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Why I’m a fan of Gonzaga Basketball

Why it’s hard to separate my team and my school from my city

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It was pretty great to grow up a sports fan in the 90s, specifically in the Pacific Northwest. I taught myself how to bat as a lefty by an old Ken Griffey Jr. VHS tape. I was dubiously nicknamed “the Glove” in an early age YMCA league. But I rarely rooted for the Super Sonics. My dad and all of his friends pushed me to root for the Utah Jazz.

I didn’t get why. What was so special about the guy in the short-shorts? I was then told everything that was needed to be known about John Stockton. He was one of the greatest and he was one of our own.

I went to my first Gonzaga basketball game when I was about seven. My friend at the time used to explain to me about this cool guy named Bakari that kind of became an urban legend. Eventually, I had to pick someone as “my guy,” so I chose this speedster name Quentin Hall. I’ll never forget my first game in the original Kennel watching him zip through defenders. His ball handling was adept, but not near to the level of his handling of 30 kids following him around when he came to do autographs at my school’s fair.

A couple months ago, The Guardian ran a freelance piece about how Gonzaga basketball was the only thing saving this dilapidated and crime-riddled inland northwest city. It was met with some necessary resentment and defiance, daring the writer to come back to his hometown and learn a thing or two. Spokanites seemed to be unified in defending their city with the mightiest of chips on their collective shoulder.

And while facts and and imagery were misreported or melodramatic, there is still something inescapably true about it: Gonzaga is one of the better things about Spokane. I’ll never forget staying up late in March as a middle schooler to hear Sports Center anchors mispronounce MY HOMETOWN! The only other time I’d heard Spokane mentioned on the national news it was for horrible things. I fully admit that this was a pretty hollow reason, but growing up it mattered.

Zags spoke at my school routinely. From Richard Fox to Cory Violette to Blake Stepp, they were all over town. There’s a picture somewhere in my parents’ shoeboxes of family photos of Ronny Turiaf towering over my sister and me at an Applebee’s.

I treasure memories from the winter basketball camps held over Christmas break at the Martin Centre. And not really for the lessons on the court, but because of how kind everybody in the program was. Anthony Reason teased me for days, and remembered teasing me well enough to do it again in random run-in months later.

Before he became an assistant coach, Tommy Lloyd was doing the grunt labor for the team (especially during those camps). My cousin from the westside was visiting for a few days during the camp. The concern for Tommy wasn’t whether he could discount the camp for him, but rather if he could get all of the guys on the team to sign a poster before he had to leave.

I still have a vivid image of Casey Calvary smirking and imploring attendees to be sure to wait in line for walk-on Brian Michaelson’s rare autograph. I earned social cache when I lucked into a “Pendo’s Posse” shirt before Kraziness in the Kennel. These guys were somehow the same guys that were the center of an ESPN miniseries but also hanging out all over town.

Getting congratulated by Adam Morrison for winning his first charity Horse competition: surreal. Dorking out while Dan Dickau signed not one but BOTH of your basketball sneakers: cool. Scoping out his whip decked out in the Atlanta Hawks’ colorway: cooler.

To a man, Gonzaga basketball has been full of guys that were part of the community. How often do Division I student athletes perform in plays put on by the theatre department? I watched Kelly Olynyk and Steven Gray recite Shakespeare one semester.

Even through the early years of the “Decade of Excellence,” few Zags were from Spokane, but there was always something very Spokane in them. Spokane isn’t a hotbed for five-star recruits and neither was Gonzaga. The Cinderella teams were full of farm boys who had to work a little harder. Guys made the most out of an opportunity they were given.

I’ll never forget the lamenting after David Pendergraft and subsequently Mike Hart graduated. The gritty glue guy was gone. But if there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that this coaching staff inspires everybody to become that glue. When the team is right there is nothing but the grit.

Desmet and the Corkery aren’t quite the student athlete dorms and apartments you’d find in the SEC or ACC. Trekking to early morning practices in the harsh winters couldn’t have been ideal. But every student had to walk those slick sidewalks.

Juco transfers saw their paths validated when they pushed a small program up another rung in the national conversation. Now those Jucos have become transfer guys from big conferences still needing to prove something. Guys from around the world have chosen Gonzaga to make their launch pad to make a name for themselves in their field.

As one of those classic cases of hometown naysayers, sticking around hasn’t always been easy. Just like this team there’s been stalls and wondering if things are ever going to work out. But it’s become clear in the last year: you can go far in Spokane.


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