Here I am, a grown woman with grown children, a woman who never played softball, who couldn’t get picked for a third-grade dodgeball game (then or now) and who has never even touched a golf club, and for the first time in my life I have a sports hero. Actually, I have a team full of heroes.
My idol is not a sports super-star. She isn’t on a cereal box and she’s never been chased by paparazzi. She doesn’t throw tantrums on the court.
I’m old enough to be her mother but I look up to a 20-something college senior. My sports hero is Courtney Vandersloot and the rest of the Gonzaga women’s basketball team.
Living in Spokane, and I’ve been here more than a decade now, you quickly learn that Gonzaga Men’s basketball is a seen-and-be-seen sport. Season tickets to the men’s games come with bragging rights. They draw a distinct and deliberate line between the haves and have-nots. Exhibition games and silent auction donations bring in big bucks for charity.
Gonzaga Women’s basketball is another story. Season tickets average around $50 and anyone can purchase them. It doesn’t matter who you know or where you work. And - most importantly - those who can’t pony up that much, or who can’t commit to a season, are not shut out.
For the cost of a $5 general admission ticket,- children under 12 get in for $3 - anyone can take a seat at the “kennel” the McCarthy Athletic Center and watch much more than a basketball game. You want to throw big bucks around? Buy the $8 reserved seat. It doesn’t matter what you spend, it’s still the best buy in Spokane because for the price of a ticket you see a truly democratic sporting event. You see entire families - representing the socioeconomic strata of the region - gathered to watch a game. You see a lot of little girls dancing, waving and holding up signs. People get there early and stick around late to catch a glimpse of the players.
At the end of the last regular game of the 2010-2011 season, the seniors stepped out to say goodbye to a sold-out crowd. Coach Graves, his voice choked with emotion praised the team. When he came to Courtney Vandersloot he listed her accomplishments and then said, “You may never see another one like her.”
He’s right. She’s one of a kind.
As the crowd thinned and the players walked back to the locker rooms, I listened as the two men seated just in front of me talked.
“You ever go to the men’s games?” one asked the other as they gathered coats and empty popcorn bags.
“Yeah, sometimes,” he replied. And then he went on. “But, to tell you the truth, I think I’d rather watch the girls play,” he said. “I think there’s more sportsmanship here.”
“Yeah, You may be right,” the other man said. “They play their hearts out.”
They didn’t say anything else but I noticed that each man turned to look at their young daughters who were still dancing, still waving their arms.
Courtney Vandersloot was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year. She and teammates Katelan Redmon, Kayla Standish and Vandersloot were named to the All-Conference team. Coach Kelly Graves was named West Coast Conference Coach of the Year.
The man was right. They do play their hearts out each and every game. And they do it with skill and style and grace. That, in my playbook, is the clear definition of a true sports star
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org