SAN ANTONIO – It’s standing room only in breakout room 3 Friday morning. Three dozen cameras are poised on tripods. At least 150 media, maybe more, are crammed in, elbow to elbow.
What’s the man on the dais announcing?
“Sister Jean is in the building.”A wheelchair-friendly ramp up to the dais has been installed. Alamodome workers scurry in and quickly add rails. All is ready, for a 98-year-old nun to address the Final Four on Good Friday.
Oscar Robertson sticks his head in the room. He has just helped present the player of the year award which carries his name down the hall to Jalen Brunson. His eyes widen. He mentions this is a lot more people than were at the player of the year press conference.
A personal note. I have covered 39 of these things. I have seen Michael Jordan’s winning shot, and Villanova’s great upset, and Chris Webber’s infamous timeout. I have seen Duke win five titles, and lose another by 30. I have seen controversies and drama and shining moments by the dozens.
I have never seen anything like this.
“I walked by,” Loyola coach Porter Moser would say later. “I thought it looked like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl.”
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt was born 19 years before the NCAA Tournament existed. The 1963 Loyola championship has been talked about here as an historical artifact from a bygone age. She was already in her 40s when it happened.
And now she’s at the Final Four as Loyola’s now world-famous team chaplain, with her own bobblehead doll, and own press availability. The man at the microphones advises, this will last 15 minutes only.
A commotion at the door. Some of the assembled throng moves aside, and suddenly there she is, being wheeled in. A white-haired woman in a black Loyola shirt and maroon and gold scarf. The cameras erupt. Clickclickclickclickclickclick.
Sister Jean is rolled up to the microphone. A little closer, she asks. And then she begins.
“I can’t believe it. Even in the morning, I wake up and I say, 'Is this real or is it a dream?’ And I say, 'No, it’s really for real.’ It’s very real for me to see you, but not so many at a time.”
The questions start coming, she starts answering, as if she has spent her entire life doing this. There will be many press conference here this week, with middle-age coaches and young players, that will be nowhere near as snappy.
Why does she pray for the opponent as well?
“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 . . . at the end of the prayer, I always ask God to be sure that the scoreboard indicates the Ramblers have the big W. 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.”
Could she ever have imagined this sight?
“I never imagined two or three, let alone a large group. Everything just seemed to mushroom, and I could never tell you how that happened. It’s just like when students visit universities before they’re admitted . . . I always tell them that something magical happens. And so if I got nervous when all this was happening, I said to myself, `Well, I tell other people it’s magical, and so just go and do it.
“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.”
Is she amazed at the widespread reaction?
"When they say, 'I came in from New York to do this’ – three or four photographers – I think to myself, `Oh my, don’t let this go to your head.’ I haven’t done that, nor has the team.’’
Her reaction to former Michigan star Jalen Rose’s 100-year-old grandmother calling her out, vowing that the Wolverines will end the run for Loyola, and Sister Jean?
“I saw it on Facebook the other day. I also heard that she said she’s out to get to me, so we’ll see. I hope we see each other. I love to meet people.”
Wait a minute. A 98-year-old and 100-year-old trash talking via Facebook? Some of this stuff, you couldn’t make up.
About her face now on socks and T-shirts?
“I sort of got used to that when, some years ago, the dance team did a face; it was a sketch on their shirts. And then we have those cardboard faces—you see those all over. And I see more pictures of even people (wearing her likeness) I don’t even know, who are not Ramblers. I see them and I think to myself, 'Maybe I’ll get a pair of socks myself to wear around.’
“I’m not saying this in a proud fashion, but the first bobblehead we gave away at a game against Milwaukee. And then this one is updated with different Rambler clothes. I think the company could retire when they’re finished with these bobbleheads.”
Comparisons with this team and 1963?
“I see similarity between the team teams in that they’re humble, they’re unselfish, they don’t care who makes the points as long as the ball goes in the basket.
“I didn’t go to the ’63 (Final Four) but I watched it on a little 11-inch black-and-white TV, and the game was (tape) delayed. And because we didn’t have cell phones or tweet or anything like that, nobody told us that we had won, so we were watching the game as though it was live for us. And then everybody got out of the house and walked down the line on Sheridan Road, men and women together.”
Is God a basketball fan?
She thinks he is.
How does a nun combine basketball with Easter weekend?
“It’s a real challenge. We’re going to Good Friday service this afternoon. We’re having a university Mass together on Sunday. You know I said Easter Sunday, because we hope to stay, and we’re confident enough we will. We have to keep our minds in a quiet attitude as well, and I think we make that space. That’s what we do at Loyola.”
How’s she liking all this?
“This is the most fun I’ve had in my life.”
Fifteen minutes are up, the moderator says. Sister Jean has a disappointed groan. “I could stay another hour,” she says.
She waves, thanks everyone for coming, and is wheeled away. Next in breakout room 3 is Loyola’s Aundre Jackson. Maybe 20 people stay for him.
Every Final Four has its indelible moments, made that way by their absolute uniqueness. This Final Four just had one.