Gotta have faith: Salesian Sisters spreading the word of Pop

SAN ANTONIO -- When they put Sister Rosalba Garcia in the hospice section of the Salesian Sisters at Provincial House on the west side of this diverse Texas city, the chaplain came to visit.

"All his questions were pertaining to her," explained Sister Martina Ponce, "but all of her answers were on the Spurs. And she kept saying how [Gregg Popovich] was such a good coach because he guides and he helps.

"She was describing just what happens on that court. And finally, the chaplain just gave up -- and she kept on going with the Spurs."

These days, the Spurs are just about the only thing that cuts through her Alzheimer's haze. Garcia no longer pulls on her jersey for games, pushes her walker with the Spurs banner or squeezes her coyote mascot. Fortunately, there are more than a few sisters who have stepped into the void. They are not above yelling, screaming and even questioning calls against their Spurs.

"Oh, we're human," insisted Sister Juanita Chavez. "We're very human."

Technically, the 37 sisters, most of them retired, are members of a worldwide congregation of more than 14,000 founded more than a century ago, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. In San Antonio, they are known as The Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco and their network includes schools and a cornucopia of good works that support disadvantaged youth.

"That's our life commitment, to be with the young," said Chavez. "To make honest citizens of them for here on earth, so they attain heaven. That's our goal."

Sister Maria Guadalupe explained the connection to the Spurs this way: "We work with children, teenagers. They love sports. We love what they love. And so, we're interested in sports and somehow we befriended the Spurs and so we've been friends with them for a long time."

They'll be watching with uncommon interest in the community room on Christmas, when the Spurs play at the Houston Rockets (8 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN).

A higher authority

After the Spurs won their fourth NBA title in 2007, Popovich and some players swung by for a visit and created a lasting commotion.

"The coach came with the team and he spoke to everybody," said Sister Angelita Guzman. "He took pictures with each sister, even if they were there in a wheelchair. He would kneel down and talk with a sister, and he was very affectionate with us."

Since then, Guzman has corresponded with Popovich the old-fashioned way, by written letter. He always writes back. Sometimes, in the offseason, she even has lunch with him.

The sisters adore "Pop" and his players.

"He's coach on court, and off court," explained Sister Margaret Natal. "I think the name, it's just ironic that it's Popovich. I think he's a pop to everybody. He's a dad to the players."

It's a similar relationship to the one the sisters have with their young charges.

"Yes, definitely," Natal said. "Because we're spiritual mothers to the children. That's important."

Popovich and friends play in the charity golf tournament that helps the Western Province's chapter of the Salesian Sisters raise money for student scholarships and the upkeep of their headquarters, which also includes a hospital for the sisters. In return, they pray religiously for the Spurs.

With five NBA championships, do they really need help from a higher authority?

"They do need prayers," said Guzman, laughing. "That's what [Popovich] told me, he said some other teams are better than the Spurs." Maybe that's one reason Guzman, like the rest of her fellow fans, is not above seeking spiritual assistance for the Spurs.

"When the other team is making the basket," she said, "I say, 'St. Joseph, sit in the basket, so they don't win.'"

Habit-forming support

Sister Jeanette Palasota isn't retired just yet. She was behind the wheel of the sisters' distinctive bus Dec. 16 when six of them attended the Spurs-Wizards game.

Palasota, sporting a pair of Asics running shoes, maneuvered expertly in and out of traffic and brought them safely at the AT&T Center. Full disclosure: Two of the sisters fell asleep briefly on the ride over, but rallied when it was time to go in.

Wearing Spurs jerseys (Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard) over their full-length white and gray habits, they moved through the crowd like rock stars, instigating cheers of "Go, Spurs, go," posing for an astonishing number of photos and leaving a stream of smiles in their considerable wake.

"Get the rosary out!" yelled one fan when they tripped the X-ray machine at the security checkpoint.

"Yes, [we're] gentle and quiet, but not when you're watching a game. Not me. Not bad words, no, but scream, yes." Sister Maria Guadalupe

Why are people so drawn to them?

"We have sisters in the house as well as from across the street at Saint John Bosco who taught so many of them," said Natal. "It's hard for people to see commitment today. People see the habits -- it's an outward sign, let's people know who we are at a distance and that's what makes them excited.

"If we can help someone think about God, even for a second, I think that's the best."

There is a quote from Don Bosco regarding the children the Salesian Sisters teach. "It is not enough that you love them," he said, "they must know they are loved."

Count the Spurs among their children. The sisters had terrific seats, courtesy of the team and the NBA, and they were not shy.

"Gentle and quiet, but not when you're watching a game," Guadalupe said. "Not me. Not bad words, no, but scream, yes. I can shout and scream, and they look at me, like, "What's wrong with you?"

One of the sisters (who shall remain nameless), roots for the Los Angeles Lakers. A few years ago, when the Spurs were about to play the Lakers, Guadalupe and a few accomplices sneaked into her room.

"We covered everything with Spurs things," said Guadalupe, laughing. "So when she went to her room, she was a little surprised."

Teachable moments

Under Popovich, the Spurs are notoriously selfless in a league known for its larger-than-life stars. The team, the sisters say, exhibits many of the same qualities the Salesians emphasize in their lives of sacrifice and service, and in teaching their children.

The Spurs actually practice what Popovich preaches, which is one reason they've won five NBA titles together.

"Games are teachable moments, how they play, how they share," said Guadalupe. "They're helping each other. So, you can use those points to teach and to say, `You know, this is how you do it.'"

Added Chavez, "And when something has gone awry with the kids in relationships, I have used the Spurs as a model, and asked them -- 'OK, you saw this happen on the court. So give me positive, negative on it. Now, how can that be applied here?'

"Young people want a sense of belonging. And in developing that sense of belonging, they need to learn how to work with one another. And the Spurs, they work as a team and they support one another."

The sisters, role models themselves, appreciate this. They spend a good deal of time praying for the Spurs.

Here, in part, is a prayer written by Sister Kathy King:

"Heavenly Father, we ask your special blessings on the Spurs, Coach Pop and all their coaches. May the Spurs always play and continue to be the Best they can be ... Protect them from any kind of harm. May they always remember that they do well with God's help ... We ask the Blessed Mother to help them and in Jesus' name ask God's blessing -- win or lose. Amen."

God, the sisters said, is impartial when it comes to NBA teams.

"He praises every one of them," said Chavez, smiling, "and is happy for what they're doing. He doesn't show favoritism.

"We do. We do."