Our team group text is pretty dumb.
I mean, it’s hilarious … in the way that an inside joke is hilarious. Which is to say: You had to have been there. We talk about basketball a little bit, but what makes our group text great is that it’s the one place where we don’t talk about hoops. So it’s basically a lot of dumb jokes, a few pretty solid memes (if I do say so myself), and some more dumb jokes.
And if you looked at any one text, or any one joke, you’d probably come to the conclusion that we all get along pretty well. Which is true. But if you scrolled back through the months and months of our group chat, which I do every now and then, you’d see another pattern emerge: Every comment is a reminder of where we were, or how we felt, at a certain point in the season.
So if you scrolled back far enough, our dumb group chat would actually tell you the story of our season.
For our first 29 games this year, from November through most of February, our group chat was full of jokes, memes and total nonsense. We were playing well — we were undefeated — and having fun on and off the court.
But when I scrolled back to February 25 — the date of our last conference game of the year — something felt different. There was total radio silence. No one had much to say for a few days after that game.
Because that night was our first loss of the year — the loss that ended our hopes of an undefeated regular season.
I came to Gonzaga in the spring of 2015 after transferring from Washington. I had to redshirt last year in accordance with NCAA rules, so this was my first season with the Bulldogs. Before I came here, I set two goals for myself: to help us make the Final Four, something Gonzaga has never done; and to be more social as a student.
I don’t know if culture shock is the right way to say it, but transferring to Gonzaga was a big change for me. I didn’t really know any other students outside of my teammates. I was coming from UW, a school with 30,000 undergrads, to a school with 5,000. At UW, my life was mostly separate from the rest of the student body. Things were very different at Gonzaga.
My first day at Gonzaga, my first class — a psychology class called PSYC 390 Psychopathology — had 25 students. I had been used to lecture halls with 400 students.
Right before the class started, I overheard three students in the row in front of me talking about intramural basketball. I leaned my head in to hear more of their conversation.
Maybe I was listening in a bit too noticeably — because they all turned around and looked at me.
“You play ball?” one of them asked.
I told them I was a transfer student, and that yeah, I played.
Class was just about to start. I could see them quickly sizing me up as a potential intramural recruit.
“Are intramurals big here?” I asked, trying to extend the conversation a little bit.
“Yeah, they’re a pretty big deal here,” another one said. “Wanna run with our team?”
Right then the professor walked in and the classroom got quiet.
“Thank you, but nah,” I whispered. “I don’t think I’m gonna play this year.”
From that day on, I would chat with these guys about class notes and homework and things like that, but intramurals never came up again. I was happy to be making some friends.
Then, a few weeks later, Kraziness in the Kennel happened.
Every year in October, right before our season, Gonzaga has an open scrimmage that we call Kraziness in the Kennel. I can’t really do it justice, but it’s one of the wildest things ever. Almost every single student pack into the Kennel (that’s our gym) and basically dances and jumps around in their seats for two hours. Before the scrimmage, each player gets introduced. There’s music and the lights go down. There’s a smoke machine. The works.
When my name was announced — remember, I basically didn’t know anybody on campus at this point — the crowd went crazy. Like they knew me. But I still hadn’t played a minute in a Gonzaga uniform. Of course, they went crazy for every player, but it was the best standing ovation I’d ever received. Still is.
I’ll never forget the looks on my buddies’ faces when I walked into psychology class a few days later. They’d been at Kraziness in the Kennel.
“Dude! I can’t believe we invited you to play intramurals,” one of them said. “Coach Few would’ve killed us.”
Everyone knows Mark Few by reputation: 18 years as coach at Gonzaga, 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances, 15 conference titles. But beyond those stats, Coach Few is also known as the guy who put a Jesuit college in eastern Washington with 5,000 students on the national basketball map. He’s one of the reasons I came here.
I get to see a side of him most people don’t. So I’m going to try — as a psychology major — to give you my impression of him.
Coach Few has a lot of different sides to his personality. He’s a family man. He’s ultracompetitive. He delivers fiery speeches and he’s not afraid to be a disciplinarian. But at the same time, he also has sharp sense of humor — bordering on sarcastic — that caught me off guard at first.
In December we were in L.A. to play Arizona at Staples Center — a big game. Coach Few was getting really fired up in the locker room beforehand. He seemed to be freestyling his pregame speech. He was letting a bunch of expletives fly.
“We’re not here as a %&#* courtesy!”
He went on and on like that. He was much more animated than usual.
