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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Zags march forward

Gonzaga guard Erroll Knight and Winthrop guard Torrell Martin chase a second-half loose ball at an opening round game in the NCAA Tournament in Tuscon, Ariz. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Erroll Knight and Winthrop guard Torrell Martin chase a second-half loose ball at an opening round game in the NCAA Tournament in Tuscon, Ariz. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Rebecca Nappi and Jamie Tobias Neely The Spokesman-Review

Now that the game has ended, we’re ready to make a confession.

But first an observation.

We’re surrounded by men here. The moment they hear Becky and I are covering the Zag phenomenon, they engage in what a sociologist might call male ritual contact bonding. They remind us of the time when Bobby Knight coached Mike Krzyzewski, now known as Duke’s Coach K. They name the ESPN personalities – Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilias – we might see in the press room. They seriously assess Gonzaga’s future in the days to come: Wake Forest, for example, looms ahead down the bracket as a grove of very tall trees.

They see themselves, and now us, as serious students of the game.

So here’s the confession. We’re studying all right. But the game we’re learning lies outside their playbook.

Now it can be told. We’re here because Becky dreamed up this idea, and invited me along for the ride. She’s a novice fan, and I’m the basketball expert on our team, she told our editors.

It’s a lovely piece of fiction, and it has absolute elements of truth. I’ve been to more Gonzaga basketball games than I can count. I know Colin Floyd from Ryan Floyd and both of them from Jay Sherrill. I’ve watched the weather move across Ronny Turiaf’s face, every mood from tempest to tropical sunset, and I’ve worried about Adam Morrison’s blood sugar, his explosive ire and his jump shot, not necessarily in that order.

But on a few technical details of the game, in honor of this week, I decided to brush up.

I ordered a copy of Digger Phelps’ book, “Basketball for Dummies.” I learned terms like “pick and roll.” I quizzed more astute fans on the ref’s signals. The rolling hands for traveling and the T-sign, not for timeouts, but for technical fouls, are easy. I’d forgotten the cupped hand behind the head for charging, the hands-on-hips for blocking.

I share this knowledge with Becky. She laughs, finding it amusing. And as inconsequential as I do.

She watches GU’s team file past, and later asks me, in a pseudo-whisper, “Now who’s the one with the red hair?”

“David Pendergraft,” I answer her. He’s so cool, I explain, not only because of the great defense he plays as a freshman, but because of the whole visual aesthetic he brings to the court. The red hair adds a certain energy, a vital burst of color this team needs, an aspect of the game those serious students may overlook.

Which brings me to other nuances I’ve noticed. There’s the whole haircut debate. What’s with the crew cuts this year? And where was Derek Raivio’s hair last night? And can those uniforms get any baggier or looser? One day poor Turiaf will tuck in a long wave of fabric at the free-throw line, just to lose his shorts down the stretch, I fear.

Several years ago I refined this approach with several nonbasketball-minded friends as we sat on the sidelines watching our daughters play. We didn’t always understand one mother’s cheer: “Deny the lane!”

So we’d talk French braids, and color-coordinated hair ribbons, and in lulls we’d yell, “Nice socks.”

I called Emma Wasson, the 80-year-old team icon who has been watching the Zags from her prized perch near the bench for 33 years.

She’s at home in Spokane this week, disappointed her plans didn’t work out to travel to Tucson. But she knows this game. She always keeps score and yells at the refs.

She grew up in basketball-rabid Illinois and even dated a player in Peoria. But it turns out Emma doesn’t remember that Bobby Knight once coached Coach K himself. She’s hazy on the ref’s signals. A “pick and roll?” I ask. She doesn’t remember that one.

But here’s what she does know, along with all of Mark Few’s favorite plays.

Those basketball players on the court are nearly as dear to her as the 10 children she raised after she was widowed at age 47.

“You just kind of fall in love with all the players,” she says.

Every night before the game starts, Ronny Turiaf stops by Emma’s front row seat at The Kennel to give her a hug. The other night she asked him, “What’s going to happen next year before the game starts? I won’t get a hug from you.”

Ronny reassured her. Don’t worry. “I’ll be back, Emma,” he said.

Serious basketball fans have an eye, says Digger Phelps, that can spot an alley-oop play before the pass is thrown.

I have an eye for a different game, for the one played internally that spills out on the faces of the players. It appeared tonight in Caribbean grins and grimaces, in Northwest stares and stoicism.

This game is about focusing and practicing and bringing forth your best when you need it most. It’s about winning graciously, generously even, on the good nights, and not letting the bad destroy you.

Thursday was neither. It was simply one of those ordinary nights, the kind when the day goes badly, but somehow you keep moving. The game didn’t go well in the first half. Shots weren’t falling. But in the second half as we watched the player’s faces, we saw stubbornness.

And 40 seconds before the buzzer sounded, Becky and I looked up. We saw David Pendergraft bound into the game, a blaze of red hair. What does this mean? Becky asked. It’s a sign, I said. And sure enough, on St. Patrick’s Day, before a crowd of Zags fans, a smattering of them in neither navy blue nor red, but Kelly green, one freshman leprechaun arrived with good luck.

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