PITTSBURGH – Brandon Chastain has been a powerful, pervasive influence in this Gonzaga basketball season.
Hard to imagine that his impact has been any greater than it was Thursday – and under the worst circumstances.
The 11-year-old Spokane boy, who built a bond with the Bulldogs through his love for the team through a long battle with brain cancer, died near daybreak Thursday as the Bulldogs rested in preparation for their NCAA tournament opener against West Virginia.
Word began to reach the players in the hours just before tipoff, through texts and messages from friends.
“Before we hit the court,” said senior Marquise Carter, “Rob (Sacre) mentioned it to everybody, and we just came together and said we were going to play this game for Brandon. He was a big part of our team and meant a lot to us.”
Brandon had been stricken with cancer at age 3 and overcame it twice, only to see it return a third time last fall. It was then that friends reached out to the Gonzaga program on behalf of the young fan, and an attachment quickly formed – especially with the biggest of the Zags, the 7-foot Sacre.
“He liked ‘Star Wars’ and I liked it as well and that’s how we connected,” explained Sacre, his voice cracking. “I just goofed around with him. I’m a big kid – and I liked being a kid with him.”
Brandon sat courtside for the Ronald McDonald House Charities Classic in December, where he exchanged a fist bump with forward Elias Harris in the pregame. But despite a courageous fight, his condition worsened dramatically. When Gonzaga coach Mark Few and wife Marcy presented a $681,000 check from their Coaches vs. Cancer event at the Loyola Marymount game, Brandon’s mother Jo Lynn accepted on behalf of the American Cancer Society – and hugged every player and coach.
“He just exemplified toughness and fight and what good is,” junior Mike Hart said. “For me, I learned how precious – and how short – life can be. People were thinking he was going to go so much earlier, but he just fought and fought.”
As they headed to the court, his memory was a reminder.
“I think having no regrets is a huge deal – and knowing his bravery, we wanted to make sure we had no regrets,” Sacre said.
Bench power: Gonzaga executed so well in the first half that its biggest concern was foul trouble. Forwards Guy Landry Edi, Harris and Hart each had two fouls and forwards Sam Dower and Ryan Spangler each had three. The depth of the bench made it a nonfactor.
Spangler played 21 minutes and finished with four points and eight rebounds. Hart grabbed four rebounds, had two assists and beat the shot-clock buzzer with a 3-pointer.
“It was one of those games where we knew (Spangler) could play,” coach Mark Few said. “They had two bigs as opposed to the teams we’ve been playing running around with four guards. This was kind of a game made for him and he did a great job utilizing his minutes.”
Stockton hit a 3-pointer and had one assist and one steal.
“We just wanted to come in with a lot of energy, fly around on defense and make shots when we have them,” Stockton said. “Spangs, that’s my guy. If I was in a dark alley he’s the guy I would want with me.”
Tough enough: Sacre acknowledged afterward that he’s grown tired of criticism he’s heard about the WCC being soft. The Big East Conference has a reputation for tough, hard-nosed play, but Gonzaga was clearly the more physical team.
“This tournament is all about physicality and the most physical team will go further,” Sacre said. “It kind of ticked me off, to be honest. People are always talking about the WCC being weak and always putting down the WCC. I’m not hating on BYU because they have a great program, but you just saw when a program does come into the WCC it isn’t easy to conquer and defeat.”
Gonzaga won the rebounds 23-17 in the first half when it built a 40-22 lead.
“They’re not a great shooting team,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They know it and we know it. It was just a matter of taking away their second shots, which are their highest percentage shots. Our guys kind of took away their will a bit.”
Hairy situation: The Zags have vowed not to shave until the conclusion of the season and the players have a wide range of facial stubble to show for it. The reactions were mixed.
“It’s been two weeks,” Spangler said. “I don’t like it. I don’t grow much hair. I’m still growing (physically), I don’t want hair.”
“I’m actually happy to say I’m not in last place this year,” Stockton said. “Kelly (Olynyk) is struggling. I have ‘Spangs’ beat, too, and I definitely have Kyle (Dranginis), too.”