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Catholic Caitlin Clark Shines for Iowa in March Madness

| April 4, 2024 | By

Growing up in the heartland, picking up a basketball is nearly inevitable. It’s certainly paid off for Des Moines native Caitlin Clark, a guard for the Iowa Hawkeyes women’s basketball team, of the University of Iowa (don’t get much more heartland than that).

Caitlin Clark's Catholic Roots

Clark's team is charging through to the finals of the NCAA basketball championship tournament. Although the Hawkeyes lost last year to the Louisiana State Tigers (a result the Hakweyes reversed last Monday), Clark made her home parish proud.

From the news site of the Diocese of Des Moines:

“We’re just loving this,” said Shelley Goodell. She and a few dozen St. Francis parishioners gathered at St. Francis Parish March 31 to watch Clark’s Hawkeyes upset top-ranked South Carolina in the Final Four. 

“There could not be a more perfect place to cheer her on than the place of her origin and the place where it all started,” Goodell said.

“She’s confident. She’s a team player. She’s very humble. I think she represents what’s best about being raised in the Catholic faith. She really is the perfect role model for all the kids.”

And she is a role model for me. But first, my own basketball story … and what the game has to do with inspiring my Catholic faith.

A Team Game That Can Be Played Alone

In my earliest years of life, the now-bustling Chicago suburb of Naperville was emerging from its founding as a farming community. Our neighborhood during the spring, summer, and fall months centered around my best friends’ basketball hoop.

We played in various permutations: from one-on-one to three-on-three, and sometimes one-person advantage, if a certain day turned out an odd number of neighborhood kids.

About equal time was spent alone, too. Basketball is one of the few team sports that can be enjoyed individually, assuming one wants to expend energy retrieving the ball.

The best (of which I was not) players spend countless extra hours in solitary pursuit of perfecting their craft. Practicing basketball naturally leads to a hermitical existence, with a lot of time to ponder one’s thoughts.

During the pandemic, the NBA sequestered in a Disney World bubble, finishing their suspended season before their second “season” of a 16-team playoff.

Games were contested in a small-sized gym. What astounded me was how well most of the players flourished in the hunkered down “monastery,” emerging from their “cells” to play their daily game.

Jimmy Butler and Mark Wahlberg

One standout was Jimmy Butler, who led his Miami Heat from a low, underdog seed to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals.

Butler, heavily introverted, said he didn’t mind sitting in his hotel room for most of the day, as he has many other interests, chief among those was brewing artisanal coffee and charging fellow players an arm and a leg for it.

Butler’s friendship with Mark Wahlberg’s family reminded me how Catholic and Christian the basketball world is.

Wahlberg, a Catholic and longtime Boston Celtics fan, met the NBA superstar when he played for the Chicago Bulls. Wahlberg points to Butler as being a good, quiet role model for his children in a celebrity culture that usually favors an outgoing, look-at-me philosophy.

As Butler told GQ:

I think it started when I begin hanging around Wahlberg. He’s a huge influence on me. He’s a great human being, great dad, man of God and I think he works so incredibly hard for someone that has what people would consider everything. He works like he has nothing, and I really respect him.

I love the fact that I can call at any time and he’ll pick up and talk or give me some advice. I just saw the way he was operating, working and training in the morning so he could have more time throughout the day to spend with his family. Now that I have a daughter, it makes even more sense.

The role-model story reminded me of my own growing up, when legendary Duke head coach and West Point graduate Mike Krzyzewski was commandeering his squads to multiple Final Fours in the late '80s and early '90s.

At the time, my parents were quick to point out he grew up in the city of Chicago and was a practicing fellow Polish Catholic

Keep the faith, work hard, and you can accomplish most anything in life.

The Role of Faith in Caitlin Clark's Career

Faith explains, in part, the media phenomenon surrounding Iowa megastar Caitlin Clark. Complementing her generational basketball talent is a kind, generous person who regularly posts on social media that she prays for teammates and opponents.

One recipient of Clark’s prayers was once injured University of Connecticut star, Paige Bueckers (also a proud Christian). UConn and Iowa will now face each other in the Final Four on Friday.

Clark, a graduate of Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, Iowa, credits her Catholic faith for her successes on and off the court. Citing the ratings bonanza of the quarterfinal Iowa-LSU matchup, I think our country is having a Titanic moment.

In 1997, young ladies could identify with a well-made coming-of-age story of the female main character Rose (Kate Winslet). The coming-of-age genre is usually the province of young men, yet here was a blockbuster women ventured to the theater for over and over again.

Role models have existed for young girls before, but I think it’s Caitlin’s sharpshooting, rivaled only by the NBA’s Steph Curry (also a Christian), combined with her overt faith, that’s inspiring the country.

Kobe Bryant, Catholic

I admit she’s inspired me to a large degree. Shortly after Lakers legend Kobe Bryant tragically died before shutdown in 2020, I took to the courts nearly every single day, shooting baskets in a deserted outdoor court at St. Monica Preparatory School in Santa Monica, California.

I tuned into the bubble games for their novelty, but Kobe highlights, let alone any basketball highlights were too difficult to watch. As a viewer, I was away from the game for the first time in my life.

That Kobe leaned on his own Catholic faith through his well-documented struggles, and had visited his home parish on the morning of his the helicopter crash that claimed his life and that of his daughter Gianna, provided some consolation.

From CNN:

A few hours before Kobe Bryant’s life was cut short in a helicopter crash, the NBA legend went to church and prayed.

He visited Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, California early Sunday morning ahead of the 7 a.m. Mass, according to Father Steve Sallot.

“We shook hands, I saw that he had blessed himself because there was a little holy water on his forehead,” Sallot told CNN affiliate KCBS/KCAL.

The Unifying Force of Sports

But it was this collegiate season that reminded me of the unifying force of sports and the magic of must-see TV. You can’t not watch Clark’s games, lest you be left out of the watercooler discussion the next day.

In that respect, her superb play brought me all the way back. I’m currently, once again running and bankrolling bracket challenges for both St. Monica’s faculty and Family Theater Productions, a labor of love of mine dating back to my college days.

I have Caitlin Clark’s feel-good story from America’s heartland to thank.

Discover Another Women's College Basketball Star

And when you’re done cheering on the NCAA finalists, check out FTP’s PBS documentary Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer. It’s the story of University of Montana Lady Griz Malia Kipp. Recruited from the Blackfeet reservation, she went on to become a court standout and an inspiration to her fellow Native athletes.

It's been airing on PBS stations nationwide, but you can watch it right now on PBS’ YouTube channel:


Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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