Loyola Chicago is back in March Madness for first time since 2018 Final Four journey — and Sister Jean wants to be too: ‘I have not lost hope in going’

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Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune
·8 min read
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CHICAGO — Sister Jean Delores Schmidt recalled a lesson from the Gospels as she laid out her case to Loyola Chicago administrators, seeking a blessing to attend the NCAA Tournament to watch the Ramblers in Indianapolis.

“I was like that old woman in the Gospels who went to the judge so many times the judge finally said, ‘Let’s let her do what she wants,’ ” Sister Jean said with a laugh.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge in Luke 18:1-8 tells the story of an uncompassionate judge who rejects a poor widow’s pleas for justice until she wears him down by her persistence. Like the woman, Sister Jean isn’t giving up.

“I have not lost hope in going,” she said. “I want to go so badly.”

Sister Jean, of course, is the 101-year-old team chaplain who became a sports celebrity as the Ramblers made an inspired run to the Final Four in 2018. Loyola is back in March Madness for the first time since that improbable journey — and she wants to be too.

COVID-19 restrictions limit the number of fans and team travel parties at the NCAA Tournament, which will be held entirely in and around Indianapolis this season to help eliminate the potential for virus spread. Although she’s been vaccinated, other safety and logistic concerns exist.

“They said there’s restrictions,” she said. “You can’t run down on the court. You can’t talk to the young men. I said, ’I’m not going to run down on the court, and I’m not going to cause any disturbance.’ I said, ‘I won’t do things I’m not supposed to.’ ”

A member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary religious order since she graduated high school, Sister Jean is known for making good on her vows after all.

Loyola coach Porter Moser believes Sister Jean’s tenacity will pay off. She was not pleased, he said, when she was denied travel to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

“She didn’t go to St. Louis and she was so mad,” Moser said in an ESPN radio interview. “She said, ‘Porter, I looked them in the eye and said I’m more healthy than you. I have my vaccination. I’ve been tested 30 times.’ She’s on it. I’m just telling you, I’d put my money on she’d be in Indy.”

Many thought then that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her and Loyola. But Sister Jean knew better.

She has faith in the Ramblers.

Loyola (24-4) is ensured an NCAA Tournament invitation with a Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship, but the Ramblers built a resume worthy of March Madness before that.

Center Cameron Krutwig, the conference’s player of the year, and Lucas Williamson, the MVC defensive player of the year, were contributing freshmen four seasons ago and are undisputable team leaders now. The Ramblers lead Division I basketball in defense (55.5 points per game) and exhibit their trademark ability to share the ball.

“These young men have wanted to go to the dance again so badly,” Sister Jean said. “They have such a passion for going there.”

Obviously, she does too.

The NCAA placed tight COVID-19 restrictions on travel parties for teams, allowing only 34 people on their official lists. Teams will sequester at their hotels between games and practices. Lucas Oil Stadium will permit fans at 25% capacity.

Sister Jean is waiting on travel approval from the school and NCAA. If she goes, she would not be expected to have the same physical access as the team, but she’s fine with that.

“They’re checking with NCAA to see which venue we’ll be in, how far it is from the hotel, what kind of security I need,” Sister Jean said. “Everything will be fine. I’ve been (attending games) for so many years, ever since we’ve been in the Valley. Even the last three years, I’ve been in a wheelchair and we’ve managed (being safe at games).”

Sister Jean has been the Loyola chaplain since 1994, a fixture at many Ramblers sporting events, not just basketball. Her pregame prayers on the Gentile Arena court are a treasured tradition.

As Loyola stunned college basketball in 2018, Sister Jean became one of the tournament’s brightest stars. Game broadcasts often cut away to shots of her watching the game, wearing a maroon-and-gold scarf, letterman’s jacket and Nikes. After each victory, Loyola players celebrated with her on the court, giving her a snip of cut-down nets as confetti fell around her.

As Loyola advanced through Dallas, Atlanta and San Antonio for games, Loyola fans, opponents’ fans and broadcast celebrities like Charles Barkley and Bill Walton requested selfies.

Weaving through crowded hotel lobbies, where she was often stopped for autographs and selfies, became difficult as she tried to leave for tipoffs. Sometimes she was navigated in her wheelchair through exits out of hotel kitchens as a quick escape.

(One worker was so surprised to see her, he stopped chopping lettuce and asked for a photograph. She delightfully obliged.)

When she pleads to attend this season’s tournament, sounding like a seasoned defense attorney, she notes sparse crowds won’t be an issue. “They’re looking at all of the security things,” she said. “People aren’t going to rush upon me. They respect me. They’re not going to do anything crazy.”

For the first time she can recall, she hasn’t attended a live sporting event.

Basketball, prayer and exercise have been her pandemic devotions.

Sister Jean essentially has been locked down in her senior independent living apartment downtown. Until Thursday, she had not had a visitor since October.

When her living facility lifted some restrictions following vaccinations, she invited over two friends, who are also religious sisters. “They give us just an hour, so I’m telling you, we talked fast and caught up,” she said.

The pandemic has not slowed her down.

She attends physical therapy twice a week — at one point with nurses coming to her room as a safety precaution. She said she had some lingering issues from a case of shingles, and she receives botox injections in her foot to help with nerve repair.

“I have the best-looking foot in Chicago,” she joked.

Sister Jean exercises in therapy on a bike and with a walker, and in her apartment, she practices other strength exercises. As a centenarian, Sister Jean said she feels well.

She also keeps virtual office hours, working in campus ministry. She often reaches out to students who need encouragement, academically or emotionally.

“Different people have different reactions to COVID,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult. I think these scars of COVID are going to stay for a long time.”

While she didn’t have access to channels for all of Loyola’s games, Sister Jean followed along with live statistic play-by-play websites or listened to the radio broadcast. She continued her tradition of emailing Moser and players before and after games.

She includes a personal P.S. to each player with a piece of encouragement or advice. She prints them out and keeps them in a binder.

“She emails after every game, literally 30 minutes,” Moser said. “We won four or five games in a row 20 and then we won one by two. She goes , ‘Good win, Porter. A little close, but that’s OK.’ ” He laughed and told her she sounded like a donor.

“Porter doesn’t mind that at all because we are always on the same page,” Sister Jean said.

The pandemic, she said, was a reminder of all of the ways people can connect spiritually.

During the MVC tournament, she received a call shortly before games from director of basketball operations London Dokubo. He held his phone in the middle of the team ‘s final locker room huddle.

“I started out, ‘Hi, Ramblers. Are we ready?” she said. “And they all say, ‘Yes, Sister Jean! We’re ready!’ ” She advised them of opponents to focus on and delivered some final pregame tips before moving into prayer.

She asked players to extend their hands toward the phone and asked God to bless them, “so that you don’t lose the ball in turnovers, so you don’t use your hands to make fouls.”

They end with an “Amen” and a “Go Ramblers!”

They clipped down a piece of the net and dedicated it to her after winning their conference tournament.

She’s focused on finding examples of joy during the pandemic, noting news stories about neighbors who helped each other and people giving to charities.

Loyola’s success, she said, has been another lift to the spirits.

“It’s just fun to know people are happy about this,” she said.

Few are more gleeful about Loyola’s return to the NCAA Tournament than Sister Jean. She’s eager to fill out a bracket after Selection Sunday reveals the Ramblers’ seeding and first-round opponent.

“I can hardly wait until Sunday night to come,” she said. “I think they can go far.”

And she hopes she’s with them for the journey.