An Italian town hopes that its Basketball Players will advance to national prominence. A single basketball-shaped window, its panes curved like seams, poured light on walls covered in basketball jerseys 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 notebook on a table held pages of devotionals, including thanksgiving for a healed meniscus and prayers to “win the championship in the next few years.” The back wall featured a bas-relief of a dying Basketball Players, palming a ball in his left hand as the Virgin Mary counted down the seconds until his earthly clock ran out.
“I offer you the joy of every bucket,” Don Filippo Maestrello, a center-sized local priest, prayed in the Chapel of the Basketball Players to the Madonna of the Bridge.
As he continued, the founder of the local basketball association and the town’s tourism and sports officials bowed their heads, imploring the Madonna to “guide our shot in the right direction” and to “bless and protect my team.”
For centuries, Porretta residents have worshipped 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 time, the rock became a place of devotion, inspiring the construction of the sanctuary where Don Maestrello prayed.
The Madonna of the Bridge was credited with performing miracles, including saving a 17th-century pilgrim on the bridge by stopping bullets fired by a Florentine assassin.
However, she is said to have recently taken her talents and divine interventions to the basketball court. After a decades-long campaign by local basketball fans, the Italian Bishops Conference approved her designation as the patron saint of Italian basketball in May.
“A formality,” he explained as he walked to the town’s main square, which is lined with butcher shops, tortellini restaurants, a mediaeval tower, and shops selling fabric, slippers, and hiking shoes. He claimed that the long piazza had also been used as a makeshift outdoor court for a popular regional basketball tournament.
Mr. Bernardi traces Porretta’s basketball obsession to Italian POWs who learned the game from their American captors. Porretta had emerged as the national centre of women’s basketball in a basketball-crazed part of Italy by the early 1950s. A religious ceremony consecrated the Basketball Players Chapel in 1956, and a long procession of players carried torches and votive candles to the shrine.
Since then, the town has become a youth basketball mecca, with tournaments commemorating the chapel’s consecration. Local and regional players began making pilgrimages to the Madonna for game-day assistance, leaving jersey offerings in the same way that their forefathers had left medals.
Bologna’s Virtus team came to pray before a big game, according to Nicol Savigni, the local councilman for sport and tourism. Meo Sacchetti, the coach of Italy’s national basketball team, visited the chapel in 2020 to pay his respects to the Madonna. That year, the team qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 17 years.
Mr. Bernardi and other supporters who have pushed for signatures and testimonials in support of Madonna’s application to be a national patron of basketball have powerful supporters on their side.
Francis has made use of basketball imagery. He described a “basketball player who plants his pivot foot on the ground and makes movements to protect the ball or find room to pass or make a move to the hoop” in 2017. “For us, that foot nailed to the soil around which we pivot is the cross of Christ,” the pope continued.
The current administration recently reached an agreement with a Bologna corporation to update its network of thermal baths, which may attract more seniors looking to relieve aching bones. However, Enrico Della Torre, 33, a local official in charge of economic development, said as he walked down the main street on a recent morning that official recognition of the Madonna could attract more youthful pilgrims.