ATLANTA — Joe Estes just wanted to say hello to Sister Jean.
For nearly a quarter of a century, he had been replaying the counsel she had doled out during his basketball days at Loyola-Chicago. But by March 2018, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt was 98 — still the team chaplain, but also the most celebrated nun in all of college basketball, a woman whose school would reach the Final Four and whose life had become a hurried blur of cameras and faces.
“You remember Joe?” Tom Hitcho, a senior associate athletic director, asked the sister as Estes approached at the Sweet 16 in Atlanta in 2018.
“Hit a 3-pointer to beat Northwestern,” she replied.
With the Ramblers scheduled to play Oregon State in this N.C.A.A. tournament’s round of 16 on Saturday, Sister Jean, who turned 101 in August, is having a second star turn. But before all of that, before the bobbleheads and socks and scarves and shirts saturated in maroon, gold and the toothy smile of Sister Jean, there was her first team: a smattering of players, a coach in his inaugural season on Chicago’s North Side and a 5-22 record that relegated Loyola to last place in the Midwest Collegiate Conference.
“Most of the world knows her from the fame perspective,” Derek Molis, a guard who redshirted that 1994-95 season after he transferred from Fordham, said this week, his voice catching and trailing off at times as he described how she had helped him cope with his mother’s death. “The rest of us simply know her as Sister Jean, the one person we knew we could always count on.”
Sister Jean, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, had been on Loyola’s campus for a few years before she assumed the basketball program chaplaincy around the time of her formal retirement. But job titles in college sports often capture just a portion of a person’s role. And so it was with Sister Jean, who found herself at 75 leading locker-room prayers, yes, but also nudging players academically, listening to them drone on about relationships and helping them navigate the pressures of Division I athletics.
Players whose grades were merely average had to see her weekly, she said on Thursday. One early player said she had helped him learn how to write essays for exams, while another said she had coached him on time management. Theo Owens, a junior who was among the top scorers in that first year, recalled that when a player would tell teammates that he was headed to an appointment with Sister Jean, the response was always similar: “You better have everything lined up.”
“Everyone had their unique relationship with her, but the bond with her was the same,” Owens said. “She always had time for you — I want to believe I was her favorite.”
Sister Jean said this week that when Father John Piderit, Loyola’s president from 1993 until 2001, asked her to work with the men’s and women’s basketball teams, he said that they needed to “have encouragement all the time,” particularly around academics. Within a few years, she recounted, grades had improved enough that she could focus more on the traditional duties of a chaplain.
She eventually began mixing scouting reports into her prayers, she said, and last week, she noted “a great opportunity to convert rebounds” against Illinois, a No. 1 seed. (Loyola went on to record 28 total rebounds, four more than the Fighting Illini, who had won the Big Ten conference tournament.)
“Her role now, I think, is greater than it was when I was there,” said Chris Wilburn, a senior on the ’94-95 team.
At the start of her tenure, she seemed dauntingly old to players. But Sister Jean was soon a fixture of the program, someone who was always there to greet the team in the moments after the few wins and the many more losses. She would sometimes surface in the locker room, maybe casting a glance and a forced smile when an explicit lyric would echo through, and she would transform into a person for basketball recruits to meet during their visits. Her office became a refuge, players said, and a more welcoming place than, say, sitting across from an assistant coach.
“She’s not going to judge you, she’s not going to hold it against you,” Wilburn said. “She doesn’t care, per se, if it’s a basketball issue or a girlfriend issue or a lunch issue about how you didn’t get to eat that day.”
Sometimes, players said, she would listen from behind her desk. At others, she would draw closer.
“She’d always just smile and sit back and kind of cross her hands, just like you see now in that wheelchair,” Estes said. “She’d just sort of smirk and say, ‘Joe, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you got.’”
These days, she might sometimes seem to rival Bob Newhart, who earned a business degree at Loyola in 1952, as the university’s most famous export. To her former players, though, she is even more a marvel.
Wilburn’s children have shirts with Sister Jean’s likeness. Owens’s kids used to ask whether the Ramblers were winning because the sister was praying. Molis, much like Estes, told a story about how, in 2018, Sister Jean all but summoned the box score of a game he had not thought about in more than a decade.
“I’ll tell Sister Jean stories til the day that I die,” Molis said. “I’ll them to my daughter — I do it all the time right now.”
Then there is Estes, who grew up to become an educator. For years, he said softly a few nights ago, he has found himself repeating to the students the admonition Sister Jean would use when they met.
“It would just instantly come to my head.”
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