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Frank's Place: Catholic schools again among nation's best basketball teams

With apologies to Frank Sinatra: When I was sixty-seven, It was a very good year. It was a very good year

With apologies to Frank Sinatra:

When I was sixty-seven,

It was a very good year.

It was a very good year

For Catholic schools

And their basketball teams.

They can't lose, it seems.

And their fans were in heaven,

When I was sixty-seven.

And those three Catholic institutions were not only holding their own with much larger state schools and much wealthier independents, they were each unbeaten, a combined 30-0.

As most Philadelphians know, there's a deep and rich connection here between Catholics and basketball. Whatever the secret is, it's long been evident at their parishes, high schools, and colleges.

And the trend extends far beyond Philadelphia. It's a widespread phenomenon, one that took root soon after football turned obscure Notre Dame into a nationally recognized university. Other Catholic colleges tried to duplicate that transformation. Most, however, were small urban institutions, and the cost of stadiums and big rosters proved onerous. The Depression didn't help, and by the end of World War II many of these same schools either had dropped or de-emphasized football.

They decided instead to focus on basketball.

The switch made enormous sense. Colleges like DePaul, La Salle, Georgetown, and St. John's were located in big cities where basketball tended to enjoy its greatest popularity. These schools already had gymnasiums and the game's other necessities - basketballs, uniforms, backboards - weren't particularly costly.

Before long, the Catholic colleges had developed a feeder system at their parishes and high schools and they began to dominate.

From 1947 through 1963, Catholic institutions won five NCAA championships - Holy Cross (1947), La Salle (1954), San Francisco (1955 and '56), and Loyola of Chicago (1963) - and 10 NIT titles. Their players - La Salle's Tom Gola, DePaul's George Mikan, Holy Cross' Bob Cousy - were the sport's biggest stars.

The culmination of this golden era probably occurred in 1985, when three of the universities in that year's Final Four were Catholic - Villanova, St. John's, and Georgetown.

Throughout America during those postwar decades, investing in and promulgating the sport was Catholic dogma. But somehow, when it came to basketball, the Rev. Thomas P. Dowd was an agnostic.

While Philadelphia-area priests eagerly pointed Baby Boomers to the sport, the stern pastor of Broomall's St. Pius X seemed determined to prevent his parishioners from playing.

St. Pius had a small but suitable gym. It was located behind the school, in a gully directly below the parish rectory. Dowd had been the young parish's first pastor, and that gym its first church. Perhaps because of that history, the building occupied the lone soft spot in the priest's otherwise hard Irish heart.

It was his shrine, his obsession. Its linoleum floors were always polished to a lustrous sheen. Its doors were always locked. He seemed happiest when it was clean and empty.

Dowd didn't see the incongruity - a basketball gym where basketball was rarely played.

Reluctantly, with the enormous set of keys affixed to his cassock, he would occasionally open it up for sodality meetings, for scout functions or - but only when the schedule demanded it - for our school basketball team's games.

After those games, you'd often see Dowd, mop in hand, searching for scuff marks.

But the gym was most often vacant, and, monitoring it constantly from his vantage point in the hilltop rectory, the priest made sure it stayed that way.

For hoops-crazed kids like us, that unused gym was a cruel tease, especially in winter, when outdoor options were limited.

And so, on one particularly desperate December day, during Christmas break, we took the risk. A scout watched the rectory while, one by one, we slithered through a tiny window that we'd forced open. Once inside, we indulged our basketball fantasies, pausing only to partake of the bottled Cokes that were stored in an adjacent kitchen.

It was heaven, for a short while. The problem was we underestimated the noise produced by a half-dozen kids and a basketball bouncing on rock-hard, polished linoleum.

Sure enough, the front door swung open and there, clad in black and looming like a vision of death, stood an obviously irritated Dowd.

Everyone scattered, but I was too slow. He grabbed my collar and took me outside, pausing as he did to relock and double-check the door.

Leading me up to the rectory, he phoned my father. How ridiculous that conversation must have been.

"Mr. Fitzpatrick? This is Father Dowd. I've got your son, Frank, here at the rectory. I caught him playing basketball in the gym."

While we waited for him, Dowd permitted himself a satisfied smile. His vigilance had spared the shrine further defilement.

It shouldn't be a surprise that among all the Catholic basketball talent developed in Delaware County back then, little came from St. Pius. The school teams I played on in seventh and eighth grades, limited to one or two practices a week, were awful.

Not until years later did the parish blossom as a basketball school.

It was, as I recall, soon after Dowd retired.