Legendary Notre Dame coach at Maccabiah

Digger Phelps marvels at the timing of his first visit to Israel.

A legendary University of Notre Dame basketball coach until his retirement, Phelps, who retired in 1991, oversaw the Canadian masters squad at the Maccabiah Games that ended Tuesday in Israel. Just before leaving his Indiana home for Israel, Phelps learned that he is free of bladder cancer, after already having overcome two bouts of prostate cancer.

For Phelps, an observant Irish Catholic, that makes coming to Israel a prime opportunity to offer thanksgiving.

So during a visit this week to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Phelps rubbed his medal of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, on the rock reputed to be the site of the crucifixion. A few steps away, at the Western Wall, Phelps left handwritten notes expressing his gratitude and also praying for the recovery of a friend, Rob Ades, who is battling leukemia. Ades, who is Jewish, was Phelps’s agent.

At the games, Phelps was less fortunate. His team lost all three of its contests: to the United States, Israel and Russia.

“Obviously, you want to win,” Phelps said.

But Phelps seemed plenty satisfied with his team’s effort. More so, he expressed gratification in coaching men for whom playing in Israel holds great meaning.

“When we went up the tunnel steps into the stadium” for last week’s opening ceremony, Phelps said, “the athletes yelled, ‘Canada! Canada!’ I actually got tears in my eyes. It is their Olympics.”

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