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G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!

Mar 31 2017
Photo by
Ted S. Warren/AP Images
Photo by
Ted S. Warren/AP Images
Mar 31 2017

My first ever position at Gonzaga was ball boy.

This was back in 1994, when I was just a 10-year-old kid — without even a hint of a mustache. O.K., with the smallest hint of a mustache.

My family moved to Spokane after my dad had lost his job as a juco coach in Wyoming. One of family’s favorite things to do together was go to Zags games at the old Kennel. This was back before there was a five-year waiting list for season tickets. In fact, back then you could probably get a free ticket whenever you wanted. They were happy just to get another body in the door. My dad happened to know some of the guys on the coaching staff, and eventually he asked them if I could be a ball boy. And that was how it all started.

We were led by this great coach named Dan Fitzgerald. He taught me many things, mostly how to become a top-notch cusser. At the very least, I became well-advanced for my age. Everything was motherf*** this and motherf*** that. I would just be shagging rebounds thinking, “This is awwwwesome!”

I learned so much just from being around the team that year as a 10-year-old. The star player was this guy named John Rillie. He’s an assistant at Boise State now, but back then he was the greatest basketball player I’d ever seen in person.

I’ll never forget walking into the gym and watching him warm up by shooting from all over the floor — and I really mean the entire floor. John would be casually sinking half court shots like they were nothing, the same way Steph Curry does today. It blew my mind. It was the first time I got to see firsthand how much work you need to put in to be that good. Watching him, I would daydream about how one day, if I was lucky, maybe I could wear that Gonzaga uniform and play in the Kennel. That was the fantasy.

And as it turned out, something really crazy happened that season. Like wild. Something completely unprecedented.

Gonzaga made the NCAA tournament.

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This tiny Jesuit school that nobody had ever really heard of made it to the Big Dance for the first time in school history.

Sure, we needed John to score like 100 points in three games to win the West Coast Conference tournament and sneak in, but we made it. We made school history. And then we got crushed in the first round by Maryland. But that didn’t matter.

The. Zags. Made. The. Tournament!

It was like the ultimate underdog story. I never thought it could get any better than that.

Then last Saturday something interesting happened.

I was at my house, a few miles outside of Spokane, watching the Bulldogs play in the Elite Eight. And not only were we in the Elite Eight — this time we were expected to be there. We were expected to win there.

I was watching the game in my living room with my three kids. My girls are eight and five, while my little boy is 7 months old. It was pretty rowdy, as you might imagine. They’re all huge Gonzaga fans, even if the youngest one doesn’t realize it yet. We had a blast. When we started to pull away the girls and I began chanting.

Go Gonzaga! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!

Go Gonzaga! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!

Then as the clock wound down, a lot of emotions came over me. I started thinking about everything that’s happened since that first year we went to the tournament. I thought about all of the outmatched Gonzaga teams that had punched above their weight — the ones that surprised and confounded bracketologists everywhere —and the talented ones that hadn’t quite gotten over the hump. I thought about how far we’d come as a program, and I felt proud.

I just felt so damn proud.

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O.K., look, I get it.

I’m an ugly cryer.

And the 2006 version of me was a very ugly cryer.

But still, I’ve never really understood why I get asked (yeah, I still get asked) so often about the final moments of my Gonzaga career, when I let my emotions get the best of me at the end of our loss to UCLA in the Sweet 16. I mean, guys cry during every round of the NCAA tournament — at the end of every game, even. In a way, those kinds of stakes are kind of what makes the tournament so great to watch. The fact that every person involved with a program — the players, the coach, their families, the fans — will feel emotional one way or another depending on how the game ends.

When you lose in the tournament, especially in a close game, it absolutely devastates you. And yeah, a lot of guys cry, because in that moment, there’s simply no other way to express yourself. You just need to let it out.

But it’s kind of funny. Even though a lot of people might remember me in the tournament because of the time I shed tears, that’s not what I think of when I reflect on how emotional the tournament really is. I think about something I saw the year before, when we lost to Texas Tech by two points in the second round.

It was 2005. Mid-March. I’ll never forget walking back into the locker room, completely exhausted and disappointed. We had such a great team, and we felt like we should have at least made it to the Sweet 16. As I walked toward the bathroom, I spotted Ronny Turiaf — one of the best people I’ve ever met, and certainly one of the best I ever played with — by himself in a shower stall, crying in the corner. I can still see it so vividly. That game marked the end of his four-year career at Gonzaga, one in which he had set a bunch of records and won a ton of games.

