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An Italian Town Hopes Its Basketball Patron Advances to National Status



PORRETTA TERME, Italy — In the chapel of a small hillside sanctuary in Porretta Terme — a handsome town in central Italy known for the healing powers of its thermal waters — a single basketball-shaped window, its panes curved like seams, poured light on walls filled with basketball jerseys.

On a table, a notebook contained pages of devotionals, including gratitude for a healed meniscus and prayers to “win the championship in the next few years.” The back wall bore a bas-relief of a dying basketball player, palming a ball in his left hand as the Virgin Mary watched his earthly clock run down.

“I offer you the joy of every bucket,” Don Filippo Maestrello, a center-sized local priest, prayed to the Madonna of the Bridge in the Chapel of the Basketball Players.

The founder of the local basketball association and the town’s tourism and sport official bowed their heads at his side as he continued, imploring the Madonna to “guide our shot in the right direction” and to “bless and protect my team.”

Residents of Porretta have for centuries venerated the Madonna of the Bridge — named after a 16th-century drawing of the Virgin Mary on a rock near a bridge over the nearby Reno River. Over the years, the rock became a site of devotion, eventually inspiring the building of the sanctuary where Don Maestrello prayed.

Locals credited the Madonna of the Bridge with performing miracles, including saving a 17th-century pilgrim on the bridge by stopping bullets fired by a Florentine assassin.

But more recently they say she has taken her talents, and divine interventions, to the basketball court. After a decades-long campaign by local basketball fanatics, the Italian Bishops Conference in May gave its approval for her to be officially recognized as the patron saint of Italian basketball.

“A formality,” he said, as he recently walked to the town’s main square, lined with butcher shops, tortellini restaurants, a medieval tower and stores selling fabric, slippers and hiking shoes. The long piazza, he said, had also served as a makeshift outdoor court for a popular regional basketball tournament.

“We were famous for the injuries,” said Mr. Bernardi, pointing out the uneven spots on the street.

Mr. Bernardi traces Porretta’s basketball passion, loosely, back to Italian prisoners of war who learned the game from their American captors. By the early 1950s, Porretta had emerged as the national center of women’s basketball in a hoops-obsessed part of Italy. In 1956 a religious ceremony consecrated the Chapel of the Basketball Players and a long procession of players carried torches and votive candles to the shrine.

Since then, the town has become a capital of youth basketball with tournaments in honor of the chapel’s consecration. Local and regional players started making pilgrimages to the Madonna for game-day assistance, leaving offerings of jerseys just as their ancestors left medals.

Nicolò Savigni, the local councilman for sport and tourism, said Bologna’s Virtus team came to pray before a big game — and won. In 2020, Meo Sacchetti, the coach of Italy’s national basketball team, came to the chapel and paid his respects to the Madonna. The team qualified for the Olympics that year, the first time in 17 years.

“She surely did look down on the national team,” Mr. Sacchetti said.

“If that’s not a miracle,” said Mr. Bernardi.

Mr. Bernardi and other advocates, who have pressed for signatures and testimonials in favor of the Madonna’s application to be a national patron of hoops, have powerful fans in their corner.

Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna, has been called “Cardinal Basketball” by the local newspaper. In 2016, in the middle of a major local basketball tournament, he celebrated an Easter Mass in honor of the Madonna and traveled to Porretta to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the basketball chapel.

“Life is like a basketball game,” he said then.

Francis himself has used basketball imagery. In 2017, he spoke about a “basketball player who plants his pivot foot on the ground and makes movements to protect the ball or finds room to pass or make a move to the hoop.” The pope continued, “For us, that foot nailed to the soil around which we pivot is the cross of Christ.”

For Porretta, it’s also a foothold for economic development.

The current town administration recently reached a deal with a Bologna corporation to update its network of thermal baths, which might draw more seniors looking to soothe their aching bones. But official recognition of the Madonna could attract more youthful pilgrims, said Enrico Della Torre, 33, a local official in charge of economic development, as he walked down the main street on a recent morning.

Encouraging younger visitors “is the most important thing for the rebirth of these towns,” he said.

For a town of 4,000 people, Porretta already has a lot going on. For more than 30 years, fans of soul music have made pilgrimages to the Porretta Soul Festival, when the stone walls are brightened with murals of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.’s. and other stars.

Walking through town, Mr. Bernardi — who is also organizing a Prog Rock festival in Porretta — bumped into Graziano Uliani, 72, the gregarious founder of the soul festival, and a basketball fan too. Mr. Uliani talked about famous basketball players he has met while following musicians in Memphis and Los Angeles. He also plugged his festival until Mr. Bernardi, noting the time, said he was on his way to the sanctuary to meet the priest, Don Maestrello.

In his car, with a vintage jersey in the back seat, he passed the run-down thermal baths where he said many locals worked in their youth. He crossed the bridge over the Reno river to the domed sanctuary and waited outside for the priest and Mr. Savigni, the councilman.

It was cold and quiet except for the sound of the river’s rushing water. A local man drove by and told Mr. Bernardi that the Madonna had saved his life for a second time after a second heart attack.

