‘Bless and Protect My Team’: An Italian Town Hopes Its Basketball Patron Advances to National Status

PORRETTA TERME, Italy — In the chapel of a small hillside sanctuary in Porretta Terme — a handsome town in central Italy known for the healing powers of its thermal waters — a single basketball-shaped window, its panes curved like seams, poured light on walls filled with basketball jerseys.

On a table, a notebook contained pages of devotionals, including gratitude for a healed meniscus and prayers to “win the championship in the next few years.” The back wall bore a bas-relief of a dying basketball player, palming a ball in his left hand as the Virgin Mary watched his earthly clock run down.

“I offer you the joy of every bucket,” Don Filippo Maestrello, a center-sized local priest, prayed to the Madonna of the Bridge in the Chapel of the Basketball Players.

The founder of the local basketball association and the town’s tourism and sport official bowed their heads at his side as he continued, imploring the Madonna to “guide our shot in the right direction” and to “bless and protect my team.”

Residents of Porretta have for centuries venerated 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, eventually inspiring the building of the sanctuary where Don Maestrello prayed.

Locals credited the Madonna of the Bridge with performing miracles, including saving a 17th-century pilgrim on the bridge by stopping bullets fired by a Florentine assassin.

But more recently they say she has taken her talents, and divine interventions, to the basketball court. After a decades-long campaign by local basketball fanatics, the Italian Bishops Conference in May gave its approval for her to be officially recognized as the patron saint of Italian basketball.

“A formality,” he said, as he recently walked to the town’s main square, lined with butcher shops, tortellini restaurants, a medieval tower and stores selling fabric, slippers and hiking shoes. The long piazza, he said, had also served as a makeshift outdoor court for a popular regional basketball tournament.

“We were famous for the injuries,” said Mr. Bernardi, pointing out the uneven spots on the street.

Mr. Bernardi traces Porretta’s basketball passion, loosely, back to Italian prisoners of war who learned the game from their Americans captors. By the early 1950s, Porretta had emerged as the national center of women’s basketball in a hoops-obsessed part of Italy. In 1956 a religious ceremony consecrated the Chapel of the Basketball Players and a long procession of players carried torches and votive candles to the shrine.

Since then, the town has become a capital of youth basketball with tournaments in honor of the chapel’s consecration. Local and regional players started making pilgrimages to the Madonna for game-day assistance, leaving offerings of jerseys just as their ancestors left medals.

Nicolò Savigni, the local councilman for sport and tourism, said Bologna’s Virtus team came to pray before a big game — and won. In 2020, Meo Sacchetti, the coach of Italy’s national basketball team, came to the chapel and paid his respects to the Madonna. The team qualified for the Olympics that year, the first time in 17 years.

“She surely did look down on the national team,” Mr. Sacchetti said.

“If that’s not a miracle,” said Mr. Bernardi.

Mr. Bernardi and other advocates, who have pressed for signatures and testimonials in favor of the Madonna’s application to be a national patron of hoops, have powerful fans in their corner.

Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna, has been called “Cardinal Basketball” by the local newspaper. In 2016, in the middle of a major local basketball tournament, he celebrated an Easter Mass in honor of the Madonna and traveled to Porretta to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the basketball chapel.

“Life is like a basketball game,” he said then.

Francis himself has used basketball imagery. In 2017, he spoke about a “basketball player who plants his pivot foot on the ground and makes movements to protect the ball or finds room to pass or make a move to the hoop.” The pope continued, “For us, that foot nailed to the soil around which we pivot is the cross of Christ.”

For Porretta, it’s also a foothold for economic development.

The current town administration recently reached a deal with a Bologna corporation to update its network of thermal baths, which might draw more seniors looking to soothe their aching bones. But official recognition of the Madonna could attract more youthful pilgrims, said Enrico Della Torre, 33, a local official in charge of economic development, as he walked down the main street on a recent morning.

Encouraging younger visitors “is the most important thing for the rebirth of these towns,” he said.

For a town of 4,000 people, Porretta already has a lot going on. For more than 30 years, fans of soul music have made pilgrimages to the Porretta Soul Festival, when the stone walls are brightened with murals of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.’s. and other stars.

Walking through town, Mr. Bernardi — who is also organizing a Prog Rock festival in Porretta — bumped into Graziano Uliani, 72, the gregarious founder of the soul festival, and a basketball fan too. Mr. Uliani talked about famous basketball players he has met while following musicians in Memphis and Los Angeles. He also plugged his festival until Mr. Bernardi, noting the time, said he was on his way to the sanctuary to meet the priest, Don Maestrello.

In his car, with a vintage jersey in the back seat, he passed the run-down thermal baths where he said many locals worked in their youth. He crossed the bridge over the Reno river to the domed sanctuary and waited outside for the priest and Mr. Savigni, the councilman.

It was cold and quiet except for the sound of the river’s rushing water. A local man drove by and told Mr. Bernardi that the Madonna had saved his life for a second time after a second heart attack.

After Don Maestrello’s prayers in the sanctuary, Mr. Savigni confided “we are planning to build a big arena in honor of the patron.”

Later in the day, the three men drove to a local gym where the organizer of a basketball school had prayed to the Madonna for intercession so that the sport could survive coronavirus lockdowns. Children were taking lessons with Francesco Della Torre, a former Italian league player and the brother of Enrico Della Torre, the economic development official. (“To beat him I would have needed days in the chapel,” Enrico Della Torre said.)

A ball bounced toward Don Maestrello. He took a shot from the corner. It was an airball.

“When I step on the court everyone is terrified,” the tall prelate said. “And then the first pass happens.”

Don Maestrello was more at home in the large parish church in the center of town, where he showed off basketball trophies kept in a storage room for a potential museum to the patron saint. Mr. Bernardi opened a gray suitcase of basketball jerseys, some signed by entire N.B.A. teams. With reverence he extracted a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, apparently signed by the superstar, who partly grew up nearby and who spoke Italian.

When Mr. Bryant died in a helicopter crash in 2020, Mr. Bernardi said, “All of us said a prayer at the sanctuary. For us he was an idol.” He whispered Mr. Bryant’s nickname under his breath. “Black Mamba.”

He kept pulling out jerseys signed by players from N.B.A. teams, sent as offerings, through a well-connected associate, to the Madonna, and talked about the potential of Porretta’s Madonna going global.

“The national discussion does not satisfy us,” Mr. Bernardi said. “Either show us another patron saint, or it’s this one. We’re ambitious.”

Mr. Savigni, the tourism official, caught the spirit. He ran through his dream team of potential N.B.A. devotees to the Madonna and stopped short in the hall.

“Is Michael Jordan Catholic?” he asked.

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