It was never about the Final Four.
I scarcely receive Facebook messages these days. Even more seldom do I check them. Peculiarly, both occurred four weeks ago when my old college dorm R.A. requested a carpool to watch our alma mater, Gonzaga University, play basketball in San Jose. His request might seem strange for a few reasons.
For starters, I don’t live in San Jose. Not even close really. Also, this guy was my R.A. over 10 years ago; we don’t have each others’ phone numbers and hadn’t spoken in years. I never even announced plans to skip work and attend the game, which took place on a random Thursday afternoon. He had no idea I was going.
Luckily for him, I was going. We carpooled, catching up over Gonzaga hoops and sharing life developments that occurred since we shared a hallway a decade prior. If this exchange seems odd to you, I understand. If you’ve ever spent any time in Spokane, Washington, however, you might get it.
The Gonzaga community is fiercely loyal. And it loves basketball.
It’s fairly simple to enroll at GU as a non-college hoops fan. It’s harder to leave as one. Basketball is so inextricably intertwined with the school’s culture that for nearly 20 years in a row, Spokane has celebrated March like a month-long holiday, or for at least as long as the Zags remain on the NCAA dancefloor. Particularly when winter temperatures plunge into single digits, there’s nowhere in Eastern Washington you’d rather be on a Saturday night than the McCarthey Athletic Center, our 6,000 seat arena. Whereas students at other colleges might spend weekends flocking to night clubs, frat houses, or Coachella, we jump around like idiots in a gymnasium.
In other words, basketball is simply what we do.
Gonzaga is the kind of place where students routinely abandon perfectly decent, heated dorms en masse to sleep outside, just to earn the right to stand in another line. Why? They’re angling for the prime crop among ample student seats that, frankly, are all pretty damn good. God forbid you get stuck up in row 12. Gonzaga is the kind of place where exhibition games (you know, the ones that don’t count) are treated like Super Bowls. It’s the kind of place where you skip work on random Thursdays to catch basketball games with estranged college dorm R.A.’s.
“It’s fairly simple to enroll at GU as a non-college hoops fan. It’s harder to leave as one.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to untangle exactly what us Gonzaga fans root for each season. The obvious answer is that we root for a ball to go into a hoop. A more nuanced response might implicate the continued, implausible rise of a program that has not only buoyed a once-struggling university, but one that has helped sustain close relationships scattered around the globe. Since Gonzaga’s initial 1999 NCAA tournament run, student enrollment has nearly doubled. Applications have risen by 300%. We’re out here rooting for a surging community — one that boasts Spokane, Washington as its epicenter.
And like most affiliated with Gonzaga, that community means a lot to me. My parents met as GU students in 1977, so I speak in literal terms when I say my entire existence depends on the school. A generation later, my two siblings enrolled, and I followed suit by matriculating as a Zag in 2005. You’d think we purchased our college degrees on a trip to Costco (bad joke). Unfortunately, there was no family-pack discount (worse joke). At one point, I think even our family dog submitted an enrollment application (Ok, I’ll stop).
The point is, Gonzaga’s unique community, whole-person-style education, and stellar basketball program attracted me to Spokane as a clueless 18-year old. Many of my closest friends were made on frigid Spokane nights, when we stuffed 15 of us into closet-sized dorm rooms to watch Adam Morrison bomb three-pointers from the parking lot on standard-definition TV, all while we guzzled contraband Keystone Light and marveled at how we never convinced a single female to attend. I still communicate with most of these hooligans daily.
Of course, this whole thing is just college basketball. I’m 30 now. I realize that the athletes we pin our hopes, dreams, and brackets upon each year are just kids. These are kids just having fun, competing, and preparing for careers in professional basketball or something else. I get that.
But they are also kids who came from all over the world to do what the rest of us Zags did. Like us, they packed their bags and moved to the Inland Northwest without a clue, gameplan, or bank account, knowing only that they wanted to better themselves in some way.
Like us, they didn’t come for the weather, the beach (there isn’t one), or the nightlife (ha!). Like us, they were fooled by the COG’s first week tease of fine dining before it devolved into mush. Like us, they trudged through campus in the dead of winter — from homes on Mission, Sharp, or Ermina — over filthy, wet snow that overstayed its welcome on the quad.
Like us, these kids chose Gonzaga. Specifically, they chose its development-heavy basketball program which aspires to abandon personal pursuits in favor of the team. And in the nearly two decades since GU burst onto the national scene, America has witnessed the faces of Gonzaga hoops change while its unique spirit has not. Nearly 20 years removed from our initial March run, we still embody the courageous, passionate, gritty disposition of an underdog. Gonzaga has become the program of the extra pass. The team of the loose ball.
And each year, these guys give us something we’re proud to root for. Something we feel a part of.
