Even with their Game 4 victory over the Heat, the Celtics remained in need of a basketball miracle.
It is one thing to win a single game after dropping the first three in a best-of-seven series. It is quite another to win four straight — something that has never happened in the 76-year history of the NBA playoffs.
One-hundred-fifty other teams fell into a 3-0 hole in a best-of-seven series. All lost.
So where might the Celtics or their fans turn in the face of dire odds?
“They must go to Porretta Terme,” said professor David Hollander, who teaches a course at New York University called “How Basketball Can Save the World” and has written a book of the same title. “There could be no better place for a Celtic.”
Why Porretta Terme, a town near Bologna that is famous for its hot springs?
The town is the home of the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Bridge, which dates to the 16th century. Porretta Terme became a hub of Italy’s forming basketball culture in the 1950s, and in 1956, the church dedicated a “sacrario del Cestista” — a shrine to basketball players.
Light beams into the shrine through a basketball-shaped window, illuminating jerseys and other memorabilia and artwork.
“You immediately understand that you are in a unique spiritual environment,” said Hollander. “It’s as if any basketball player who is ever of any faith, who has ever prayed a prayer of any kind, this is the physical manifestation of the habitat for that prayer. People come from all over the country to pray at the shrine for a better season, a better jump shot, a healed meniscus.”
Hollander was introduced to the shrine through a New York Times article in December 2021 that detailed the town’s efforts to have the Madonna of the Bridge recognized by the Vatican as the patron saint of basketball — a pursuit that had dragged in bureaucracy.
Hollander invited a priest from the church to speak at his class as a guest lecturer. Students from his class (157 of them) were tasked with writing a sentence to explain why basketball deserved a patron saint. Hollander distilled the suggestions into a document that he sent to Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi.
“I put it together in these huge letters like the Declaration of Independence: ‘Because basketball knows no borders; because basketball has no language …’ ” recounted Hollander. “I sent it to [Zuppi] and I’m like, ‘OK, hope something happens.’ ”
Something did happen. La Repubblica, a national daily newspaper, published Hollander’s letter in March 2022. The following month, the Vatican formally approved the petition to recognize the Madonna of the Bridge as the official patroness of basketball.
“To have this kind of story coming up from Italy, it was just amazing even for me to read it,” injured Celtics forward Danilo Gallinari, a native of Italy, said in March at a Harvard Law School event with Hollander. “It’s a great story for everybody that came together and made something very special — not just in Italy, but for the entire world.”
Now, the shrine — which Hollander says was visited by late Lakers star Kobe Bryant during his time living in nearby Pistoia while growing up — serves as a place for basketball pilgrims seeking hope in the face of daunting circumstances, precisely the sort of destination that seems appropriate to the Celtics’ quest to accomplish an unprecedented NBA return from the edge of a postseason abyss.
“All roads really, for all of us, should at some point lead to the shrine of basketball and some contact with the Madonna del Ponte, the patroness of basketball,” said Hollander. “Certainly, Danilo can show [the Celtics] how to get there.”
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.