The buzz of another Gonzaga University men’s basketball season has boiled down into the predictable topics: What did or should have happened in the final seconds against UCLA; whether Adam Morrison will turn pro; what job offer out there might entice Mark Few?
But what’s often lost amid the babble of pundits is how Gonzaga basketball touches so many people here on a personal level, including those who have little or no association with the school – and what a truly remarkable thing that is.
This is true of my family. My wife, Rosey, and I are not alumni. It’s unlikely our son, Emory, will go to GU. Nevertheless, each season is an absolute delight for our household, and I suspect we’re not alone.
For instance, Rosey and two other women teach First Communion classes at St. Aloysius, and at the end of the season, they all go to dinner to plan for next year’s program. This year’s dinner, unfortunately, coincided with the Indiana game.
Still, they went to Piccolo’s, the little Italian market and restaurant that’s a family business. There weren’t many customers that evening and most of the family was huddled around a small TV watching the game. The poor waiter was utterly delighted when my wife asked if they could at least listen to the radio broadcast. How important was the restaurant-wide play-by-play? They turned off a Frank Sinatra tape to listen to the Zags.
Emory’s picking up on the phenomenon where people congregate in bars and live and die with the action on the television. For the UCLA game, he and his buddies gave it a 16-year-old’s touch: One of them went early and secured a table at David’s Pizza. Once they were all there, they took turns ordering a salad … a pitcher of soda … a pizza … some water … a refill of soda … anything to keep their spot and holler their lungs out.
The UCLA game was on Thursday, a night I visit my dad at the Spokane Veterans Home. Though he typically goes to bed at 8, he stayed up for the whole game. When I left that evening and walked down the halls there were an awful lot of rooms with TVs on, and I could hear the broadcast of the game all of the way out to the parking lot.
I have the pleasure of working closely each day with Coeur d’Alene tribal elder Felix Aripa, at 82 perhaps the last speaker of the Coeur d’Alene language. Felix graduated from the mission boarding school in DeSmet in 1938, St. Joseph’s Academy in Tekoa and then entered Gonzaga, just like his good friend and classmate from DeSmet, Carl Maxey.
However, he cut short his time at Gonzaga to join the Navy. He was on the destroyer USS Thompson at Normandy Beach on D-Day. One of his fondest Gonzaga memories was the job Brother Buskens, who had been a scholastic at the mission, got him: driving the bus for the basketball team on road trips.
Now he drives his Subaru wagon with “Go Zags” posters in the back window and routinely comes into my office mornings after TV games and says, “I’m going to have to ask them at the clinic to give me some heart medication!”
Felix never got back to Gonzaga to finish his degree, but it will be one of the proudest days of his life in May when his granddaughter picks up her diploma.
The point? Even if all those basketball players eventually become heart surgeons, it’s unlikely they’ll again have the opportunity, individually or collectively, to make so many people so happy.
We lived in Chicago for the first two years the Bulls won the NBA championship. It’s fun when your team wins. Strangers who normally might not talk to each other suddenly have something to say to each other and are atypically pleasant. Yet even with a team featuring Michael Jordan, some people just didn’t follow the NBA.
But this is Spokane and this Gonzaga basketball phenomenon is region-wide. Do these young men have any idea of the positive vibe they put into this community? What a rare and astonishing thing, to be so young and to be able to do this. I hope they can reflect on that and enjoy it, because it’s not the kind of thing one can count on doing.
I don’t know who the people are who approach Mark Few at Priest Lake in the summer and ask, “What happened?” I hope they’re a small, but noisy, minority.
I’ll bet there are thousands more like the parishioners who see J.P. Batista at Mass every Sunday at St. Al’s and are glad to see him but respect his privacy and leave him alone.
Somewhere in there are many who wish they could say, “Thank you very much.”