STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Every road to the NCAA Tournament is a long and winding one.
Just look at Gonzaga’s path: 17 years of winning in every gym in America, climbing the peak of college basketball with a team that hails from Canada, Poland and Lithuania, transfers from Kentucky and Vanderbilt and Louisville – all so the Zags can take a 40-minute Alaska Airlines bus to their date with destiny in Seattle.
Or Eastern Washington – the beloved alma mater of my brother Ralph and me – which has spent 22 years in Division I basketball building to this, its best team ever, and a second run at the NCAA tournament. The Eagles’ terrific players come from far away as well: Germany, Ukraine, Serbia and the mysterious kingdom of Gonzaga Prep. (And there are so many Australians on the EWU team the locker room toilets flush in the opposite direction.)
Well, those journeys are nothing compared to the one my brother Ralph and I face this week.
A little background: The Walter Brothers are EWU’s biggest fans (Jess by ego, Ralph by blood alcohol level). We dutifully followed Eastern to the NCAA basketball tournament in Kansas City in 2004, traveling by way of Las Vegas where we, oops, missed four flights and, um, misplaced our Dad’s $400. We drunkenly followed the football team to Dallas in 2010 where they won the FCS football championship (FCS standing for Forgot Common Sense).
And now, our biggest challenge ever: somehow getting to the GREATEST WEEKEND IN HOOPS HISTORY – Gonzaga and Eastern Washington playing just 24 hours and 170 miles apart. (Of course, on I-5, at 4 p.m. on a Friday, that trip could take nine years.)
But here’s the problem: Months ago I agreed to be a visiting writer this week at Penn State University. (Wait, thinks Whitworth University, aren’t you our Writer in Residence this semester? Oh. Um. Ha. Yeah, this is awkward. I … uh … I thought we agreed to see other colleges? No? Oh, ha ha, look, baby, I’ll be home next week and we’ll talk about it.)
My last reading in Pennsylvania is Thursday at 4 p.m., Pacific. EWU tips off with Georgetown at 7 p.m. Assuming I read and answer questions for an hour and sign books for 20 minutes this gives me, roughly, one hour and 40 minutes to cross the entire country and –
Right. I am missing the biggest basketball game of the year.
But no way would I miss the biggest basketball WEEKEND of the year.
This is the luxury of being a college basketball fan in Spokane these days: You get to support two great teams. (A side note: This makes me sad for Seattle. First they lost the Sonics and now they’ve lost college basketball. What’s that, Ralph? They still have college teams in Seattle? Really? Are you sure? Are they on suspension or something?)
Anyway, here’s our plan:
Ralph will drive to Portland with his mullet of a friend, Roarke, as well as The Jord and Bergy, sketchy former journalists who rank in character somewhere between escaped prisoners and dirt. This ragtag team will root our Eagles to victory over the Georgetown Hoya-gonna-feel-when- ya-losers.
In the meantime (cue “Mission Impossible” theme) I will get up at 4 a.m. Friday, jet from Pennsylvania to Chicago to Seattle, where I expect a not-exactly-fresh- smelling Ralph to drive from Portland, pick me up at the airport and take me to KeyArena, where my friend and fellow aging hoop fanatic Sherman (OK, we’re decaying hoop fanatics) has gotten me a ticket to watch GU demolish the North Dakota State Frackers. (I expect it to be so bad the heads on Mount Rushmore will blush, and yes, Ralph, I’m aware that Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota.) Ralph, meantime, will be watching this game in his natural habitat: a sports bar.
Of course, there’s a chance EWU won’t win and we’ll limp home Saturday. But if all goes well, we will drive back down to Portland Saturday to watch Eastern play round two. Then back up to Seattle Sunday to hopefully score seats to see Gonzaga play again. Think of it: four games in four days, a back-and-forth I-5 extravaganza celebrating the greatest hoops area code in the country, the 509!!!
(What’s that, Ralph? Have I run this plan past my patient, lovely wife, Anne? Oh. Um. No. This will be the first she’s reading of it, actually. Yeah, this is awkward, too. Ha ha. Um, look, baby, can we talk about it when I get home?)