March 25, 2009 in Sports

1999 Zags pulling for 2009 squad

By The Spokesman-Review
 
File photo

Members of the Gonzaga basketball team celebrate their 73-72 Sweet 16 win over Florida in the 1999 NCAA tournament.
(Full-size photo)

The model – perhaps the broken mold – for the athletically invidious is the 1972 Miami Dolphins, what with their annual toast to one another when the last unbeaten NFL team falls. Presumably even if it’s the Miami Dolphins.

That the 1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs are not a reduced-to-scale version of such silliness is somehow reassuring, not that it would be expected.

Who could possibly have more invested in Zagmania than them?

“I want to see them go to the Final Four,” Richie Frahm said Tuesday. “Gonzaga’s ready for it.”

Ready? Some of the peeps are overripe.

Slightly misplaced in the well-deserved dither over the Zags’ return to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament this week is the fact that it’s Ten Years After – 10 years since the Elite Eight run that launched it all, since Frahm lit up Minnesota, since Mark Spink comically levered his 175 pounds against Stanford’s hulkish Mark Madsen, since Casey Calvary’s signature tip-in, since Quentin Hall bedeviled UConn’s Khalid El-Amin, since Gonzaga came up a few minutes short of the next giant step.

Milestone anniversaries are a favored sports pastime, but they always seem to be better in the reflected glow of current achievement.

No one seemed to grasp that better than Matt Santangelo as he sat in the stands at the Rose Garden in Portland last week and watched this year’s Bulldogs weather the best shots of Akron and Western Kentucky – his thoughts squarely on ’09 and not his own memories of ’99.

“This particular team is now absolutely validated,” Santangelo said. “No matter what the ups and downs were over the last two years, that all goes away. No one will ever be able to take this away from them.

“Now, if these guys go further, fantastic – and by no means are they satisfied. But when they look back in 10 years – when (someone) is calling to interview Josh Heytvelt and Jeremy Pargo then – it will be something special to them.”

The amusing inevitability about Gonzaga success both past and present is the overnight sensation factor. When Spokane fell in love with the Zags during those first three Sweet 16 appearances, way too many of the converts couldn’t have named a player off the first NCAA tournament team of 1995. Likewise, when the Bulldogs moved into their new building a few years back, a blind poll of opening-game patrons might not have registered 50 percent recognition of the name Axel Dench.

It happens. Time – and bandwagons – roll on. Nobody makes you pass a test.

The details, entertaining as they are, aren’t as important as the feelings that remain. Frahm, for example, does not linger on the near-miss against UConn, noting that, “It wasn’t a miracle we lost.”

“I don’t think our lives would have been any different,” he said. “The way the community embraced us, the excitement was just like we won the championship. I don’t think Spokane was ready for us to win it anyway. They might have burned the city down.

“Now, they’ve got to take it a step further for that same excitement.”

This is not lost on any of the ’99 Zags, especially since so many of them – Santangelo, Frahm, Calvary, Ryan Floyd, Mike Nilson – make their homes here and remain close to the program. Perhaps their one regret for current and future Bulldogs is that they will never enjoy quite the same wonder.

“The expectations this group and the program operate under now couldn’t be further from what we experienced,” Santangelo said.

And it’s why nobody pulls any harder for this team to take it an extra weekend.

“The biggest compliment, the most flattering thing to us is that they continue to play at such a high level,” Santangelo said. “A lot of schools like Gonzaga have gone deep into the tournament – one year. Davidson being the example right now. They couldn’t have been hotter last year or have a player hotter than Stephen Curry and yet this year they didn’t make it.

“We take pride in the fact that they’ve gone back every year – and it would be a bigger compliment if they took it beyond what we did.”

Actually, it might get some people of their backs.

These days, Frahm is the last dog from the ’99 team playing professional basketball, having been signed last month by the Reno Bighorns of the NBA’s D-League.

Among his teammates is Lamar Butler, who played for George Mason in 2006 when it made the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. Russell Robinson played on Kansas’ 2008 national champs, and David Noel won a ring in 2005 with North Carolina – which only happens to be Gonzaga’s opponent Friday in Memphis.

“He keeps telling me it’s going to be a bloodbath,” Frahm said. “When you’re with guys who’ve won national championships and been to the Final Four, they don’t want to hear about Gonzaga’s Elite 8 run in ’99.”

At the moment, there’s only one team that can do something about that.


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