The opening week of the NCAA Tournament raised some questions that are even more interesting than can-Kentucky-be-beaten? For instance:
■ Does God care about sports or, specifically, whether Kentucky's basketball team wins a game?
■ Has sports supplanted religion as the unifying inspirational/entertainment force?
■ Does God have a sense of humor?
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The divine got a workout last week. On Monday, former NBA star Reggie Miller, now an analyst for Turner Sports, said it would take an "act of God" for Kentucky to lose. Then Hampton Coach Edward Joyner Jr., upped the cosmic ante throughout the week. Implying that his team needed a miracle to beat Kentucky Thursday night, he joked about having Jesus on speed dial. (It turned out that walking on water and raising the dead were easier than guiding Hampton to a victory over Kentucky. Joyner said the Son of Man hung up on him.)
Can God take a joke?
Reporters laughed at Joyner's playful irreverence. Probably God did, too, said David Hunter, the chair of Catholic Studies in UK's Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures.
"Yeah. I think that's a reasonable thought to think or believe," Hunter said.
The UK professor cited the amazing array of lifeforms on Earth as evidence of God's supreme tolerance.
"Sense of humor doesn't quite capture it," Hunter said. "But (God is) someone who likes life."
David Bradshaw, a philosophy professor at UK, said that Jesus used a subtle wit to good effect. The give-unto-Caesar-what-is-Caesar's retort disarmed critics who tried to force a turnover on the question of paying taxes. "I've never liked how Jesus is portrayed in movies and TV," Bradshaw said. "He always comes across as so serious and so somber."
As for God having a sense of humor, Bradshaw said, "He's much bigger than somebody who gets offended by a petty joke."
Does God care?
Whether God cares enough to influence the outcomes of games is a more delicate question. If God loves us, he would want us to be happy. But what about making others unhappy in the process of pleasing us?
Abraham Lincoln touched on this dilemma in his second inaugural address when he pointed out that the North and the South prayed to the same God during the Civil War.
"Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other," Lincoln said. "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully."
Paul Prather, a minister in Mt. Sterling and a religion columnist for The Herald-Leader, said that there's no consensus on whether God involves Himself in something like sports.
"If you ask 10 preachers, you'd get 12 different answers," Prather said.
Prather likened God to a father watching his children play games (and not the crazy father who wants to kill the umpire).
"He's probably not walking on the court and sinking shots," Prather said with a chuckle.
"Things that happen to a child's toys may not matter," he said, "but if it matters to the child, it matters to the parent."
Players can be quite willing to cite divine intervention. When asked about the goal-tending call — on a three-point shot! — that gave UCLA a victory over SMU Thursday, the Bruins' Norman Powell said, "That's God, right there."
But UK freshman Devin Booker did not embrace the idea of the Cats invulnerability to anything but an act of God. "I wouldn't take it that far," he said with a smile.
Hunter, a physics major before switching to philosophy, suggested that Miller did not mean "act of God" in a literal sense. Miller probably meant only something profoundly unusual could beat Kentucky.
"He was probably using 'act of God' in the legalese sense of some extraordinary event beyond human control, like a hurricane or earthquake," he said.
Hunter does not believe God tries to influence the outcome games.
"If God did care about this, God would be petty, partisan, mean-spirited," he said, "which would contradict God's nature, as far as we can know it. Is Notre Dame — my alma mater — an exception? It would seem not."
Sports vs. religion
CBS and Turner Sports reported record television ratings for Thursday's games. In terms of influence, it seems as sports increases, religion decreases.
In a story last year, The Washington Post cited a survey by researchers at Cal-Berkeley and Duke that showed 20 percent of Americans "claimed no religious preference," compared with an unaffiliated population of eight percent in 1990.
Meanwhile, interest in sports rose. Fifty years ago, just three in 10 Americans considered themselves sports fans. By 2012, that proportion exceeded six in 10.
When asked about sports supplanting religion, Hunter said, "It's not just replacing religion, it's replicating religion. Big sporting events, they really are public liturgies."
Sports and religion each have processions, special clothing and heroes. Each features music prominently. The national anthem. On, On U of K is something of a Kentucky hymm.
"You get a sense of what a culture worships," Hunter said.
