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The Most Unlikely College Sports Star is a 98-Year-Old Nun

NextTribe basketball nun Loyola Sister Jean

College basketball fans know that March Madness is always full of surprises. Top seeds fall. Cinderella teams rise. But probably the biggest surprise in the history of the NCAA tournament is the unlikely stardom of a 98-year-old nun. Sister Jean Dolores Smith has been celebrated by media outlets from Sports Illustrated to the Catholic News Agency. She’s gone viral on social media—one meme shows her in a Michael-Jordan-like leap with a basketball as part of an Air Jean logo.

Why all the sports love for a woman currently in a wheelchair? Officially, she’s the chaplain of Loyola University-Chicago’s basketball team, a low seed in the tournament that’s had a run so deep in the brackets you can’ t help suspect divine intervention. But her role is much bigger. She is giving whole new meaning to school spirit.

For years, she has sent scouting reports to the coach before games. She keeps stats on rebounds and free throws. She writes notes to players to keep spirits up. She greets players after games. And she prays. Boy, does she pray. For protection for the players and fair calls from the refs, among other things.

She’s so beloved at Loyola-Chicago that she has customized basketball shoes with “Sister” on one and “Jean” on the other. She has her own plaque in the school’s hall of fame and, even more indicative of her status, her very own bobble head doll. And now, as the scrappy team makes a “Run for the Nun,” she’s beloved by basketball fans everywhere—and especially by women of a certain age who are inspired by her to stay engaged and have fun.

–Jeannie Ralston







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