Team spirit

Leslie Combs

Villanova basketball is deeply rooted in tradition and Father Bernard Lazor can recall much of the story. Since 1976 Lazor has sat courtside with the Wildcats as chaplain of the basketball team, after joining the Villanova athletic community in 1971 as the chaplain of the football team.

The University had always had a football chaplain, but in ’76 the dean of students a instituted a position in basketball as well.

“He thought we should be represented because we have so much exposure and should be exposed as a Catholic school,” Lazor explained. Lazor is the official chaplain of all Villanova sports, but only actively travels with the football and men’s basketball teams. The women’s basketball team and the baseball team have other designated chaplains that serve them as well.

“I have been designated chaplain of all sports, but basically it is a nominal title,” Lazor said. “I do pray for all the teams and their coaches, staff and personnel, but they don’t even really know it. As a chaplain I do feel the responsibility to pray for them all, but it is hard to do more because above all, my first role is in the classroom.”

Over the years, Lazor’s role of chaplain has changed right along with the dynamics of Villanova basketball. Originally, keeping with the tradition of the football team, Lazor would celebrate mass before the pre-game meal and would then lead a prayer in the locker room prior to the game.

When former men’s head coach Steve Lapas came to Villanova, he and the majority of the players and staff were not Catholic and requested that Mass not be a pre-game ritual. In response, Lazor suggested an alternative plan of a reading from the Bible, followed by a themed homily and prayer that has been practiced ever since. If the team is on the road on a Sunday or it is a Holy Day, Lazor and those on the team that are Catholic invite the others to celebrate Mass with them.

One thing that has remained constant throughout the 32 years that Lazor has been chaplain of Villanova athletics is his procedure of giving thanks to God after the game.

“My policy is we always give thanks to God, win or lose,” Lazor said. “We give a prayer of thanks and a final blessing. It keeps the players and the coaches in tune with the realities of our lives. God should have special place in our life. It is not a question of praying for victory, it is being grateful for the opportunity to play and that we have the talents and use them to give glory to God and achieve them in whatever way we can.”

When Lazor came to Villanova in ’71, he was returning to his old stomping grounds of his seminary days. Born and raised in Mahoney City, Pa., Lazor went to public school before attending a preporatory seminary school in Staten Island for a year. In 1944 he came to Villanova to attend seminary school, then housed in St. Rita’s and Corr Halls, where he remained until ’48. His spiritual training took him next to New Hamburg, N.Y., not far from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. where he embarked on his “novitiate” stage of study introducing him into the Augustinian way of life.

“It was a year of isolation for prayer and study of the principles of my life,” Lazor explained.

From there he went to Washington, D.C. for theology orientation and remained in the nation’s capital until returning to Villanova as a professor in theology, to which he continues to devote much of his time and energy.

“My first role is and always has been in the classroom at Villanova,” he stated.

While academics has always been important to Lazor, athletics have always been a part of his life, whether it was football and track in high school, sandlot baseball games, intramural sports in the seminary and golf in his later years until back surgery halted his play.

“I was involved in sports all the way,” Lazor said. “I had always followed the Villanova games, so when they asked me to be chaplain I was going to the games anyway, so why not?”

At first, Lazor wondered how much impact he actually made upon the athletes and coaches he ministered to, or if people were just going through the motions.

“I imagine that some of them just fit into the mold that this is part of the program and we have to go along with it,” he said. “After a little while I think some begin to realize that there is a value to what is there. Sometimes you don’t see the reactions immediately, but they arrive.”

It was not until a departing coach thanked him for his many homilies that Lazor realized that people really do listen.

“I asked him what he remembered and he came out with a quote,” Lazor reflected. “‘Life is God’s gift to us. What we do with our lives is our gift to God.’ Quoted it perfectly. I was flabbergasted and amazed, and ever since then I have never worried how much impact I have, because you never know about how God’s spirit works on individuals.”

Another reminder Lazor of the impactof his work came from 1980 graduate “Mr. Clutch” Rory Sparrow who went on to play in the NBA for 12 years. Sparrow returned to Philadelphia to play the Sixers as a member of the Miami Heat and gave an interview with the Daily News about his work with Christian youth groups, saying he always tells the kids one word, “TOP:” talent, opportunity, perseverance.

“That was a result of a sermon I have given every year to all the teams based on something I learned while I was at Villanova in a speech class from an essay on success,” Lazor explained. “That became a very famous one.”

While being a spiritual leader for the men through the years, Lazor has been witness to some, if not the, greatest moments in Villanova basketball.

“The greatest moment has to be the NCAA Championship in 1985,” Lazor assuredly said. “The whole background, the way it just unraveled because we were 19-10. We were certainly questionable.”

He went on to explain why the Cinderella win over the deep and touted Georgetown squad was more than just a championship to the Wildcats. On the morning of the final Villanova hoops legend Alez Severance died of a heart attack in the hotel where the team was staying. Severance, who started from ’25 to ’29 for the ‘Cats and was head coach from ’36 to ’61 compiling a .673 record on the Main Line, was there to see the championship game.

“I remember saying in the homily that day maybe just maybe coach Severance will be up there swapping away the balls and shots of the Georgetown players,” Lazor reflected. “A little humor, but at the same time, significant, saying that maybe we have someone saying a little extra prayer up there.”

Also there to see the championship game was Villanova’s famous leprechaun, longtime athletic trainer Jake Nevin who was stricken with Lou Gegrig’s Disease, confined to a wheelchair.

“He was brought there because coach Massimino wanted to see him before every game,” Lazor said. “When the game was over they took the net and wrapped it around his neck.”

It really was a game of miracles.

“God’s grace comes in numerous ways, and we asked God to help us to do our best,” he said. “That was almost a miraculous thing because we shot 78 percent for the game.”

Through the championships and through the losing seasons, Lazor has been there for the athletes and the coaches, whether a star player or a walk-on.

“I am not structured to be a counselor, but they can come to me and sometimes they do,” he said. “Over the years a lot of them would come. Some would come for spiritual advice, but for the most part it was just a nice, friendly relationship. They are glad to have me aboard. I am a grandfather image to them.”

After observing and being a part of Villanova basketball for 26 years, Lazor is a good person to question about the team this year and the results are positive for the Villanova fan.

“They are a great team,” he stated. “Whether or not they will be a super team is yet to be seen. What is even more important is that they are coachable.”

The man who has sat courtside for so long knows he will not be able to continue his position as chaplain forever, but explained that his successor will be capable of picking up where he leaves off.

“I will not have to worry about telling them to do this or do that,” Lazor explained. “I will tell them what I do and let them take it from there. It all comes out how sincere you are and how dedicated you are. The time is going to come when I will be no longer able to do it because of age and what goes along with age and I will have to call it quits. My heart will always he with the team for time and eternity.”