Bradshaw lamented the idea of sports supplanting religion.
"Well, I hope it's not true," he said. "Sports does great things. It draws people together and gives you a connection to the community around you."
But religion involves a higher calling and, as UK Coach John Calipari might say, an encouragement to serve rather than be served.
And sports? "It can become demonic, frankly," said Bradshaw, who noted how Romans found entertainment in lions "competing" against Christians.
Joyner, who described himself as a "loose guy," said he meant no harm by his references to speed-dialing Jesus. He was having fun.
After Kentucky beat Hampton, Joyner momentarily turned serious. Of the attention given Hampton as a Kentucky opponent, he said, "That's probably $10 million of free publicity. ... You can't pay for that."
As for speed-dialing Jesus, Joyner veered toward proselytizing, albeit with an engaging smile.
"Hampton needs Jesus," he said before adding, "Kentucky needs Jesus!"
'96 vs. 2015
Former Herald-Leader columnist Chuck Culpepper asked Hall of Fame Coach Jim Calhoun to appraise the 2014-15 Kentucky team.
"Is this a great Kentucky team? It's OK," Calhoun said. "The '96 team would blow it away. Anthony Davis' team would blow it away. They had more guys. Anthony Davis is special. ...
"When you get juniors and seniors, it's entirely different. And that's what I'm saying. They still could use one other wing in my opinion, an athletic wing at Kentucky. But still, they're the most powerful team now."
Memories of Masiello
The prospect of a Kentucky-Manhattan game last week revived memories of Manhattan Coach Steve Masiello as a UK player in the 1990s.
"Steve always wanted to be a coach," Jeff Sheppard said. "Even as a freshman walk-on, he had a great grasp and understanding of the game of basketball. You just knew. You saw he was destined to be an assistant coach and then head coach."
Sheppard recalled how he and Masiello formed the backcourt for the scout team in 1996-97.
"We really competed in those practices at a really high level," Sheppard said, "and Steve was our point guard."
Cameron Mills noted how he and Masiello were roommates one season. The UK players nicknamed Masiello "Mister Meaner," which got shortened to "Mister" or "Meaner."
"He wasn't good enough to be a felony," Mills said.
On the flight from Los Angeles to Louisville, UCLA senior Norman Powell wrote an essay for a class.
After his team beat SMU on Thursday, Powell had to take a final exam in an African art course.
When asked on Friday how he thought he did, Powell said, "Hopefully, I did pretty well. B+ or an A."
UCLA vs. UK
Although he won't be part of it, Norman Powell welcomed UCLA and Kentucky playing a home-and-home series beginning next season.
"It's going to be great," he said. "It's a little bit of a rivalry, now, I guess, because of what happened early in the season."
Of course, Powell was referring to Kentucky's blowout victory in which UCLA scored only seven points in the first half.
Powell noted the sense of being in basketball country with Louisville being a NCAA Tournament site.
"You go out to dinner, Kentucky is everywhere," he said. "Louisville is everywhere. You definitely get a sense of how much basketball means out here, and they take it very seriously."
At the mic
Mark Fratto, a former publicist for St. John's basketball, worked as a moderator for NCAA Tournament press conferences in Louisville. He will have the same duties in Cleveland this coming week.
But Fratto will miss the Final Four in Indianapolis. He's scheduled to be the public address announcer for the Knicks' home game against Philadelphia that Sunday.
Fratto, who "retired" from St. John's at age 38, has several annnouncing jobs. He does P.A. for minor league baseball's Brooklyn Cyclones, college basketball in Madison Square Garden, the D-League's Westchester Knicks and a professional women's soccer team that plays home games at Rutgers.
He's also new Yankee Stadium announcer for New York City FC of Major League Soccer.
His sports management and production company also works events for the Atlantic 10, MAAC and Ivy leagues.
To Pat Riley. He turned 70 on Friday. ... To Jimmy Dan Conner. He turned 62 on Friday. ... To Darius Miller. He turned 25 on Saturday. ... To EJ Floreal. He turns 22 on Monday. ... To Troy McKinley. He turned 52 on Saturday. ... To Jerry Hale. He turned 62 on Friday. ... To Todd Bearup. He turns 48 on Wednesday. ... To Cory Sears. He turned 35 on Thursday.