PHOENIX – The Rev. Frank Case pads slowly through the narrow lobby at the Westin Hotel in downtown Phoenix, looking very much like an emissary from the Northwest.
In addition to his black priestly togs and stiff clerical collar, the 79-year-old has on sandals with white socks.
The chaplain for the Gonzaga University men’s basketball team has come down to the ground floor to discuss a topic very much of the moment: prayer and influencing sports outcomes.
“I think we’re all doing that,” he said.
Now normally, the personable Jesuit tries to restrict his basketball-related religious entreaties to requests that God help the team play up to its potential.
“Both teams, I should say. And I pray that nobody gets injured.”
But there were times during the tense tournament game against West Virginia that Case found himself asking God for something else: victory.
Perhaps not his proudest moment. But Case, who has been team chaplain for about three years, does not believe the impulse to look to heaven for sporting success is really all that sinful.
“I don’t think it denigrates the value of prayer.”
In fact, in certain circumstances, Case believes having a spiritual perspective on things that really matter to you can deepen your relationship with the divine.
Well, within limits. “My opinion is you always pray for positive things.”
So praying that a South Carolina player miss a crucial free throw, that might be a bit iffy.
What about trying to make a deal with God? You know, something like “Please, Lord, let us hang onto this lead, and I will devote my life to doing good works.”
Case shakes his bald head. “So what are you going to do if things don’t go your way?” Punish the almighty?
Those who fail to maintain a balance between healthy, spirited rooting and sanity-challenging obsession face a demon more psychological than ecclesiastical.
The longtime priest sits at the end of the bench for all GU games. He said his role is really more familial than counselor or father confessor. But he feels welcome and accepted.
And the university likes the priest’s presence as a symbol of Gonzaga’s broader mission.
Case, who grew up in Seattle, said he has never found himself second-guessing coach Mark Few’s in-game decisions. “I don’t know enough about basketball.”
Told that doesn’t stop a lot of people, the team’s born-on-St. Patrick’s Day good luck charm chuckled and admitted one concern.
“I’m careful not to second-guess the referees. At least not loudly. I wouldn’t want to get a technical foul.”
But wouldn’t that be something to witness? Can’t you just hear the announcer?
“Folks, it looks like the referee has just T’ed up Father Case, and the Gamecocks will be going to the free-throw line.”
Not gonna happen.
He thinks GU will prevail Saturday. “You know what the saying is, ‘Go Zags!’ It’s not ‘Go home, Zags!’ ”
Though officially retired and known to call himself a “vice president with nothing to do,” Case has a few other duties at Gonzaga. But right now, he’s focused on cheering for some talented young men he has come to admire.
After the interview was over and the photos had been taken, I asked him if he had any nicknames.
He cracked a thin smile and said, “None that you could print.”