Gonzaga fandom hasn’t always been this rosy. Trust me. I’ve been hearing about our “overrated” basketball team my entire life. In the late-90’s Pacific Northwest, it seemed every Catholic grade school had at least one scrawny kid running around in GU apparel on free-dress day. At St. Ignatius School Portland, that scrawny kid was me. I invited peer scrutiny by harping about how Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm, or Dan Dickau were future NBA all-stars to anyone who would (or wouldn’t) listen, confidently assuring my peers that “this year,” the Zags were finally Final Four material. I was insufferable.
Yet even though hope sprung eternal each season, Gonzaga’s window to national relevance always seemed temporary. GU’s head coach bolted to a major conference after our mystical Elite Eight run in 1999, forcing us to promote former graduate assistant Mark Few. And even as the Zags maintained relevance under Few’s regime, each offseason left us feeling insecure.
It certainly felt that way in 2002, when senior Dan Dickau’s team fell in the NCAA Tournament’s first round. As my parents could attest, I pouted after that loss in the same exaggerated, “sky-is-falling” way as that Northwestern kid just did — thankfully at a time before such scenes could go viral. Our future seemed similarly shaky after Blake Stepp’s 2-seed team lost to Nevada in 2004. Or against UCLA in 2006, when a 17-point lead somehow became Adam Morrison’s final GU game. He cried that day, in case you forgot.
Each annual heartbreak left us with this fear that, ultimately, all the fun we were having was momentary. After all, Gonzaga was a mere NCAA outsider in the lowly West Coast Conference, and in the harsh world of college basketball, a return to normalcy looms for outsiders. Maintaining a national program in Spokane didn’t make a lot of sense.
Would Few leave too? Can we stay afloat while marooned in the WCC? How could we possibly find another Dan Dickau? Another Blake Stepp, Ronny Turiaf, or Adam Morrison?
This is the insecure state in which I found myself as a college senior in March 2009, after our Sweet Sixteen defeat by eventual NCAA champion North Carolina — you know, where Michael Jordan went. The term “defeat,” by the way, is a poor euphemism for the ass-kicking UNC delivered in a game we fooled ourselves into thinking we could win.
I can confirm that no pins were dropped in Spokane that evening. Otherwise, I probably would have heard them. A housemate and I sulked on our Sinto Avenue porch, brooding over how the Zags were beaten in every phase of a 21-point drubbing that served as our annual reminder that Final Four berths were meant for other, bigger programs. Programs with rich histories, large alumni bases, five-star recruits, warm climates, fancy fitness centers, and Michael Jordan.
Not little WCC schools in Spokane, Washington.
“It’s never going to happen, man,” my friend grumbled from a saggy couch we mistook for suitable outdoor furniture. Referring to our elusive goal of reaching the Final Four, college basketball’s promised land, he noted that the closest we’d ever been was still that miraculous 1999 near-miss. After 10 years, our chances seemed to be fading.
This porch episode probably seems pathetic. And trust me, it absolutely was pathetic. But in our defense, as friends, a Final Four banner was all we ever wanted. And after a childhood of hoping, I finally began to think he might be right. We just witnessed the final Gonzaga game for several key players, including our starting point guard, our fifth-year center standout, and the program’s highest ever rated recruit. Next year’s hopes hinged on a 190-pound recruit from Kamloops, British Columbia named “Kelly something” and a point guard who appeared to have more promise on an NFL gridiron than an NCAA backcourt (turns out, he did).
Not only, at that time, did it seem implausible to expect a Final Four, it began to feel like the whole “Gonzaga experiment” was growing stale. That offseason, University of Oregon Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny made an aggressive, Nike-backed push to pry Coach Few (an Oregon native and former Duck) away from Spokane. Kilkenny, an old friend of Few’s, spent hours chatting with our coach in a parked car that summer, attempting to convince Few of what my housemate had already convinced me: Gonzaga’s growth had a ceiling.
It was 2009, and Gonzaga basketball felt like it was on the ropes.
But in the years that followed, a funny thing happened in Spokane. Kilkenny’s pitch failed. Mark Few didn’t leave. Instead, he pivoted, jumpstarting international recruiting efforts — and recruiting hard. First, in Canada. Then Germany. Poland. Lithuania. Denmark. Japan. Few and his staff also intensified a campaign to open Spokane’s doors to unsatisfied, talented transfers from all over the country. Legitimate NBA prospects began flocking to Gonzaga to redshirt for crying out loud.
Unbelievably, the program was not only stabilizing, but it was improving. Wins piled up. Tournament appearances continued. Incredulously, we watched Gonzaga experience a second-wind nearly as impossible as that original 1999 Elite Eight run. All of a sudden, it felt like it wasn’t over.
