Sometimes a story in the news emerges that takes us far beyond itself – or the news. This is what the story of St. Peter’s University men’s basketball team did.
To say our world needs a dose of good news right now is an understatement. For a month, we observed Ukraine’s beautiful cities reduced to rubble by a frightening Russian despot who imagines himself presiding over some sort of resurrected tsarist empire. This week at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in Washington, D.C. for the Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, we have again witnessed how our nation’s politics are irretrievably trapped in a degrading ideological vice that dehumanizes our best people. And, as if that were not enough, we continue to live with the ever-present threat of new epidemics from more Variants COVID-19.
Then came Saint-Pierre.
Unless you’ve been locked in a soundproof room with no cellphone, you’ve probably heard of the hustle-till-you-drop team at the Jesuit suburban school in Jersey City who managed to bring down several major teams in the annual NCAA Basketball Tournament affectionately known as “March Madness”.
Win or lose, however, Saint Pierre teaches us many lessons that don’t involve jumping, bouncing and dribbling.
Full coverage all week:Saint Peter Basketball at NCAA Sweet 16
A power plant hidden in plain sight
The first is that the story of Saint-Pierre is a triumph of surprises – of the improbable, yet irresistible beauty, of ordinary people seizing the moment and rising to greatness.
We’ve heard a lot about St. Peter as the basketball version of the biblical David beating a haughty Goliath. It is true to some extent.
But marking Saint-Pierre only with David’s shot misses an important point.
The David versus Goliath story has become a symbol of the triumph of a little guy defeating an aggressive tyrant. With just 2,600 undergraduates and 800 graduates, St. Peter’s is definitely small compared to some of the sprawling universities in the Big Ten conference that have enrollments that exceed the size of a mid-sized city.
The St. Peter’s men’s basketball team is not small, however. Two of the players are 6ft 10in tall. Another is 6ft 9in. And the other teams that faced St. Peter’s weren’t exactly bullies.
What makes St. Peter’s success so enticing and fun to watch is that its players have never been rated as “highly drafted” by other colleges. In other words, most of the so-called “central” schools with long histories of NCAA Tournament success haven’t even bothered to pay attention to the guys populating St. Peter’s roster.
In other words, St. Peter’s players were largely overlooked – just like this Biblical David, a shepherd boy who wasn’t exactly muscular like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson but was skilled enough to throw stones from a sling he carried. Just as the rulers of ancient Israel did not take David seriously, few universities considered St. Peter’s players talented enough for their rosters.
The Bible tells us that when he faced Goliath, David did not even bother to wear the protective armor offered to him or to carry a sword.
David has just shown up in his shepherd’s tunic, swearing to do his best – to deliver his best shot with one of the stones he placed in his sling.
David didn’t talk about Goliath either. Nor did he seem so frightened that the great Philistine, who was clad in head-to-calf armor and had even brought a minion to hold his shield, might send him into eternity with a single blow. sword – or spear. and the javelin he also carried.
Moreover, David didn’t back down when Goliath offered his own version of an ancient admonition: “Am I a dog, for you to come at me with sticks?” Come here and I will give your flesh to birds and wild beasts!
It’s not exactly the kind of modern American talk you might hear at a Little League game, on a basketball court, or on a football court. But you get the idea: Goliath considered David unworthy.
On many levels, when the “March Madness” parentheses were crafted, St. Peters was also considered unworthy. But then what? We all know what happened to the mighty Goliath.
Do not be afraid
This brings us to the next lesson St. Peter taught us: Why be afraid?
In one of those great and all-too-rare moments when sport offers some philosophical insight, St. Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway He was asked if his team could be intimidated now that they face even tougher opponents in the upcoming “Sweet Sixteen” after dispatching two powerhouse basketball programs, Kentucky and Murray State, in the early rounds of the tournament.
Holloway’s answer is a gem that has now been displayed on a New Jersey billboard.
“I have guys from New Jersey and New York,” Holloway said. “Do you think we are afraid of anything?
We all know that such a statement is an exaggeration. Most of us who live in New Jersey and New York are afraid of traffic jams, taxes, speed cameras, “weather advisories” and New York Rangers fans – just to name a few. frightening aspects of life in this corner of the world.
But let’s not nitpick. The simple beauty of observing Holloway is that worrying about your fears is exhausting – a distraction. It is quite natural to be afraid of certain aspects of life. But there’s no reason to let your fears stop you from trying to achieve something. Show up and do your best.
The column continues under the gallery.
Holloway is not fooled. Even before “March Madness” began, he knew that St. Peter’s had little chance of becoming a champion. But who cares ? Holloway’s message to his team — and to the rest of America — is that if you spend your life worrying about results, you’ll never take the first step down an unknown path. You might miss the opportunity to make a new friendship, take on a new job, or embrace any other change life presents to you. If you trip over your fears, you might even miss the chance to win a basketball game dramatically.
Enjoy the pursuit
And so we are faced with the final lesson of St. Peter – the need to simply enjoy the moment.
The St. Peter’s men’s basketball team was not expected to reach this stage of the NCAA Tournament. That’s what the experts told us.
But then the magic happened. The world learned that St. Peter’s played an old-school form of basketball, with belly-to-belly defense and boxing rebounds. We also learned that a kid from Nutley, who refused to shave his mustache during his team’s winning streak, could also shoot like Kevin Durant and Lebron James.
Let’s also not forget how America discovered Coach Holloway’s endearing habit of smiling during tense moments in games.
Holloway is clearly a serious man. But he also knows how to lighten up. Bill Belichick, the dour face of the New England Patriots football team, could learn a lot from Holloway. So would most members of Congress, not to mention some cable TV news stars.
Finally, let’s not forget Saint-Pierre’s mascot, the peacock. The school did not embrace the pugilist image of “bulldogs”, “knights” or “pirates”.
No, Saint-Pierre adopted a bird that is best known for its multicolored plumage.
Finally, the rest of America took notice.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.