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John Blanchette: Gonzaga closes down The Kennel with one last hurrah

The last night of The Kennel, Feb. 28, 2004, at Gonzaga University saw fans bringing signs like this one honoring Father Tony Lehman who often used the phrase "To Be Continued".   Christopher Anderson/The Spokesman-Review (Christopher Anderson)
The last night of The Kennel, Feb. 28, 2004, at Gonzaga University saw fans bringing signs like this one honoring Father Tony Lehman who often used the phrase "To Be Continued". Christopher Anderson/The Spokesman-Review (Christopher Anderson)

Now it can go back to being just a gym.

Really, that’s all this curio known as The Kennel was on the day it opened, and most days thereafter.

A gym. A place on the Gonzaga University campus suitable for actual games - the schedule had long before been moved downtown out of necessity - but just as important, a place suitable for practice, even that basic function having outgrown the little sweatbox in the Ad Building.

“They would open the door so you could get some air there,” remembered Frank Burgess, who would score his official points - all 2,196 of them - either in the Spokane Coliseum or out of town, “but then somebody would shoot an air ball and now it’s out on Boone Avenue.

“So you’d chase after it and hope you didn’t get run down.”

It isn’t exactly clear when its replacement - known as Kennedy Pavilion at its 1965 christening - evolved into a snake pit, security blanket and cuddly symbol of all things good and Zag.

But surely that all came to a head Saturday night when they closed the joint down.

It was a hell of a party. Seventy-some former players showed up and so did ESPN2, and the Bulldogs themselves captured the spirit of the thing in an opening montage that spoke to the program’s sense of propriety - and sense of drama.

Five seniors - anointed by coach Mark Few as the school’s best basketball class ever - started. Within five minutes - just eight trips down the floor - all had scored.

“It was like clockwork,” said one of them, forward Cory Violette. “Every guy shared the ball. That’s some of the best basketball I’ve seen in here.”

It wouldn’t stay that good - it simply couldn’t - but the Bulldogs held it together to beat Santa Clara 80-64, keeping a couple circles unbroken. The Broncos were the first West Coast Conference opponent to set foot inside the Kennedy/Kennel back 1980 - losing 79-76, after which a Gonzaga legend-in-his-own-mind forward named James Sheppard said, “It’s like having a sixth player when we play in here.”

Cricket, you don’t know of the half of it.

The other circle? Well, the Zags completed a 14-0 blitz through the WCC - their first, and the 10th unbeaten run in league history, dating back to Bill Russell’s USF teams of 1955 and ‘56, which also took care of some additional business that remains unfinished for GU.

“I guess the consolation (in this being the end for The Kennel),” said Violette, “is that we’re not done. We’ve got a long ways to go.”

Well, there are other consolations.

They’re called memories. Biggests and bests, firsts and lasts. This would be a night for the lasts in this building.

The last Blake Stepp hesitation-and-acceleration to the hoop. The last Ronny Turiaf shirt pull and cartoonish grimace. The last alley-oop, the last vestige of Flex, the last “Up by 20!” and “That guy sucks!” from, bless ‘em, the Kennel Club.

The last points. Those would belong to Turiaf on a joyous two-handed slam, as the trailer accepting a pass back from freshman Adam Morrison (the last assist, and the last appreciation of the moment) on a two-man breakaway with 21.2 ticks on the clock. Even better was that Santa Clara’s Doron Perkins went blasting in for a moment-spoiling tomahawk jam himself - after the buzzer - only to clank it off the rim, the Kennel gods not being amused.

Fitting, like a lot of things Saturday night.

It’s just that the program and the patronage no longer fit into the building.

So there will be the new one “just 10 steps away,” as Few said, that will answer officially to the name McCarthey Athletic Center in honor of a family of most generous donors - but will do its best to be Son of The Kennel.

Which brings us to another full circle.

On the floor Saturday night for the Broncos was an earnest backup guard named Scott Dougherty, who managed to fling in a couple of 3-pointers and score eight points - or six more than his father, John, scored for the Bulldogs on Opening Night 1965.

“I tried to take shots,” said Scott, needling his father, “from where I thought he would have shot them when he played here.”

Of course, the moment demanded torn loyalties for Dougherty pere, a Portland dentist, who compromised by wearing a shirt that simply said, “Jesuit” on it.

“But I’m a Gonzaga guy,” he confessed.

Like all the Gonzaga guys, he is humbled and proud and amazed at this phenomenal basketball evolution at his school. He played on championship teams, yes, but there was no mania to compare to this.

“They became kind of like America’s Team,” Dougherty noted. “It’s not just that all of us Gonzaga grads are so proud of them, but almost that everybody is. And yet the spirit is still wonderful and all of us explayers feel like we’re part of the program, and you can thank the school for that.”

One of his former teammates, Larry Brown, is a high school principal in Sacramento. On Saturday, he returned and walked out underneath one of this old gym’s rims and looked up “and couldn’t believe I could ever jump up and touch it.”

So, yeah, this current bunch is making him feel a little old.

“But there’s more to it than that,” he said. “The base of all this began when the institution was created.

“I came here from some pretty rough circumstances, and I look back and can’t believe what was made available to me and how well I was treated. I guess one of the main things I learned here is that everybody and everything deserves respect.”

Maybe in that context, it isn’t just a gym after all.


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