March 27, 2015 — If you saw Jesuit Father Frank Case last Friday night at Seattle’s KeyArena, he was high-fiving and grinning ear-to-ear, clearly enjoying his new job: chaplain of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team. He had good reason for his mood, as the Gonzaga Bulldogs defeated North Dakota State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The job isn’t all fun and games. Fr. Case and other Jesuit college basketball chaplains, like Jesuit Father Dave Anderson, men’s basketball chaplain at Seattle University, work from the bench to keep college players grounded in faith on and off the court.
A veteran of the job, Fr. Anderson is completing his eighth season with Seattle University’s Redhawks. However, his initial foray was a bit of a coincidence.
Fr. Anderson with Seattle University basketball players. (Chris Joseph Taylor/Seattle University)
Before coming to Seattle, Fr. Anderson served a community of 20,000 Yupik Natives in Alaska. And while he had no prior experience, Fr. Anderson was inspired to follow in the footsteps of Jesuit Father Tony Lehman, who was chaplain for the men’s basketball team at Gonzaga University when Fr. Anderson was a student there.
“[Fr. Lehman] was very instrumental in my path to becoming a Jesuit. Even while I was still an undergrad, I realized that being a Jesuit could be a great life,” Fr. Anderson said.
When he approached then-head coach Joe Callero about a role with the team, it turned out that Callero, who had grown up in a large Catholic family, also wanted to foster a sense of spirituality within the program.
Two years later when Cameron Dollar was named head coach, Fr. Anderson was asked to continue on with the team.
Fr. Anderson engages with the team as much as his time allows. He attends practice daily and is on the bench for about 25 games a year.
“I’ve found that it’s not so much about what I say, but showing up and having a presence,” he said.
In fact, Fr. Anderson must be very careful about what he says on the court. NCAA basketball teams are limited to five coaches, and if Fr. Anderson so much as mentions strategy it could be considered a violation of that rule.
“I’m really not even allowed to take a rebound,” he said.
Between all the demands on an NCAA student athlete, there is often precious little time for conversations solely on spirituality. Fr. Anderson will stop and talk with players he sees around campus, but in the Seattle program there are many opportunities to broach the subject through basketball; Hebrews 12:1, 11-13, which reinforces coach Dollar’s philosophy of perseverance and improvement, is posted in the team’s film room.
Fr. Anderson (right) celebrates Mass with Jesuit Father Stephen Sundborg, president of Seattle University. As chaplain, Fr. Anderson has the opportunity to talk about spirituality through basketball. (Seattle University)
“The coaches at Seattle see their roles as ministers. For them, this is a vocation,” Fr. Anderson said. “Cameron talks constantly of getting better, and not just as a basketball player but as a teammate, student and person.”
Away from the court, Fr. Anderson continues to support the team through prayer and by being attentive to the ups and downs that occur over the season. This year, for instance, the team was dealt a major blow when an assistant coach was diagnosed with lung cancer.
The roller coaster sensation has yet to set in for first-year chaplain Fr. Case, who replaced Jesuit Father Jack Bentz earlier this year.
“I’ve always watched the games, now I’m just closer to the action,” he said. “The athletic department, along with head coach Mark Few, made me feel welcome and well prepared.”
Fr. Case, who anticipates that he will attend all home games and travel with the team during the NCAA tournament, sees the role as a positive for Gonzaga.
“It’s a sign that we are a Jesuit school, and the team chaplain is symbolic of that identity,” said Fr. Case, who also serves as the vice president for mission at Gonzaga.
At the core of Ignatian spirituality is finding God in all things, and Frs. Anderson and Case certainly don’t feel that basketball is an exception.
In the 6,000-seat McCarthy Athletic Center — which frequently sells out for games — Fr. Case sees community in the way that people come together to support the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Fr. Anderson said he also finds God in the game itself.
“St. Ignatius said to pursue passion — and that could be anything. The trick is to find what’s calling you. There are outstanding professors in, for example, physics on our campus. But I wouldn’t be very good at that. I am drawn to the physical nature of basketball and I believe that bodies are made to be in motion,” he said.
Fr. Case also serves as the vice president for mission at Gonzaga. (Gonzaga University)
Though he has been at his post for a short time, Fr. Case hopes that his newfound relationships will last the rest of his life.
“At my funeral, I want six pall-bearers that are all over seven feet tall,” he laughed.
Editor's note: The Gonzaga Bulldogs lost to Duke University during the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament on March 29. The Seattle Redhawks' postseason run came to an end on March 25, when they lost to Loyola University Chicago in the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.