After Don Maestrello’s prayers in the sanctuary, Mr. Savigni confided “we are planning to build a big arena in honor of the patron.”

Later in the day, the three men drove to a local gym where the organizer of a basketball school had prayed to the Madonna for intercession so that the sport could survive coronavirus lockdowns. Children were taking lessons with Francesco Della Torre, a former Italian league player and the brother of Enrico Della Torre, the economic development official. (“To beat him I would have needed days in the chapel,” Enrico Della Torre said.)

A ball bounced toward Don Maestrello. He took a shot from the corner. It was an airball.

“When I step on the court everyone is terrified,” the tall prelate said. “And then the first pass happens.”

Don Maestrello was more at home in the large parish church in the center of town, where he showed off basketball trophies kept in a storage room for a potential museum to the patron saint. Mr. Bernardi opened a gray suitcase of basketball jerseys, some signed by entire N.B.A. teams. With reverence he extracted a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, apparently signed by the superstar, who partly grew up nearby and who spoke Italian.

When Mr. Bryant died in a helicopter crash in 2020, Mr. Bernardi said, “All of us said a prayer at the sanctuary. For us he was an idol.” He whispered Mr. Bryant’s nickname under his breath. “Black Mamba.”

He kept pulling out jerseys signed by players from N.B.A. teams, sent as offerings, through a well-connected associate, to the Madonna, and talked about the potential of Porretta’s Madonna going global.

“The national discussion does not satisfy us,” Mr. Bernardi said. “Either show us another patron saint, or it’s this one. We’re ambitious.”

Mr. Savigni, the tourism official, caught the spirit. He ran through his dream team of potential N.B.A. devotees to the Madonna and stopped short in the hall.

“Is Michael Jordan Catholic?” he asked.

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Chelsea and Liverpool prove Premier League excitement, even if title is a foregone conclusion



LONDON — Manchester City have shown themselves to be in a league of their own, so the Premier League should be thankful that Chelsea and Liverpool are still able to keep us all entertained. Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge helped neither team and only consolidated City’s vice-like grip on the top spot, but football is about jeopardy, risk and overcoming flaws, and when it all comes together, you get an unforgettable game like this one.

Even before City moved 11 points clear at the top of table with a 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday, this second-versus-third clash was always a case of both sides needing to win to maintain faint hopes of catching Pep Guardiola’s winning machine. City’s win at the Emirates was their 11th successive Premier League victory and they have all been won with such monotonous ease, scoring 33 goals and conceding just seven, that every three points is now met with little more than a shrug of inevitability.

Barring an unlikely collapse in the second half of the season, City will win a fourth league title in five years and you will struggle to count on the fingers of one hand the times they have had to dig deep into their reserves to overcome adversity during that period. Guardiola has built one of the all-time great teams in English football history during his six years at the Etihad, but they may simply be too good to contribute to games like this one.

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Chelsea and Liverpool gave us such a pulsating encounter because they both have weaknesses that can be exploited by their opponents. And as a result, they both had to take risks in an attempt to secure a crucial victory.

And they also had to go into the game with unwanted distractions hovering over both clubs.

Chelsea, with three wins from their past eight in the league, were without £97.5 million striker Romelu Lukaku, dropped by coach Thomas Tuchel because of an outspoken interview about his failure to impress so far at Stamford Bridge since returning to the club from Internazionale in the summer. And Liverpool were without manager Jurgen Klopp, goalkeeper Alisson, defender Joel Matip and forward Roberto Firmino — all isolating because of COVID-19.

City, in contrast, have enjoyed a remarkably serene run of successes since losing to Crystal Palace in October, which is why they are free-rolling to another title. But the Premier League is regarded as the most exciting in world football because of games like this, and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool and the drama they create.

From the first minute, when Sadio Mane was fortunate to escape a red card for appearing to strike Cesar Azpilicueta in the face with an elbow after just 14 seconds, the game was incident-packed. Azpilicueta later said it was a “clear red card” when interviewed after the game.

Christian Pulisic, playing centrally in the absence of Lukaku, wasted a golden chance to open the scoring on seven minutes when, with only stand-in keeper Caoimhin Kelleher to beat, he was indecisive and allowed the youngster to smother the ball. It proved a costly miss when, two minutes later, Mane took advantage of his lucky escape from a sending off by pouncing on a mistake by Trevoh Chalobah to score.

Chelsea were in disarray and Liverpool looked like the team that won the title in 2019. When Mohamed Salah made it 2-0 on 26 minutes with a stunning near-post finish after gliding past Marcos Alonso, it seemed as though Liverpool were about to give Chelsea the kind of hammering they inflicted on Manchester United during a 5-0 rout at Old Trafford earlier this season.

Liverpool were unable to score a third, though, and two Chelsea goals in the space of three minutes at the end of the first half turned the game on its head.

When Kelleher punched Alonso’s in-swinging free kick clear on 42 minutes, the keeper looked to have done well to deny the Chelsea defender. But the ball dropped the Mateo Kovacic on the edge of the penalty area and, as he was backpedaling, the midfielder somehow guided a volley beyond Kelleher and into the net. It was a spectacular display of technique by the former Real Madrid player and it gave Chelsea a foothold back into the game.