When my friend and I sulked on our porch in 2009, we didn’t even know how to pronounce “Przemek,” let alone that it was a name belonging to some Polish pre-teen— a Polish pre-teen who would inevitably become the winningest player in NCAA history. We never heard the name Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga’s eventual all-time three-point leader. Or Kyle Wiltjer. Or Nigel Williams-Goss. We had no clue that 190-lb “Kelly something” would endure a historically impactful redshirt year, constructing a 240-lb frame en route to being a First-team All-American and eventual NBA lottery pick. At that time, Domantas Sabonis was just a 12-year old kid. Zach Collins was 11.
Unbeknownst to us, Few had a plan.
Four weeks ago, I sat next to the same college friend during yet another Gonzaga Sweet Sixteen matchup. Except this time we were 900 miles from our college porch. This time we were in San Jose, watching a scrappy West Virginia defense absolutely refuse to budge against Gonzaga for 39 straight minutes. We spent all season fawning over this year’s nearly undefeated Zags, so we were reasonably dismayed when West Virginia extended its narrow lead with under 2 minutes remaining in the regional semifinal.
“Please, not this year,” I muttered as the crowd grew tense and the clock ticked away.
Apparently, muttering worked. With under a minute remaining, Nigel Williams-Goss, our transcendent point guard, zipped a cross-court pass to Jordan Mathews who nailed an absolutely all-time Gonzaga transition three-pointer, providing a slim lead we would never relinquish. Mild pandemonium ensued in Section 121 of the SAP Center.
That shot — that absolutely ridiculous, cathartic, and momentous shot — embodied this season. Finally, all those officially licensed NCAA March Madness basketballs seemed to bounce the Zags’ way. After all, Mathews would never have even worn a Gonzaga jersey if not for his herculean effort to expedite a UC Berkeley undergraduate degree last summer— a feat his advisor once deemed “impossible.” And watching the bench erupt at the sight of Mathews’ told-ya-so expression afterwards made it just seem like that kind of year. It felt different.
This year was different. For the very first time since hitting the national scene, our season didn’t end with a March loss. We finally made it to April, busting down that stubborn, fortified door to our first Final Four appearance. Poetically, the tournament’s final weekend took place in Phoenix, the same sprawling metropolis where once upon a time in 1999, a Jesuit school from Spokane showed up with nothing more than unlicensed jerseys, an unpronounceable name, and an attitude— and nearly left with a Final Four berth.
We even made it to the championship game where, oddly enough, we faced North Carolina. You know, that same college where Michael Jordan went. It was the first showdown between the two programs since the 2009 reality-check I lamented from my college porch. Except in this game, the matchup felt different. We didn’t feel obviously inferior. We didn’t get beat in every phase of the game. We didn’t get embarrassed.
Unfortunately, we also didn’t win.
But after controlling the entire first half and holding a lead as late as 1:40 left in the championship game, we sent a message to America that we were certainly good enough to win it. Gonzaga took the mighty ACC champion to the wire, reaffirming our belief that we belong on the court with anyone. That game — that whole March run — served as a national reminder that after two decades, Gonzaga is still here.
Letting a championship slip through our fingertips does not change the fact that this was the greatest season in Gonzaga history. And to attribute its success to past players might do a disservice to this undisputed best GU squad of all time. Only this team nearly went undefeated. Only this team held a lead for over 6 consecutive games. Only this team fell just a few ball bounces short of a national championship trophy.
But failing to acknowledge the prior Zags who paved the way for this latest team might also slight those predecessors. Coach Few seized multiple opportunities this March to acknowledge former players, and even Williams-Goss officially thanked prior Zags in a recent Players’ Tribune column, vowing to “finish what they started.” When roughly fifty former GU players showed up at a pre-Final Four event in Phoenix, the current team greeted them with a standing ovation. The message was sent. This run belongs to all of them.
And according to Few on the eve of Gonzaga’s first ever Final Four berth, it belongs to all of us Zags as well. The run belongs to anyone who has endured a Spokane winter, procrastinated in Crosby, conquered four flights of creaky Admin (College Hall?) stairs, or camped outside for a ticket. It’s for those who remember cheaper tickets and jog-a-thon fundraisers. It’s for those who checked boxscores before games were televised, who sat through primitive Fox Sports Northwest screenings, who turned Greg Heister on mute, or who — most recently — endured choppy internet streams on the W.tv.
This run evokes countless, dreary Northwest evenings, racing home from school or work to behold the Bulldogs zip the ball around the court, illuminating otherwise gloomy nights with electric displays of offense. It elicits memories of rehashing last night’s game with our dads and moms and sisters and uncles and colleagues, commenting on how immaculate Dickau’s shot looked the night before. About how Pargo’s was “coming around.” About how “this might finally be the year.”
