest of holy days.”

“My focus and my energy is going to be just on that,” Sichko said.

The following Sunday, however, six days after we definitively know whether the 2014–15 Wildcats will be on the short, short list of teams that have finished the long college basketball season undefeated, or whether blue blood, and tears, will have been figuratively shed and spilled within the Lexington Diocese, Sichko will be preaching.

“I will guarantee you that I will use it,” he says, “whether they win or lose. I will use it, either in the sense of Look what took place, and what has it taught us, or Look what took place, and how can we learn from it within a faith-based atmosphere.”