It was kind of jarring to see Ronny crying like that, because I had always known him as one of the most positive people I’d ever met. He was this huge French dude who was infectiously happy all the time. But in that moment, he was crushed. He was crying for the same reasons I would one year later against UCLA. Sometimes there’s simply no other way to express how you feel. You just need to let it out.

But it’s only now, all these years later, that I’ve started to view those tough losses a little differently. It’s all so clear to me. Those seasons weren’t disappointments, even if they seemed to be at the time. They were building blocks. We were creating a foundation.

What Ronny didn’t know at that time was that one day he would inspire other international players to move to Spokane to play college basketball. He had no way of knowing that his decision to take a flyer on Gonzaga would open the door for future NBA-level talent like Domantas Sabonis, Killian Tillie or Przemek Karnowski. Ronny’s career at Gonzaga is still paying dividends all these years later.

For the last 20 years, we haven’t had the facilities to compare with the top programs in the country, and, man-for-man, we definitely haven’t had as much raw talent. But what we did have — which began with Coach Fitzgerald and was taken to another level by Coach Few (or Fewie, for the uninitiated) — was this ethic ingrained in the DNA of the program that was all about teamwork and self-improvement. These days we’re able to attract top recruits like Zach Collins, but for most of our history, the players who came to Gonzaga were usually guys who’d been overlooked for some reason during the recruiting process. At one time or another, they had been told, “Sorry, we like you, but you’re just not good enough to play here,” by another college.

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This included a gangly, 6′ 5″ white dude with an awkward disposition and type 1 diabetes. Gonzaga recruits talent from all over, so it’s usually pretty hard for local kids to make the roster, but playing for the Zags was all I ever dreamed of. As a teenager, I skipped school dances and didn’t worry about buying the sickest gear. I practiced shooting. I practiced and practiced and practiced. I did everything I could, just so that I could — maybe — get a shot to play for Gonzaga.

When I was a junior, Coach Few gave me a chance to live out my dream. It was the only scholarship I was offered. It was the only one I ever needed.

I played for two Hall of Fame coaches in the NBA — Larry Brown and Phil Jackson — and I can tell you that Coach Few has a lot of the same qualities that made them great. Fewie just isn’t in the Hall of Fame — not yet, anyway.

When a team stays as good for as long as we have, at some point it has nothing to do with the players. It’s about the position the players are put in. Coach Few has the ability to recognize the strengths of the guys on his team and then adjust his system to fit them best. Every season I played at Gonzaga, Coach Few took a slightly different approach to the team. He never let his ego get in the way of doing what’s best for his players. And even though he’s been very successful for a very long time, he’s never decided to leave for a bigger program. Instead, he decided to create something bigger right here in Spokane.

Coach Few gave us this confidence in each other. As individual players we were good — but as a team we were as good as anybody. I think I’ve always connected deeply with Gonzaga because I see a lot of myself in the program. When we walk into a gym, we may not look like much. During warmups, you might assume we’re overrated. But as soon as the ball is tipped, you’re in for a fight, whether you’re a team at the bottom of the WCC or the top of ACC.

When I first arrived on campus, I knew how to catch a basketball and and I knew how to shoot it, but that was basically it. The finer parts of the game were completely foreign to me — how to come off a screen, how to move without the ball, how to play good (enough) defense. But I eventually elevated my game because of Coach. He refused to let me settle for anything less than becoming the best player I could be.

Let me be clear: Our relationship wasn’t all rosy. And now that I coach kids, I have a better understanding of why. At that age, I was stubborn as hell. Ornery, even. And he gave me some tough love — because I needed it.

My sophomore year, I played horribly during a loss to San Francisco. A couple of days later, after we had reviewed film of the game, Coach Few told me he was going to bench me for the next game. Now at the time, I was leading the team in scoring but I wasn’t doing everything I needed to in order to be a good teammate. And to Coach Few, that was all that mattered. Not every coach has the balls to bench their leading scorer in the middle of conference play, but he did it knowing that he would have to take the heat if the team lost. But coach always has a vision. He understands that teaching is really an investment, one that will pay off down the line. And that experience of getting benched changed the way I played for the rest of my career. It was a wake-up call to remind me that nobody was bigger than the program. And once I truly accepted that and rededicated myself to the team culture, I took a huge step forward as a player.

