Nevaaada, Coloraaaado and Oregon (not OreGONE) have long been mispronounced by the general American public. Like these states, the small Jesuit university in Spokane, Washington should be spoken as if saying the word ‘bag,’ not ‘bog’ and the locals want the nation to start saying their home side, live-and-die-by, local basketball team the proper way.
I have long been a supporter of the Gonzaga program. Personally, the affection goes back to the Casey Cavalry days of the 90s, but in truth, I was always interested in the school due to former Bulldog great John Stockton. I am always that sucker that likes to pick them to go far (although I have never picked them to go past an Elite 8 ) in my NCAA bracket, and of course I am usually disappointed. After the team’s long summer of ups and downs with Jeremy Pargo’s decision to enter and then withdraw from the NBA Draft and Austin Daye’s initially overblown knee injury, it was obvious this team would be special with both in the fold.
I was able to talk Ben into allowing me into the world of Gonzaga for a feature (which is part of SLAM 124, on newsstands now) on the team’s prospects for the season. I entered the project excited as it was the one story I had been waiting to tell since I first covered the Rocky Mountain Review in the SLC back in the summer leading up to Melo’s rookie season.Two late September nights in the eastern Washington town of Spokane; two days to watch practices, get interviews, and come up with an idea for the piece.
The team was great to work with from top to bottom. Head Coach Mark Few is straight class and the amount of charity work and respect he has in the community is worth an entire column onto its own. The players were excited about the start of the season and all were more than gassed to learn that the tall (although I was average around this team) bespectacled stranger on the baseline was from SLAM.
It was the importance of this team to the town, however, that grabbed my attention, maybe the strongest. Like Salt Lake and San Antonio, Spokane is kind of a one-trick pony. Yes, there are no professional teams there, but the Zags more than fill that void in both size and veracity, as they are treated like royalty both on and off campus. With the team’s prolonged success and the lack of any football team in sight (Washington St. is the de facto college team with Pullman just an hour down the road) the program is respected and beloved year-round in the city of around 200,000 people.
Instead of a bevy of quotes, I will share two stories that come to mind when thinking about the Zags “rock star” status in Spokane; one on campus with students and another amongst the locals.
– My first anecdote starts with me finishing up a 30-minute sit-down with junior guard Matt Bouldin in the team’s locker room/player area. As the Denver native and I chatted (largely about the Denver Broncos strong start) players milled about, as they were all in “The Kennel” for individual workouts. I learned that for big games, Bouldin rolls with an old-school no. 7 John Elway jersey. I learned that his college choices were between Gonzaga, Boston College and Notre Dame, which made me learn again, how dreadful the in-state recruiting is in our home state of Colorado (the few big recruits there are, ALWAYS leave).
After finishing up, we started back to the administrative offices to meet with the schools’ SID, Oliver Pierce. At that time in between scheduled interviews and practice, I needed some quiet and an internet connection, so Pierce asked Bouldin to escort me to a library across campus.
What ensued next was somewhat surreal.
For starters, Bouldin is no Magellan and took what seemed like the “scenic route” out of the athletic center (got to peep the “old” Kennel, which was about the size of my medium-sized high school gym.) While walking through seemingly a dozen hallways and passageways, Bouldin was “crushed on” by everyone we encountered. Older men and women, athletes of both genders, alike, all smiled affectionately and positively greeted the floopy-haired guard. As we finally stepped outside into the crisp, balmy, fall afternoon, things intensified.
Groups of co-ed girls giggled, grinned, and oogled the 6-5 do-everything guard. Elder faculty members and employees smiled and duplicated the adoring and respectful words. A few minutes later, as we approached the library a group of stereotypical frat dudes draped in Zags’ gear, hollered, “YO BOULDIN!!!”
I have been around famous people before but this just had a different feel to it.
Girls love him, dudes want to be him, and the grown folk want their daughters and granddaughters to date him. The walk in its entirety probably only took about 15 minutes but to have this kind of love and respect from EVERYONE, EVERY DAY, FROM EVERYONE on a college campus is rare. Not unlike many of the SLAMonline commenters, haters abound on college campuses. These guys seem loved by all.
*On a related side note, during my second day at Gonzaga, the team ran a 30-minute conditioning game on a soccer field outside the Kennel, which involved those NIKE parachutes. By the end of things, there were probably 45-50 students watching, laughing, and just enjoying the team. It’s just unexplainable.)
