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The Quarterback From Oklahoma


There was this glistening trace in the air. Every time 'The Gun' ejected a ball he would catch it, dribble twice to the left, and launch a jump shot, moves his teammates would then mimic in succession. He was working on body control, bringing his momentum to a dead stop and attaining maximum lift in the air before his shot release. The result was a burst of forward energy followed by a seeming endless levitation, but it was all happening so fast that I couldn't determine what the glisten was.

The same rhythm - catch, drive, jump, release - danced its way all around the arc, shot after shot, exclamation after exclamation. This was the percussion section of the McCarthy Athletic Center, which, cavernous in its emptiness, still stretched and breathed its own orchestra. A generator grumbled somewhere. The squeaky wheels of a cart wobbled  in a nearby corridor. But most of all that Gun, better known to the team as Jerry Krause's large, netted ball recovery toy, churned out passes with a thwopp! at a stupendous rate.

After a particularly ridiculous barrage of consecutive makes, The Gun shut down with a long groan.

"All right, I'm taking a break," Ryan Spangler remarked. He walked over behind the west basket and plopped down in the bottom row, directly in front of where I was sitting. Were we starting? Should I interject? I couldn't even make eye contact with him if I wanted to. His head bobbed downward silently, as if we were transmitting some deeply personal prayer to Bakari Hendrix's ghost.

Quotidian gym presence and friend of the show Kevin Pangos, seconds removed from the workout that just sapped his compatriot, squatted in front of The Gun attempting to set up another round. He looked like someone furiously trying to microwave something.

"We going again?"

Spangler's bobbing stalled and switched gears into a full on shake.

Slowly, as if not to disturb up a sleeping giant, I positioned my 6'3" frame beside him. I instantly felt small. He's big, but not in the Will Foster way. Broad shoulders - throwing shoulders, no less - and a wide physique made him larger than he actually was.

He turned his head, and from up close I saw it. The glistening trace. Two twinkling, diamond studded earnings peeked out from behind neck-high soaking wet hair. I was caught staring, though. I had to scramble to avoid gawking like an ass (maybe it was already too late?) so I said something mundane about the weather.

He offered a friendly grunt in return.

And thus began the second and terser segment of this website's indeterminate-part series introducing Gonzaga's 2011 freshmen class.

Spangler said 'yes' to Gonzaga on a beautiful Indian summer day ten months to the day before our little chat. Although this courteous man-child of straight-faced drawl - if not occasional operator of the wry smirk - would never let on to it, every bit of the excitement of that commitment moment was still with him as we talked. He just chose to exude it with the inscrutableness of someone with a dominant inner peace.

He has improved in the past ten months as much as he did in the ten months prior to attending Gonzaga - which was a lot. As far as collegiate programs were concerned at the time, the 6'7" forward was a late (basketball) bloomer. He developed strongly in the second half of the 2010 summer recruiting period, by which time a lot of obvious schools like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State had already invested their time and resources in other big men elsewhere.

Tulsa and TCU were among the first to sweep in on the under-the-radar commodity. Gonzaga quickly followed, if not accidentally. Ray Giacoletti called Spangler while on his way to the famous Peach Jam AAU tournament roughly a year ago to see when and where he could come watch him play. Giacoletti figured Spangler was just as good as most of the players he was about to see in Georgia that week, and was surprised that Spangler wouldn't be there.

Unbeknownst to Giacoletti, Spangler already was there - the tournament has so many elite players, media figures and division one coaches that it's easy to spend the whole day on site and miss a large part of the action.

The two hit it off as soon as they met, talking as many as four times a week over the second half of the summer.

To the staff's credit, Spangler made sure I knew how the recruitment process helped set the Zags apart from the other courtiers. At that point Gonzaga already had its Washington State "Mr. Basketball," their custom Canadian import, and a couple Inland Northwest blue-chippers with chops. But the staff knew things were looking thin in the paint after the 2011-12 season. The team needed someone already in the fold, familiarizing themselves with Gonzaga's style of play in the event that Elias Harris joins fellow big man Robert Sacre in departing at the end of this upcoming season.

Giacoletti organized a campus visit for Spangler on the heels of the big man's trip to Boulder, Colorado. The CU Buffaloes were purported to be Gonzaga's main competition for Spangler's services.

Once he got to Spokane, Spangler committed on the spot.

And so it was that in the same academic year Gonzaga lost a basketball player to a football program, they also lured a football player to come play basketball.

He received 28 collegiate scholarship offers according to his personal tally (those recruiting websites only list three or four offers, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt). Missouri and Colorado were among the power six schools that bid for his services - and lost. 

The ultimate reason why he chose a WCC school is related back to me as if it were an assumed knowledge: "Even though (Gonzaga) is not a BCS school they still make the tournament every year."

The observation is true - we have made the tournament every year since 1999-00 - but it's become de rigeur, insipid. I had to prod further. What about the high(est)-mid-major scheduling and national exposure that helped facilitate some of those tournament appearances in the first place? Did he believe it was more important to always make the tournament than it was to only occasionally make it but make deep runs when you do? Was it merely their very presence in the tournament, or had he seen something in Gonzaga's appearances that he admired?

The inquisition was thrown all out of whack when Kyle Dranginis comically attempted to unclog the Gun; he had made too many jump shots too quickly and the balls couldn't drain out of the machine into the very firing device for which the contraption was named. As he dislodged the balls one immediately shot out and nearly hit him in the face at point blank range. Kevin instructed him to turn off the machine before he killed himself. Spangler connoted his level of amusement by offering a shake of the head that was a cross between deadpan and sleepy.