Perhaps history may have unfolded less favorably if we achieved that first Final Four appearance in 1999. Maybe that’s the Gonzaga secret. Instead of celebrating in year one (or two, or twelve), Few and his staff patiently invested equity into a sustainable, winning infrastructure in Spokane. Perhaps without languishing in college basketball purgatory for 20 years, we wouldn’t have constructed those precious inroads to overseas recruiting. Perhaps we wouldn’t have invested so heavily in our facilities. Perhaps we wouldn’t have pioneered a world-class player development program. Whereas other mid-major programs like George Mason and VCU made Final Fours, lost coaches, then proved unable to repeat similar success, we patiently laid a foundation that fostered the invaluable Gonzaga brand. Paradoxically, it was the waiting that made us a household name.
And because of that winning infrastructure, this season’s run will not mark an endpoint to the Gonzaga story. Few’s loyalty and workmanlike attitude ensure that we will contend for further national championships. In some respects, we’re just getting started. But perhaps this season does mark the beginning of a new era in Gonzaga basketball. There will be no return to normalcy that us “mid-major” fans always feared. This is the new normal.
And for some reason, now that we’re here, I feel like I’m going to miss it. All of it. I’ll miss the jubilation and the heartbreak. I’ll miss those woeful porch conversations about our demise, texts with my Dad about this “finally being the year,” and even the ridicule from my grade school peers.
I’ll miss earlier days of Casey Calvary shattering backboards. I’ll miss Ronny Turiaf swatting basketballs into unsuspecting crowds. I’ll miss Erroll Knight jumping out of gyms. I’ll miss Dan Dickau 30-footers. I’ll miss Kyle Wiltjer 40-footers (exaggeration). I’ll miss Adam Morrison 50-footers (no exaggeration). I’ll miss erupting over Sportscenter replays of Jeremy Pargo dunks from the Bulldog Tavern, as if we’d never seen them before (even though we just witnessed them in-person, a block away and an hour earlier). I’ll miss Kennel Club parties that were busted up by Spokane authorities. I’ll miss others that weren’t. I’ll miss rowdy game watches in DeSmet Hall. I’ll miss WCC tournament road trips.
Most of all, I will miss the constant, miraculous, upward progression from obscurity and the insatiable thirst for more that accompanied the hunt for just one Final Four banner. We were treated to 20 years of watching these guys play their guts out in a quest for that singular goal, and we will never be able to re-live the charm that accompanied Gonzaga’s pre-Final Four era.
Earlier this month in Phoenix, I shuddered at the sound of a National Championship final buzzer, signaling the end of both the 2016-2017 season and the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ first ever Final Four run. My Dad and I embraced briefly in defeat, dodging Carolina-blue confetti as we hustled toward the stadium exit. And upon filing out, I glanced one section over and caught Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk, former GU stars, doing the same exact thing. The sight of two NBA lottery picks hugging in defeat just like my Dad and I (non-NBA lottery picks) provided further evidence of something Morrison himself acknowledged a few days prior: ultimately, we are all just Gonzaga fans. Rooting for a ball to go through a hoop. Rooting for a community.
Regrettably, the Final Four weekend ended abruptly. My Dad, brother, sister-in-law, and I all parted ways right outside the stadium to begin our respective journeys home — them to Oregon, me to California. And as I bid farewell, it all hit me. Both the gravity of the event we just witnessed and every single emotion of that 20-year run ambushed me right outside Stadium Gate 3. All of a sudden, I recalled sulking on college porches, phone conversations with my parents, carpooling to games, skipping work, riotous dorm game watches, and freezing my ass off in ticket lines. Unexpectedly, I nearly turned into that Northwestern kid right then and there, next to a Final Four promotional truck that was handing out free Coca-Cola’s. But at the precise moment I almost lost it — shedding a tear of disappointment but chiefly one of unbridled and absolute pride — a passing stranger noticed and delivered a timely pat on my shoulder.
“It’s ok man,” reassured a deep, oddly recognizable voice. I turned to discover the consoling hand belonged to former Gonzaga player and current color-commentator Richard Fox — a 7-foot literal giant. I replied with a brief word of gratitude before parting ways into the dark. Again, if this whole exchange seems odd to you, I understand. If you’ve ever spent any time in Spokane, Washington, however, you might get it.
The Gonzaga community is fiercely loyal. And it loves basketball.
Our community grew stronger that day. Again, we felt closer trudging through defeat. We also felt unbelievably proud. That night served as a reminder of what has made this program unique, why we tuned in for every game, why we rooted for it, traveled for it, read about it, and talked about it. It reminded me why we sulked on college porches, carpooled to games, skipped work, or camped outside for tickets. It reminded me why, with all of the bullshit otherwise swirling around the world in 2017, we sought refuge by rooting for a ball to go through a hoop. It reminded me why we chose Gonzaga.
As I retreated from the light of the stadium, that warm Phoenix evening reminded me that the answer to those questions has nothing to do with actually making the Final Four. Quite the opposite, actually.
It was about the pursuit.