And it took them just three minutes to score the equaliser when Pulisic atoned for his earlier miss by latching onto N’Golo Kante‘s pass before beating Kelleher with a precise left-foot shot past the Republic of Ireland international. As the chaos continued on the pitch, Mason Mount almost put Chelsea 3-2 up in first-half stoppage time with a scuffed volley that bounced just wide of the post.

When a game is so eventful in the first half, it rarely delivers a second half of the same quality because of coaches plugging the holes that had led to the earlier excitement. But while the goals stopped flowing, the entertainment didn’t.

Salah forced a crucial save from Edouard Mendy with a 25-yard lob on 57 minutes and Mane was also denied by the Chelsea keeper. Kelleher, not to be outdone, then produced a stunning save to prevent Pulisic from scoring his second of the game.

In total, there were 25 chances over the 90 minutes, with both sides registering six on target. Neither could find a winner, though.

“For the outside world it was quite a good game to watch, but we came here for three points and didn’t get them,” Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk said.

Even if one team had done enough to claim all three points, it’s difficult to imagine they would have been able to close the gap on City, who are destined for another title. And the challenge facing both chasing clubs only grows more daunting in the next month, with Salah (Egypt), Mendy and Mane (both Senegal) now heading off to the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

But the Premier League still knows how to excite, even if the title is already a foregone conclusion.

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Michael Scudamore has Do Your Job in mind for Doncaster | Racing News



Doncaster’s Lightning Novices’ Chase could be next on the agenda for Do Your Job following his creditable effort in defeat at Kempton over the festive period.

Runner-up to My Drogo and Belfast Banter in Grade Two and Grade One novice hurdles in the spring, Michael Scudamore’s stable star made a successful start to his chasing career at Warwick in November.

The eight-year-old fell at the eighth fence when stepped up in class for the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown, but bounced back to finish second to Edwardstone in the Wayward Lad last week.

With Scudamore keen to avoid a rematch with the winner, who is seemingly bound for the Kingmaker at Warwick, Do Your Job could instead bid for Grade Two honours at Doncaster on January 29.

Reflecting on his Kempton performance, the trainer said: “I was very pleased. He jumped well and travelled well and did everything right, he was just beaten by a better horse on the day.

“The main objective was a clear round really and maybe if we hadn’t fallen at Sandown we might have pressed on a bit more and made it more of a staying race.

“The most important thing was to get a clear round under his belt and get some more experience over fences for him.

“I think we’ll stick to novice races while we can and we might look to the race at Doncaster. That is what we have pencilled in at the moment, anyway.

“It would certainly be Plan A to try and avoid Edwardstone and I was very pleased to read he was going to go for the Kingmaker. Hopefully they stick to that plan!”

While Do Your Job looks set to remain in novice company on his next start, Scudamore admitted is considering a step into the handicap arena for the Grand Annual at Cheltenham – a race he won with Next Sensation in 2015.

He added: “I’m sure he’ll have an entry in that. He also ran very well at Aintree last year, so there’s that to consider as well.

“He looks like a horse that could have the right sort of profile for a Grand Annual and we’ll see nearer the time.

“In some ways it might make more sense to go for a handicap now, but as we saw at Kempton some of these novice events don’t have a lot of runners in them and there’s some decent prize-money on offer, so it seems silly to pass them over when you’ve only got one chance to run in them really.”

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Adiwang hopes to fight Saruta next



Lito Adiwang was booted out of ONE Championship strawweight rankings after coming up short against Jarred Brooks. ‘The Thunder Kid’ is already itching to step back inside the cage and hopes to fight a ranked fighter next.

Of the fighters in the ONE Championship strawweight division rankings, the 28-year-old Filipino seeks to score a date with No.2-ranked Yosuke Saruta.

“I want a big comeback. I still want a big name. I want to challenge Yosuke Saruta. Maybe if ONE allows it, and he wants it, then I’ll take it. Saruta is someone who I really want to test myself against,” said Adiwang in an interview with ONE Championship.

The 28-year-old admits it is a dangerous fight and a huge risk to take. The high-risk, high-reward scenario is something that Adiwang would like to take as he seeks to put his name back in the rankings again by beating a former champion.

“It’s a big risk for me because I’m coming off a loss, but I want a great comeback and a big name in my return so I don’t fall far off from the rankings.”

Lito Adiwang seeking for a better year in 2022 at ONE Championship

Adiwang now holds a professional record of 13-4 and has been competing in ONE Championship since October 2018. He won his first five fights before receiving his first loss against Koha Minowa via a split decision two years later.

The Benguet-based fighter had three fights in 2021. However, he also suffered his second loss in ONE Championship against Jarred Brooks.

Still in his prime, Adiwang goes back to the drawing board and seeks to polish his MMA skills in 2022.

“I have to check my mistakes inside the Circle, but I also have to check my mistakes outside the Circle. It has to be a balance. Sometimes, I forget other personal obligations and those are the things that I have to work on. I have to balance things out based on last year. I have to correct this in 2022.”

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