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Jess and Ralph Walter: In city of underdogs, EWU and Gonzaga inspire

EWU's head coach Jim Hayford gathers players and coaches for a few words of encouragement before a practice session. (Dan Pelle)
EWU's head coach Jim Hayford gathers players and coaches for a few words of encouragement before a practice session. (Dan Pelle)

O’HARE AIRPORT, CHICAGO – Well, that certainly went well.

To recap: my brother Ralph and I had grand plans to zip up and down I-5 watching a weekend of NCAA tournament basketball. First, on Thursday, Ralph would road-trip to Portland to catch our beloved alma mater Eastern Washington’s upset of b-ball bullies Georgetown.

Then, since I was committed to a book event on the East Coast, I’d fly cross country to Seattle Friday and he’d scoop me at the airport, delivering me to KeyArena in plenty of time for Gonzaga’s drubbing of one of the Dakotas (or the Carolinas, or the Kardashians, who can keep them all straight?)

The trouble started not long after our quotable coach, Jim Hayford, went on national radio and promised an EWU victory, $30 minimum wage, a solution to climate change and a free pony for Jim Rome.

Unfortunately, it turns out, huge athletic players are still an advantage in basketball (Seriously, who knew?) and Georgetown beat our valiant Eagles by 10, despite the heroics of Venky “Olivia Newton” Jois and Tyler “Oops, I Shot It Again” Harvey.

The Hoyas claimed to take inspiration from Hayford’s boast. (So, what, they were planning to go half-speed before?) Honestly, their center would’ve weighed 340 pounds either way, and what’s our coach supposed to say, “Gosh Jim, we expect to get pounded like the first beer at a frat party.”

In the meantime, pre-functioning before the game in Portland, Ralph ran into a bunch of our shirttail relatives. Our shirttail relatives being of the untucked sleeveless variety, Ralph’s texts grew increasingly desperate as the game went south and the night apparently got weird (“Bring more pants!” his last text read.)

I watched the game on TV from a bar on the Penn State campus, in the brief interim between regularly scheduled sex-scandals there, and I woke Friday morning to see the eastern seaboard blanketed by yet another snowstorm. (You might remember snow, Spokane, it’s the white precipitation that used to fall during what we used to call winter.)

There is nothing more boring than the travails of someone stranded in airports, so I will sum up: five different attempts to make it west on two airlines, running from one end of O’Hare to the other, before a helpful basketball fanatic put me on standby and “guaranteed” I’d make it to Seattle by game-time.

And now, here I am, a few hours later, with that miracle of technology—airline wi-fi—sitting in seat 37B, somewhere over South Kardashian, typing with my elbows in the lap of the person behind me. (Again, not to complain, but when did they add a third option to first class and coach – spooning?)

As I sit here sharing bodily fluids with my conjoined friends in 37A and 37B I’ve had time to think, to gain perspective, and I couldn’t be prouder of Eastern. Yeah, a win would’ve been great, but come on, it’s not like they were going to beat the Kentucky Killing-Time-Until-the-NBA-Drafters anyway.

First round, second round, sweet sixteen—what’s it matter? Ralph and I started going to Eastern games when the crowds were so small the P.A. announcer used to come up and tell us individually what was happening. (“Uh, hey Ralph, Parker Kelly just checked in. You want another hot dog?”) It’s easy to forget in this era of football playoffs and Big Sky titles that Eastern sports are great because winning is still unexpected. A great, glorious surprise.

It’s an outlook I vowed to take to Friday’s Gonzaga game, assuming I ever get off this flying human sausage, and to take with me as I watch the rest of this postseason, however deep it runs for the formidable law firm of Karnowski, Pangos and Bell.

It’s crazy how spoiled we’ve been by Gonzaga’s basketball success. Shameful even. It’s not long ago that GU players had to stand around Northtown Mall handing out free tickets to games.

Now I actually hear people grumble that, sure, Mark Few has taken the team to the NCAA tournament 16 straight years but they only win one or two games a year there. (I keep winning the lottery but not the power ball!)

We are Spokane, home of the underdog. Our big secret, the reason it’s such a great place to live is this: we don’t have to win to win.

Okay gotta go now. I’m landing in Seattle. If I hurry, I will just make tipoff.

And look, to make sure we get there Ralph brought a police escort! Oh, wait, that’s not an escort.

Jess Walter is a Spokane author. Ralph Walter remains at large.

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