There’s a basketball team named after our favorite hamburger stand?
Do they even exist independent of Zigs?
The Zips are playing the Zags?
Is this March Madness or Dr. Seuss?
This is it. This is the end. The NCAA tournament has reached its 71st birthday, a ripe old age. And after all the shining moments and the iconic figures– from the Tall Firs to the Wizard of Westwood to Magic versus Bird to Jimmy V – this is finally the last word in March matchups. Or at least the last letter.
We have reached – wait for it – the zenith.
Officially, it’s Akron versus Gonzaga on Thursday at Portland’s Rose Garden in a zero-sum game – aren’t they all? – but there’s a good chance you’ll never hear the actual school names uttered, either on your television or by your seatmate.
That’s because it’s the Zips against the Zags.
This is a production worthy of Ziegfeld and staging in a ziggurat, although it is a first-round game pairing a No. 4 seed and a 13 and the early line is the Zags by 12 1/2 . It’s possible Vegas oddsmakers are showing gratitude for the way Zags fans filled so many hotel rooms – and lurched from craps table to roulette wheel like so many zombies – during the recent West Coast Conference tournament.
But the seeds and the spread and the strategies mean zilch. What we have here is unprecedented. It has to be. These are the only two teams in all of Division I basketball whose nicknames begin with “Z.”
And “Z,” as we know, is the funniest letter in the alphabet.
Our alphabet, anyway. There are some alphabets that ladle on the umlauts and others in which the symbol for boron is a letter, and in those cultures that’s probably comic gold. But we have “Z.”
And, yes, we know that the Gonzaga women managed to draw Xavier in the first round of their tournament – or “Zaivyer,” as it’s pronounced. But still, it’s spelled with an “X” and while “X” may mark the spot, it does not hit the funny bone.
“Z” is funny. “Z” foods are funny. “Z” places are funny. “Z” even managed to make acne funny.
There are, certainly, other nicknames out there in Mascot World with “Z” right stuff. In Illinois, Zion-Benton High School teams go by the Zee Bees. There are the Goodwill (Okla.) Zeeks, the Whitehall (Pa.) Zephyrs and the West Plains (Mo.) Zizzers. At Eastern New Mexico University, the women are known as the Zias.
But in big boy basketball, there are only the Zips and the Zags.
In Akron, they Zip. At Gonzaga, they Zag.
No, Zags is not officially Gonzaga’s nickname. Of all the beasts in the zodiac, the school settled on Bulldogs and a fine, fearsome choice it was – that approximately 10,000 other colleges and high schools also made. Sometime in the 1970s, however, the word “Zags” appeared on a Gonzaga basketball uniform, which means it had become part of the campus Zen long before – a happy truncation of the Gonzaga name itself. This is why it’s so maddening to the faithful to hear an announcer pronounce the name “Gon-zog-a.”
They’re not the Zogs, are they?
The Zips have a more intriguing etymology. In 1925, Akron conducted a contest to name the school’s athletic teams. Among the zany suggestions was Rubbernecks, a nod to the city’s economic lifeblood. However, a freshman named Margaret Hamlin proposed Zippers – a nickname that hinted at the bold bursts of speed and quickness necessary for athletic greatness.
Except it was co-opted from a pair of galoshes.
B.F. Goodrich had just popularized the rubber overshoe with the zip-up front and named it the Zipper, and sold 500,000 in the first year alone. So before the swoosh, there was the zipper.
Twenty-five years later, athletic director Red Cochrane shortened the name to “Zips” – as legend has it, because zippers had mostly replaced buttons on the flies of young men’s trousers, and the school wanted to avoid such an unfortunate, uh, connection. There is another legend – OK, possibly a lie – that Monmouth High School in Illinois became known as the Zippers because of the zipper flies on the basketball team’s uniform shorts, and that the JVs were called Snappers and the freshmen Buttons.
Now that’s a school with a sense of humor.
But back to the Zips and Zags. This game is rife with possibility, and let’s hope someone seizes the moment.
Men should show up in zoot suits. Concession stands should serve zucchini and zwieback and zabaglione. Pep bands should play zydeco – or Zappa – on zithers. Zaftig cheerleaders should exude zest. Zealots should razz the zebras – which they will anyway.
Someone should leave a press pass for John Peter Zenger.
The teams should play zone. Nothing but zone.
The CBS guys will probably play it straight, but we could guarantee that if Craig Ehlo was calling this game that sometime during the telecast the Zaps would be playing the Zigs.
Man, if only Nick Zaharias still suited up for the Zags.
And when you think about it, for this game only the teams should go with the prevailing zeitgeist and become the Zipz and the Zagz.
Now – if only they were playing the game in Zzyzx.
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