Poretta Terme, Italy – In the chapel of a small hillside reserve in Poretta Terme – a pretty town in central Italy famous for the healing powers of its thermal waters – a single window shaped like a basketball, its panels curved like seams, pouring light onto walls filled with basketball jerseys.
On the nightstand was a notebook containing devotional pages, including gratitude for healing meniscus and prayers to “win the championship in the next few years.” The back wall had a relief of a dying basketball player touching a ball in his left hand while Our Lady watched his earth clock go down.
Don Filippo Maestrilo, a medium-sized local priest, prayed to the Madonna of the Bridge at Basketball Players’ Church: “I offer you the joy of every bucket.”
The local Basketball Association founder and township sports and tourism official bowed their heads to his side as he continued, pleading with Madonna to “point our shot in the right direction” and “bless and protect my team.”
For centuries, Poretta’s residents have honored the Madonna of the Bridge – named after a 16th-century drawing of the Virgin Mary on a rock near a bridge over the nearby Reno River. Over the years, the rock became a site of devotion, which eventually inspired the construction of the sanctuary where Don Maestrelo prayed.
Locals credit the Madonna of the Bridge with performing miracles, including saving a 17th-century pilgrim on the bridge by stopping a bullet fired by a Florentine killer.
But recently, they say, she transferred her divine talents and interventions to the basketball court. After a decades-long campaign by local basketball fanatics, the Italian Bishops’ Conference in May gave its approval to officially recognize her as the patron saint of Italian basketball.
“A formality,” he said, as he walked recently to the main town square, lined with butcher shops, tortellini restaurants, a medieval tower, and shops selling fabrics, slippers, and hiking boots. The tall arena served as a temporary outdoor playground for a popular regional basketball tournament, he said.
“We are notorious for the injuries,” said Mr. Bernardi, pointing to the uneven areas of the street.
Mr. Bernardi traces Boretta’s passion for basketball, loosely speaking, back to Italian prisoners of war who learned the game from their American captors. By the early 1950s, Poretta had emerged as the center of women’s national basketball in a hoops-obsessed part of Italy. In 1956 a religious ceremony was held to dedicate the Basketball Players Church and a long procession of players carried torches and votive candles to the shrine.
Since then, the city has become the youth basketball capital with tournaments in honor of the church’s consecration. Local and regional players began making a pilgrimage to Madonna for help on match day, leaving jersey displays just as their predecessors left medals.
Nicolo Savini, a member of the local council for sports and tourism, said that Bologna’s Virtus came to pray before a big game – and won. In 2020, Mio Sachetti, coach of the Italian national basketball team, came to church and offered his regards to Madonna. The team qualified for the Olympics that year for the first time in 17 years.
“I definitely looked down on the national team,” Mr. Saketti said.
“If that’s not a miracle,” said Mr. Bernardi.
Mr. Bernardi and other advocates, who lobbied for autographs and testimonials in favor of Madonna’s request to be National Patron of the Hoops, have staunch fans in their corner.
Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna, was called Cardinal of Basketball by local newspapers. In 2016, in the middle of a major local basketball tournament, he celebrated Easter mass in honor of Madonna and traveled to Poretta to celebrate the Basketball Chapel’s 60th anniversary.
“Life is like a game of basketball,” he said at the time.
Francis himself used basketball pictures. In 2017, he spoke of “a basketball player who plants his pivot foot on the ground and makes moves to protect the ball or find space to pass or move to the hoop.” The Pope continued, “For us, that foot nailed to the soil around which we revolve is the cross of Christ.”
For Poretta, it is also a foothold for economic development.
The current city administration recently reached an agreement with the Bologna company to modernize the network of thermal baths, which may attract more seniors looking to soothe their aching bones. As he walked down Main Street one morning, Enrico della Torre, 33, a local official in charge of economic development, said the official recognition of Madonna might attract more young pilgrims.
Encouraging young visitors “is the most important thing to revitalize these cities,” he said.
For a city of 4,000 inhabitants, there is really a lot in Poretta. For more than 30 years, soul lovers have made a pilgrimage to the Porretta Soul Festival, when stone walls were shone with murals of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Booker T., MG’s, and other stars.
While walking around town, Mr. Bernardi – who also organizes the Brug Rock Festival in Poretta – bumped into Graziano Ugliani, 72, the Soul Festival’s social founder, and also a basketball fan. Mr. Ulyani talked about the famous basketball players he met while following musicians in Memphis and Los Angeles. He also communicated his celebration so that Mr. Bernardi, indicating the time, said he was on his way to the sanctuary to meet Reverend Don Maestrelo.
In his car, with a vintage T-shirt in the back seat, he passed the drooping thermal baths where he said many locals worked in their youth. Cross the bridge over the Reno River to the domed sanctuary and wait outside for the priest and Mr. Savini, a councilman.
It was cool and calm except for the sound of rushing river water. A local man drove by and told Mr. Bernardi that Madonna had saved his life for the second time after a second heart attack.
After Don Maestrilo prayed in the sanctuary, Mr. Savini captivated, “We are planning to build a large plaza in honor of the pastor.”
Later in the day, the three men headed to a local gym where the basketball school organizer prayed to Madonna to mediate so that the sport could survive the coronavirus shutdown. The children were taking lessons with Francesco della Torre, a former Serie A player and brother of Enrico della Torre, an economic development official. (“To defeat him,” said Enrico della Torre, “I would have needed days in church.”
The ball bounced towards Don Maestrelo. He took a shot from the corner. It was a ball.
“When I step into the stadium, everyone is terrified,” said the tall bishop. “And then the first pass occurs.”
Don Maestrelo was more at home in the large parish church downtown, displaying basketball memorabilia kept in a storage room for a potential museum of the patron saint. Mr. Bernardi opened a gray bag of basketball jerseys, some signed by entire NBA teams. With reverence he snatched the Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, apparently signed by the star, who grew up partly next door and speaks Italian.
When Mr. Bryant died in a helicopter crash in 2020, Mr. Bernardi said: “We all prayed in the sanctuary. For us he was an idol.” He whispered Mr. Bryant’s nickname under his breath. “Black Mamba.”
He continued to pull out signed T-shirts by players from the NBA teams, which were sent as offers, through a colleague with good connections, to Madonna, and spoke about the potential of Madonna from Poretta to go global.
“The national debate does not satisfy us,” said Mr. Bernardi. “Either you show us another saint, or this saint. We are ambitious.”
Mr. Savini, the tourism official, has captured the spirit. He ran across his dream team of potential NBA fans for Madonna and stopped in the hall.
Is Michael Jordan a Catholic? Asked.