“Bless and protect my team”: Italian town hopes basketball patron will become national


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

On one table, a notebook contained pages of devotions, 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, holding a ball in his left hand as the Virgin Mary watched her earth clock go by.

“I offer you the joy of every bucket,” prayed Don Filippo Maestrello, a local center-sized priest, to the Virgin of the Bridge in the basketball players’ chapel.

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

The people of Porretta have worshiped the Virgin of the Bridge for centuries, 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, ultimately inspiring the construction of the shrine where Don Maestrello prayed.

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

But more recently, they say she brought 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 walked recently to the town’s main square, lined with butchers, tortellini restaurants, a medieval tower and shops selling fabric, slippers. and hiking boots. The long square, he said, had also served as a makeshift outdoor court for a popular regional basketball tournament.

“We were famous for the injuries,” Bernardi said, pointing to the irregularities in the street.

Mr. Bernardi traces Porretta’s passion for basketball, vaguely, to Italian prisoners of war who learned the game from their American captors. By the early 1950s, Porretta had become the national center for women’s basketball in a hoop-obsessed part of Italy. In 1956, a religious ceremony consecrated the chapel of basketball players and a long procession of players carried torches and votive candles to the sanctuary.

Since then, the town has become a capital of youth basketball with tournaments in honor of the consecration of the chapel. Local and regional players began making pilgrimages to Our Lady for match day assistance, leaving shirt offerings just as their ancestors left medals.

Nicolò Savigni, city councilor for sport and tourism, said the Virtus team from Bologna came to pray before a big game – and won. In 2020 Meo Sacchetti, the coach of the Italian national basketball team, came to the chapel and paid tribute to the Madonna. The team qualified for the Olympics that year, the first time in 17 years.

“She surely despised the national team,” Sacchetti said.

“If it’s not a miracle,” says Bernardi.

Mr Bernardi and other advocates, who have been pushing for signatures and testimonials in support of Madonna’s candidacy as the National Hoops Patron, have powerful fans in their corner.

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

“Life is like a basketball game,” he said at the time.

Francis himself used basketball pictures. In 2017, he referred to 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 movement towards the hoop”. The Pope continued: “For us, this nailed to the ground around which we turn is the cross of Christ.

For Porretta, it is also an anchor for economic development.

The current city administration recently struck a deal with a company in Bologna to update its spa network, which could attract more older people looking to soothe their sore bones. But official recognition of Our Lady could attract more young pilgrims, Enrico Della Torre, 33, a local economic development official, said as he walked down the main street one recent morning.

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

For a town of 4000 inhabitants, Porretta already has a lot to do. For more than 30 years, soul music fans have made a pilgrimage to the Porretta Soul Festival, where the stone walls are brightened up with murals by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs. and other stars.

While walking around town, Mr Bernardi – who also hosts a progressive rock festival in Porretta – came across Graziano Uliani, 72, the gregarious founder of the soul festival and a basketball fan as well. Mr. Uliani spoke about famous basketball players he met while following musicians in Memphis and Los Angeles. He also plugged in his festival until Mr Bernardi, noting the time, said he was heading to the shrine to meet the priest, Don Maestrello.

In his car, wearing a vintage jersey in the backseat, he drove past the dilapidated thermal baths where, he says, many locals worked in their youth. He crossed the bridge over the Reno River to the domed shrine and waited outside for the priest and Mr. Savigni, the town councilor.

It was cold and calm, except for the sound of the rushing water in the river. A local man drove by and told Mr Bernardi that Our Lady saved his life a second time after a second heart attack.

After the prayers of Don Maestrello in the shrine, Mr. Savigni said “we are planning to build a large arena in honor of the patron”.

Later that day, the three men went to a local gymnasium where the organizer of a basketball school had prayed to Madonna to intercede so the sport could survive the coronavirus blockades. The children attended classes with Francesco Della Torre, former Italian league player and brother of Enrico Della Torre, responsible for economic development. (“To beat him I would have needed days in the chapel,” Enrico Della Torre said.)

A ball bounces towards Don Maestrello. He took a corner kick. It was an aerial balloon.

“When I step on the field, everyone is terrified,” said the great prelate. “And then the first pass occurs. “

Don Maestrello was more at home in the large downtown parish church, where he displayed basketball trophies kept in a storage room for a possible patron saint museum. Mr. Bernardi opened a gray suitcase of basketball jerseys, some signed by entire NBA teams. Reverently, he pulled out a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, apparently signed by the superstar, who partly grew up nearby and spoke Italian.

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

He kept removing jerseys signed by players from NBA teams, sent as an offering, through a well-connected associate, to Madonna, and spoke of Porretta’s potential for Madonna to become global.

“We are not satisfied with the national discussion,” Bernardi said. “Either show us another Patron Saint, or it’s this one. We are ambitious.

Mr. Savigni, the head of tourism, caught the spirit. He walked through his dream squad of potential NBA loyalists a la Madonna and stopped dead in the lobby.

“Is Michael Jordan Catholic? ” He asked.


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