How Pope Francis was gifted a Mark Pope Kentucky basketball jersey

Two days before he traveled to the Vatican, a Catholic priest asked University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto for a favor.

Jim Sichko of the Diocese of Lexington requested a jersey bearing the last name of newly hired Kentucky men’s basketball coach Mark Pope.

"Here I was going to meet the Pope," Sichko told Yahoo Sports. "I thought it would be neat if I could get a jersey with 'Pope' on it."

That No. 23 jersey was tucked under Sichko’s arm on Wednesday when he attended Pope Francis’ General Audience. Sichko described Pope Francis as "delighted" when he presented the other Pope’s jersey as a gift.

"He was really enthralled by it," Sichko said. "Usually he hands off the gifts he receives to his assistants to put in plastic containers, but this one he folded and he kept on his lap. He was very intrigued by it."

Sichko has presented a gift to Pope Francis roughly every six months for the past eight years. In the past, Sichko has brought Pope Francis anything from rare bottles of bourbon to custom tennis shoes made by a Lexington retailer.

The basketball jersey generated even more buzz than most of Sichko's previous gifts. When he posted the pictures he received from the Vatican to social media on Friday morning, Sichko said, "I never thought in a million years that it would go crazy like this."

“Literally no other fanbase would be crazy enough to even attempt this,” wrote one commenter on X.

Added another: “We got the Pope on our side?!? Ohhhh this season finna be IT!!”

Mark Pope wore No. 41 in the mid-1990s when he played for Kentucky. The No. 23 on the jersey that Sichko presented Pope Francis represents Pope becoming the 23rd head coach in Kentucky men’s basketball history after he succeeded John Calipari last month.

Sichko does not know Mark Pope personally, but he hopes that the basketball coach will get the same kick out of the story that many fans have.

"This is a feel-good, loveable story," Sichko said. "At a times when there are so many difficult things going on in the world, I think this brings a smile to people’s faces."

Jan 13, 2022; Spokane, Washington, USA; Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope reacts after a play against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Pope left BYU last month to become the new Kentucky men's basketball coach. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports