SAN ANTONIO — In their simple convent, where rows of chairs are arranged in front of a television and a crucifix, the 23 nuns of the Salesian Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province briefly put aside their pleas for the sick and the poor to pray for the San Antonio Spurs.
With basketball players’ names pinned to white smocks beneath their habits, the sisters faithfully gather at game time in the convent’s community room, yelling “Make that basket!” and “C’mon!”
“We pray for them to win, but we also pray for them to continue their sportsmanship,” said Sister Sandra Neaves, head of the order in the Western U.S.
“We make a lot of noise in that room,” laughed Sister Angelina Gomez.
The Spurs have embraced the nuns, hoping to harness the power of prayer during their attempt at a fourth NBA title.
“Having them in our corner can never hurt, and we’ll take any advantage we can,” said Spurs spokesman Tom James. “We’re obviously fortunate in this city to have wonderful fans of all ages and from all walks of life.”
On Thursday, four of the nuns will attend the opening game of the championship series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The tickets were a gift from the NBA.
Those staying home will gather around the convent television. Neaves said not all will be able to keep cheering through the end of the late game; many are elderly and some are ill. But she said they will be cheering at tip-off with popcorn and prayers.
In a city where the words “Go Spurs Go” are plastered on skyscrapers and banged-up station wagons, the nuns say they are inspired by what the team means to the community and by one particular sister who died earlier this year.
Sister Filomena Conte, 86, was the most avid fan among them. She watched or listened to every game, praying for the team and corresponding with Coach Gregg Popovich.
Even as Conte suffered from a congestive heart condition and was ordered to bed during the regular season, she lay listening to the games on the radio. When she was ordered to a hospital, she had one question as she waited with another sister: “Am I going to have a room before the game starts?”
Conte died March 8, but the sisters have taken up her cause in cheering and praying for the Spurs.
If the Spurs win the championship, “I won’t be surprised if she had something to do with it,” Neaves said.
So is God really a Spurs fan?
“Yeah!” Gomez said, laughing and clutching her hands in the dining room where a giant Spurs blanket hangs like a banner.
Neaves is more diplomatic: “I don’t know if God has a favorite team ... but when people try to do it right, you really like them to succeed.”
Divine intervention or not, there’s no denying that the Spurs have enjoyed exceptional good fortune.
The unlikely Golden State Warriors did the Spurs a favor, knocking the league-leading Dallas Mavericks out during the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The Spurs got another break when the NBA suspended two key Phoenix Suns players just as the teams were tied in a bruising series. The Spurs won the series.
During a series against the Utah Jazz, one of the sisters prayed that all the Spurs — even the bench-warmers — would get a few minutes on the court. Sure enough, the starting lineup relaxed on the bench as the backup players hit the court for the 109-84 victory at the end of the series.
Neaves concedes all this focus on basketball might seem a little odd for a religious order, but the nuns spend much of their time working with children through schools and youth programs.
“Our work is mostly with young people so you go where the young people are,” she said. Rooting for the Spurs also gives them a chance to show youngsters that “you can be faithful to a lifestyle that is upright and true and do a lot of fun stuff.”