The momentum of my Big Dance questioning was stanched by the Dranginis slapstick, so I turned to Oklahoma.

In no time we had coursed over the similarities between his approach to football and his approach to basketball (hint: they're both physical), explored the still very much extant oil - oll - industry in which his father earns a living and in which the aspiring business major aspires to do business, and hit on the remarkable cultural differences between the Land of Labor and the Land of Lilacs.

When I started to mention that Oklahoma State is on the team's schedule in 2012-13 he finished my sentence and gave a knowing look which made perfectly clear the date in Stillwater has already long since been circled on his calendar. Several of Spangler's friends attend the school, so there are obvious boasting rights at stake. But there's also some ill-blood.

"They don't like me. They were going to offer me my sophomore year, but then...I don't like Oklahoma State."

Hatred for in-state rivals at the sports crazed intersection of the south and the midwest is understandable. But without skipping a beat he whipped up a similar dreamy-eyed loathing toward impending McCarthy marauders Michigan State, Notre Dame, Butler and Washington State. He gave me a confidential look and indicated that each of these four teams will face the Zags on ESPN.

"If we win them games that'd be a success for me. I don't like to lose."

You'd be satisfied with nothing less than going 4-0 in those games?

Again, brevity. "I don't like to lose."

Playing time allocation was...well, I didn't even want to begin to broach the subject with him, but in reality it might not just be Spangler's team winning or losing this year. It very well could be his physical manifestation on the court that wins and loses.

I mentioned the four post guys ahead of him in my mental depth chart to see which names elicited a response. He instantly credited Elias Harris for his tutelage at the four spot. The team passes down both its hardwood traditions and IQ in the form of a buddy system.

Harris (or 'E' as I'm instructed to knowingly refer to him) was paired with Spangler. In the fraternal order of Bulldogs, daily summer school study halls are called to an end when an older pup arrives and whisks the younger partner away for a different type of schooling session.

E spent significant time over June and July working with him individually on screening technique, post up moves and off-ball movement. Spangler learned even more via osmosis from watching Rob and Sam work out one on one. 

Who was remaining big man Kelly Olynyk's partner?

The 6'10" forward struggled through most of an awkward sophomore campaign that saw his playing time and overall influence decrease, and eventually fueled rumors of him making the nontraditional move of red-shirting this upcoming season, his junior academic year. A few days before our interview someone had written on twitter that Kelly might've injured himself playing for a Canadian national team, but few were aware of the full scope of his condition.

I wondered aloud if the red-shirting rumors were true.

Spangler nodded a mute yes, then clarified that he had heard so from someone else on the team.

If this was true, it meant he would be one of four post players suiting up for the team this year. He labels himself a four ("I'm not a five"). If Kelly is ineligible, Rob's at the five, Sam splits time between the four and the five, and Elias actually succeeds in his goal of logging minutes at the three, Spangler's left as the only true four, and is therefore the second and only other line of defense in the interior. So, what did he think of his potentially instant impact on the-

Klang! More shenanigans. This time, Kevin launched a full court shot in our direction that missed the backboard and violently struck a nearby seat. He laughed the laugh of awareness in an intrusive situation, and I jokingly mentioned to him that during his profile piece we kept all boisterousness to a minimum and wouldn't he like to do the same for his teammate?

Kevin smiled broadly and promptly turned around and hit several shots. The deadpan sleepy look crept back into Spangler's eyes. I wondered if he knew I was just giving Kevin a hard time.

Maybe satire wasn't an art often cultivated by the Oklahoman fan or sports figure. Spangler touched back on the cultural differences between his new home and his old home, noting that Spokanites were quite passive relative to the fans he grew up around. Sooners were an exorbitantly outgoing (he preferred the term "crazy") legion, obsessive and clamorous to extent of breaking into song.

I found this hard to believe. Spangler was your archetypical stud quarterback in high school ("I can see the whole floor, that's why I can pass so well"), not a chanteuse. He did what aspiring men do: played football, basketball, and...the tuba?

"The trombone, trumpet, piano and bass guitar, too." He asked Kevin if he knew about his prolific brass talents. The conniving Canadian had not yet had the pleasure of ascertaining these rich details, and shouted something in return regarding his own mastery of the French horn.

Then Spangler raised the ante once more: "I can sing."

Despite my supplications he produced no evidence of this claim.

"Before the playoffs we would get together and invite over all the cheerleaders and the fans and we'd have karaoke nights."

I instantly started trying expunge visions of some dastardly 'Glee'/'Friday Night Lights' hybrid that popped into my head, but that was thwarted when the quiet Dranginis suggested one of the funnier ideas I've ever heard: A 'Fab Five' band performance at 'Midnight Madness', the all-night, student-attended event in the wee hours of October 15th, replete with a carnival-like atmosphere that celebrates the first official practice day of the new season.

Soon the talk devolved into hilarious ribbing sessions, running the gamut from the vanity of hair care products to snoring tendencies to - yes - the glistening trace. Spangler pressed Kevin to follow suit and get a pair of ear rings like the other members of the class, perhaps so when he too darted and levitated there could be some sort of dueling light show. 

When we eventually said goodbye I couldn't help but drift back to the idea of the Fab Five musical troupe proposal. If such a spectacle existed, which parts would everyone play?

My best guess told me that Spangler would eschew the high brass and the tinkling piano of his earlier days for the guiding reverberation of the bass guitar, or the low propulsion of the tuba. There was something grounded and steady about the son of the oil man as we left through separate McCarthy tunnels.

Guiding. Grounded. Steady. Even consistent.

What program can't use more of that?