– The second story takes place at the end of the second day after finishing all of my work with the team. I couldn’t get an evening flight back to Denver so I voyaged off campus for a pizza place/bar that I could sit down and get some grub, drink a couple beers, and watch the impending USC/Oregon State football game (yeah, the one that kept the Trojans out of the BCS Championship Game).
I flipped through the phone book and found a place that was on a street a block from my hotel but about five miles away up the street. When I entered the place I was greeted with a “Nice jacket” by the teenage busboy floating through the entryway. I looked down and realized I was wearing a pretty unassuming gray Denver Broncos zip-up hoody with just the logo on the left breast portion. I shrugged it off and entered the bar area, sitting down at a relatively small and empty bar.
I looked up as I attempted to disrobe from said jacket. A bartender, who appeared to be of a similar age to myself (mid 30s), smiled back and asked if I wanted something to drink.
“Are you a Broncos’ fan?” I inquired.
“Yeah, I have been my whole life. They look sick is year!”
‘Wow’ popped into my head, but thought better of getting into a discussion about “MY” Broncos (the one team in all of sports that I put into that category; living and dying with every play) and opted to ask the guy for the largest Kokanee draft he could serve. I have a few Canuck friends that live in the Denver area that swear by the Canadian swill and considering the setting and its close proximity to the border, it seemed the natural choice. As the TALL beer was put in front of me the dude inquired about whether I would be eating.
“Do you have any specials?” I stupidly asked.
“We have free pizza.”
Without hesitation, I jeered back.
“Wait, what…” keeping in mind that this place was called, Pizza Kitchen, Pizza Oven, or Pizza-something rather.
“Pizza is free for the next two hours,” the bartender returned.
I was really starting to like this place.
A couple slices of Hawaiian appeared before I could get my first sip of beer down. I hunkered in.
Quick work was made of beer #1 and a couple guys (one younger-mid 20s, one older-late 50s) bellied-up next to me while I discussed the bartender’s connection to my local American football team (despite being from Spokane, he had spent a couple years of his youth in Denver area.) I had been patient about bringing up the local basketball team, obviously enjoying my surroundings and more than sure the topic of conversation would turn to the Zags at some point.
I couldn’t wait.
“You, a Zag fan?”
“Are you kidding? They should be legit this year,” the bartender excitedly replied.
“We all are here in Spokane,” added the once-silent crusty old dude who was directly to my left.
After about a ten-minute talk about Pargo coming back and whether Daye was going to be a superstar or not (I mostly listened, for once) the bartender asked why I was so interested in the team. Had they thought to ask why I was not in Denver (which had been established as my home) this topic might have come up earlier, but when the “I’m a writer for SLAM Magazine doing a feature story on the team” bit came up they perked up even more.
Seconds later, with a mouth full of pepperoni and sausage pizza in my mouth I inquired whether Coach Few would ever leave GonzaAHHHga…. (OH NO, I DID IT!)
“GonzaAAAga!” The three gentlemen in my earshot almost in unison corrected my gaffe.
“Aaahhhh, my bad. I know that,” I tried to assure my new friends as the second 32 oz. Kokanee made its way into my stomach that I knew the proper way and it just slipped out.
Wiping away the embarrassment (believe me, it was bad) I was stopped when the younger dude who had come a bit late interrupted his own speech about Oregon (Few’s alma mater) being the only place that Few would go when a highlight of the Broncos’ Jay Cutler flashed across the television screen centered slightly above our heads.
“There’s the man,” he exclaimed.
“We are going to be really good this year, I think,” responded crusty old guy. (I just realized I forgot to mention his perfectly suited scruffy beard and flannel shirt combo.)
Were we still talking about basketball or did I just hear these guys right?
Turns out, younger guy has family in Denver and has traveled there once a year for a Bronco game since he was a kid. Old dude grew up in Spokane and before the Seahawks came into existence, the Broncos were pumped in as the “home team,” and therefore he had been a fan since the team’s AFL days.
Suddenly immersed in a bar fantasy, I quickly ordered another beer and made tracks for the bathroom. Half-expecting to see a Broncos’ Jake Plummer jersey on the wall (he did grew up in nearby Idaho and is somewhat of a folk-hero ‘round those parts,) I checked the clock and figured it would soon be time to head back to the hotel room. You know, all that quote transcription and rough drafts to get underway.
The old guy took his food to-go soon after my return, I got a few more slices of complimentary pie (which was some good woodstove eats) down me and the Trojans were halfway to their only loss of their season when I had “my good man” itemize a receipt, one with the extra alcohol and the other for Susan back at the SLAM Dome.
“Dude, the pizza was free……”