When things kind of blew up for me during my junior year, the people at Gonzaga protected me. They understood that I was still a shy kid who wore Pantera shirts and cared more about Xbox than SportsCenter. They shielded me from a lot of possible distractions so that I could become the best possible basketball player I could be. I’ll always be thankful for that.

I get asked a lot about how my basketball career panned out. A lot of people call me a bust, but I’ve never viewed myself that way. I was an unathletic type 1 diabetic from eastern Washington who got to fulfill his dream of playing college basketball. Somehow, I also managed to play a few years in the NBA.

Not bad for a local kid.

Back in 2006, our team talked about making it to the Final Four. Of course we did.

But honestly, all these years later I realize that we probably weren’t mentally prepared for that stage. Yes, we won a lot of games, but we always had a habit of playing down to the level of our competition. We had a way of making every game close, even when it shouldn’t have been.

This year’s squad is different, though. Yes, Gonzaga has won more games than anybody else in the country, but it’s deeper than that. These Zags don’t play to the level of their competition. Not at all. They’re the ones who dictate the tempo and tone of the game.

Plenty of small schools have made deep runs in the tournament. But what’s much rarer than that is a small school sustaining that sort of excellence. Building on it. There’s a reason nobody refers to Gonzaga as a mid-major anymore. We certainly don’t carry ourselves like one. I never see any fear in this team, only positivity. You won’t see poor body language when there’s a bad play, and there will also be a bunch of guys ready to high-five whenever there’s a good one.

The Zags this year do all the little things that true basketball fans look for. They rotate on defense and they swing the ball on offense. They can outmatch a team physically and they can outlast them mentally. It’s like they’ve taken all the elements of successful Gonzaga teams from the past and put them all together. It’s a bunch of guys from all over the world who have come together for the sole purpose of balling out. In short, this team is pure, distilled Zaga. They absolutely deserve to be the first team in school history to make it to the Final Four.

But regardless of what happens this weekend, the players are always going to be part of something bigger than just this team. Win or lose, they’re part of the Zags family forever.

One of the things I really love about this program is that no matter where our alums are playing around the world, they all carve out some time during the summer to come back to school to train and coach up the guys on the team. I think it’s because deep down, we all feel a certain responsibility to pay it forward. There are many places that preach about their family atmosphere, but I don’t really know how else to describe what we have in Spokane.

I know about 25 former Bulldogs who returned to the area to raise their families after they retired from the game. We all remain close. I coach my oldest daughter’s AAU squad and just on that team alone we have two girls who are daughters of former Gonzaga players.

For the record, my little girl plays ball like her pops — a straight gunner. She’s a black hole out there. Wears her heart on her sleeve. Never saw a shot she didn’t like. I couldn’t be more proud. (But her defense … could use some work.)

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Regardless of what happens this weekend, they’re always going to be part of something bigger than just this team. Win or lose, they’re part of the Zags family forever.

I’m excited to go down to Phoenix to watch the game with my parents this weekend. If you’re looking for me outside the stadium, I’ll be the tall guy with the ponytail who’s walking around with his head high — and his chest out — proudly sporting that Zags logo on my shirt. It’s going to be a big celebration.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the individuals behind the scenes who have dedicated their lives to building up this program. They’ve put in as much work as anybody else, but never really gotten the credit or recognition they deserve. So I want to give a special shout-out to Coach Hertz, Mike Roth, Steve DeLong, Travis Knight, Jennifer Nyland, Stephanie Galbraith, Zeke Brown, Bob Cross, the McCarthey family and everybody else who has played a part in putting this team in a position to succeed. We wouldn’t have made it to this point without each of you.

As a competitor, you always want to be viewed as the best. I would have loved to have played on the greatest Gonzaga basketball team of all time. But honestly, I’m happy to have been supplanted. I’m glad that this team has come along and set a new standard for excellence.

Now, I know the guys aren’t satisfied. They’re so close to history and I want them to get there. I want them to win this damn thing, and give this program that last bit of credibility it’s been chasing for so long. More than anything, I want to take my kids to the Kennel next year and cheer with them when we raise our first national championship banner to the rafters. That’s all I want.

When I encounter people in public these days, many of them will usually act like they know me. Some people remember me as the guy who cried after losing to UCLA. Some people remember me as the guy who led the NCAA in scoring. Some just remember me as an NBA bust.

But, to me, at my very core, I’ve always thought of myself as one thing: a Gonzaga fan.