When he finished, we all sat there in silence. Even though we were ranked eighth, and the Wildcats were 16th, we hadn’t beaten them since 2011.
And then Coach said, “Oh man, and I just came from church right before this,” Coach said. “You better make that speech worth it.”
He was shaking his head, but we thought it was hilarious. We all busted up.
We won 69–62 that day. I don’t know if the mood he set before the game had anything to do with it. But I don’t think it hurt.
In that moment, I knew that coming to Gonzaga was the best decision I could’ve made. It felt like a family.
In fact, Coach Few makes the entire program feel that way. His four kids — ranging in age from eight to 17 — will often show up at practice. And it’s really cool because the whole team has gotten to know them. For me, it’s only been for this year, but for a guy like Przemek Karnowski — the bearded, 7′ 1″ fifth-year senior we call Big Shem — he’s known Coach’s kids for a good chunk of their lives. You can see that they’re close.
But by far the most prominent visitor to our practices is a German shepherd named Stella.
She’s Coach Few’s dog.
And let me tell you: Stella is sweetest dog ever and, unsurprisingly, she’s also extremely obedient. But as a full grown German shepherd, she looks a lot like a K-9. At our practices, Stella sits on the sidelines in silence watching us … and I almost wonder if she’s evaluating our play. If Coach yells — and he isn’t afraid to yell — you’ll see Stella’s ears perk up at the sound of her owner’s voice … and it’s this moment that always makes me feel a little nervous. Deep down, I know Stella is a friendly dog … but in that moment, just for a second, I’m thinking, What if Coach said the word and unleashed his police dog on us?
So that’s what our practices look like: Coach’s four kids in the stands and Stella — the possibly-ferocious-but-probably-friendly German shepherd — watching us from the sidelines.
At a recent practice, I missed a box-out and Coach stopped the scrimmage to call me out. When he was done yelling, he walked over to the sidelines — very casually — and stopped in front of Stella.
He motioned with his hand for Stella to sit. She sat. Then he motioned again, and she lay down on her belly.
Then he blew the whistle and we started the scrimmage again.
The team we have this year — the culture that Coach has created here at Gonzaga — it’s special. I think he wants us to know: We’re all a part of the family.
This year, we came up with a new inbounds play. When Coach was thinking of what to call it, someone shouted out the obvious answer.
So now we have a play called “Stella.”
As a transfer student, I’ve been able to see Gonzaga basketball from the outside as well as the inside. So I’d heard about its reputation.
The way a lot of people talk about us usually goes something like this:
Gonzaga’s good, BUT….
Right? I know you’ve heard this kind of thing.
Gonzaga’s good, BUT they play in an easy conference….
Gonzaga’s good, BUT they don’t play a tough enough schedule….
Gonzaga’s good, BUT they can’t make the Final Four….
Those first two comments, we can live with. We know what’s real.
But the last one … that stings. Because, technically, it’s true. It’s true that Gonzaga’s never made a Final Four.
We don’t have a reply to that one yet.
Like I was saying: After our loss to BYU on February 25, our group chat went radio silent.
Then a day or two later, I shared a video.
The clip starts with 40 seconds left in the game. Gonzaga’s up by three and has the ball. Then the missed jumper. Then the foul that sends UCLA to the free throw line. Now there’s 20 seconds left and it’s a one point game. Then the steal and the layup. The Bruins are up by one. Nine seconds left. And then another Zags turnover. You probably know the rest: Adam Morrison tugging at his jersey. The tears. UCLA celebrating.
By almost any account, Gonzaga making it that far was a big, big deal — a massive overachievement for a mid-major program. But when you’re watching the video, all you see is the pure heartbreak. Gonzaga expected to win. Adam Morrison expected to win. All you can think about is how defeated he and his teammates look.
I sent the group another text: “Not this year, fellas.”
A couple of weeks ago, a visitor showed up to one of our practices. He was a tall guy wearing a hoodie and jeans.
At the far end of the gym, Coach Few was talking to him. I thought about walking over to get a closer look. When I looked up again, the guy was gone.
But I’m pretty sure I know who it was.
And so this is what I would’ve said, if I had walked over to Adam Morrison that day. I would’ve said, “Thank you.” I’m not sure enough people tell him that. I wanted to tell him, and every player who’s ever worn a Zags uniform: “We owe you.”
For all the work they put in over the years, in a little gym in eastern Washington.
For the big wins, and for the heartbreaking losses, too. For turning a little school into a big threat.
All the former Zags who paved the way — we owe them.
Now it’s time to finish what they started.