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Gonzaga’s Dench returns to place he helped put on map

Gonzaga students are making their way back to campus this weekend, including the largest and most intriguing incoming class of basketball players in the program’s recent history. Meanwhile, the basketball Zags of greatest distinction were back on campus, too, and Axel Dench considered where the twain might meet – or where he might.

“Where I was as a freshman,” he said, “I don’t know if I’d be good enough to get on the team now.”

Ah, but the heights that Dench and the Bulldogs of 1999 reached as a collective have yet to be equaled even within a program that has grown into a taken-for-granted Top 25 perennial. So they remain the touchstone, not just for their achievement but for the elusive quality that birthed it, and it is wise to hold them close.

The Coaches vs. Cancer wingding that Mark and Marcy Few and their many friends throw every August is a noble and necessary thing; it is impossible to imagine replacing the $3.4 million raised to this point both for research and to support and comfort the children living with this insidious shadow. But they also manage to have a good time in the process, and this weekend a 10-year reunion of the Elite Eight Zags was the best part of that.

Half of them didn’t have to come far to, uh, re-une – having settled in Spokane. But this one also lured Quentin Hall back from the Bahamas and Dench from Australia, his incoming flight giving him a chance to reminisce about his first bird’s-eye view of Spokane.

“GU had sent a highlight tape of the school and program,” Dench said. “It showed kids hiking through mountains and pine trees and the river, and it said Spokane was in this beautiful valley. So I flew in and there were bush fires and the grass was dead and there’s smoke in the air. I asked the person next to me, ‘Are there two Spokanes?’ ”

OK, so they don’t shoot the video during fire season.

This is just another yardstick of how the program has changed. A decade ago, there was no recruiting budget to check out an overseas player – or bring him in for a campus visit. The offer was extended sight unseen, and the day after he got it Dench went out “and had a big one” – and a late one – with friends by way of celebration.

“I get home and there’s a note on my bed: ‘7 a.m. tomorrow is the SAT – and it’s the last one before October,’ ” he remembered. “I turn up and I couldn’t spell my own name. Five hours later I crawl out of there thinking, ‘Please let me pass this.’ ”

As blind dates go, it could hardly have worked out better. Dench started 87 games as a Zag, seamlessly subjugated himself to a role off the bench in ’99 and was impeccable in the 2000 NCAAs, which ended a win short of an Elite Eight repeat. He earned a business degree, set off to play eight professional seasons in Australia, Portugal and Italy, and in the middle of it all turned up as a Wookiee warrior in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.”

“Which,” noted Gonzaga assistant coach Leon Rice, “is way more impressive to my son than anything he did with a basketball.”

But, of course, to all of the ’99 Zags there is but one true highlight.

“After we beat Florida (in the regional semifinals) – and this was probably not the smartest thing to do – we go back to a friend’s room until about 3 in the morning,” Dench recalled. “Richie Frahm and I walk out and there are free newspapers – USA Today – at all the doors. We pick it up and there’s the picture of Rich in my arms and him hoisting his finger in the air.

“There’s a little picture to the side of (Duke’s) Elton Brand and another of Wally Szczerbiak, but we’re the big picture and their circulation is, what, 80 million? To say we put Gonzaga on the map is an understatement.”

It was a heady brew, their own sense of self-belief and happy naivete – taking pictures from the bus of the police escorts – mixed with the thrilled incredulity of a basketball nation that couldn’t pronounce their name. The only thing as fulfilling has been the fact that school took their moon shot and built a brand out of it.

The other day Axel Dench took his wife of 2 1/2 years, Kathryn, to show off his old dorm room in Desmet Hall. Walking away, she looked at him and said, “You wish you were back here right now, don’t you?”

“And you know what?” he said. “If I could enroll at 33 and still have a wife and child and do it again, I’d be back here in a heartbeat.”

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