Sister Jean is the biggest celebrity of the NCAA tournament, but Loyola-Chicago's 98-year-old chaplain isn't worn out by her sudden fame.
SAN ANTONIO — A grin crept across Mark Fratto’s face as he lowered it toward the microphone Friday morning.
“Sister Jean,” the former St. John’s sports information director and current boxing ring announcer said, “is iiiiiinnn the building.”
Moments later, a crew of Alamodome workers looked like the Army Corps of Engineers as they took less than a minute to assemble a wheelchair ramp leading to the dais. And then, amid a cacophony of firing flash bulbs and video camera operators fighting one another for position, the biggest celebrity of the NCAA tournament rolled in.
Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past two weeks, you know Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt. She’s the 98-year-old nun who serves as the chaplain for Loyola-Chicago’s basketball team and sends each player a personalized scouting report before each game. She’s also a former college administrator who helped shepherd Mundelein College through the tumultuous early 1970s. In an oral history she gave in 1998 about her years at Mundelein that now resides in the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola-Chicago, she said her mother always said it was “better to wear out than rust out.”
On Good Friday—a day before her Ramblers face Michigan in the national semifinals—Sister Jean seemed in no danger of wearing out. She’s the inspiration for one of the fastest selling bobbleheads in bobblehead history. Her face adorns t-shirts and socks across the country. And she’s just as amazed about all of this as everyone else is.
“I never imagined two or three [cameras], let alone this large group,” Sister Jean said Friday. “Everything just seemed to mushroom, and I could never tell you how that happens. It’s just like when students visit universities before they’re admitted—when they’re in high school. I always tell them that something magical happens. You don’t know what it is, but you know you belong there. And so if I got nervous when all of this was happening, I said to myself, ‘Well, I tell other people it’s magical, and so just go and do it.’ And it’s a big thrill for me to be here this morning with all of you.
“And you know what? I’m not a bit nervous.”
How much juice does Sister Jean have at the Final Four? She’s the only person here who could go on camera without first pouring her beverage of choice in an NCAA-approved Powerade cup.
But perhaps the rules are different for Holy Water.
Sister Jean has embraced her moment since the cameras found her following Loyola-Chicago forward Donte Ingram’s buzzer-beater that took down Miami in Dallas on March 15. On that day—when she wasn’t surrounded by security every second she spent in the arena—she even talked a little trash about the Ramblers’ next opponent. Well, as much trash as a nun can talk. “Be careful, Tennessee,” she said. And she was correct. Tennessee should have been more careful—especially when it came to guarding Clayton Custer, who hit a late shot to sink the No. 3 seed Volunteers.
Amazingly we have managed to go more than two weeks without Milkshake Duck-ing Sister Jean. What’s a Milkshake Duck? It’s when someone shoots to fame and then gets met shortly after with a severe backlash as everyone clamors through the person’s past on the Internet. The phrase was coined by this tweet, which describes the phenomenon perfectly.
But that hasn’t happened to Sister Jean, who has steered into the sudden fame. Every time she goes on Good Morning America or talks to the Turner/CBS sideline reporter, she spreads the story of the Jesuit school that has been her home since 1991 to a wider audience. She grasps the power of today’s connected world better than most people half her age. This is amazing considering that she was born in 1919, when only 35% of houses had a telephone. She was a child when the first long-distance television broadcast took place and into her 20s before it was common to have a TV at home. She was already in her 70s when most of us began using dial-up services to connect to the Internet. But how did Sister Jean learn that former Michigan star Jalen Rose’s 100-year-old grandmother had called her out this week? “I saw it on Facebook the other day,” she said.
“Somebody said, ‘Maybe you need a pair of boxing gloves,’ and I said, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens.’ I hope we see each other,” Sister Jean said. “I hope we meet there. I love to meet people.” On Thursday, Rose said Mary Belle Hicks would not be able to make the trip, so no boxing gloves will be required.
Sister Jean also was asked about the thorny issue of requesting God’s favor for a particular team in her pregame prayers. “I like to pray for both teams so that especially the fans who might hear me know that I’m partly on one side, but only partly, because at the end of the prayer, I always ask God to be sure that the scoreboard indicates that the Ramblers have the big W,” she said. “And then sometimes the fans from the opponents say, ‘We noticed that you gave Loyola a little more attention than you gave us. And I say, ‘Well, if you wore maroon and gold, you would too.’”
Michigan coach John Beilein, who attended Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and who worked at Jesuit schools (Le Moyne and Canisius) earlier in his career, has enlisted his own prayer circle heading into Saturday’s game. “I will tell you I have heard from many religious people that I personally know that tell me their prayers are doing everything they can to counter Sister Jean,” Beilein joked. “And I had a priest, not even at my own parish, stop mass at the end of mass on Tuesday and say, ‘They have Sister Jean, you have everybody here praying for you.’”
Speaking of prayer, there will be a lot of that going on outside of basketball on one of the holiest weeks on the Judeo-Christian calendar. “We’re having a university mass together on Easter Sunday,” she said. “You know I said Easter Sunday because we hope to stay, and we’re confident enough we will.”