Jeremy Pargo’s mom visited Spokane for his first day of school at Gonzaga four years ago. She’s coming back this week to see her first basketball game – and her son’s last – at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“I can tell you I won’t cry,” said Pargo, looking forward to Tuesday’s regular-season finale against South Carolina Upstate. “The biggest emotional part for me is my mother seeing her first game in Spokane. My sister, two nieces and grandmother are coming with her. I’ll be a lot more excited about them getting in here than I am about walking out there with flowers in my hand.”
Tuesday will mark the last home appearance for five Gonzaga seniors. Head coach Mark Few typically starts his seniors on Senior Night. That means Pargo is expected to be joined by Micah Downs and Josh Heytvelt, as well as first-time starters Andrew Sorenson and Ira Brown.
The five followed unique paths to get to Gonzaga and their journeys didn’t end after they arrived. All five have graduated or are on pace to graduate, Few said. He uses phrases such as “great leader, great teammate, maturity and incredible people” when describing the seniors.
Here’s a brief look at their respective careers.
Pargo has been a fixture in the starting lineup for three seasons. He made himself eligible for the NBA draft last summer before opting to return for his senior season. Pargo is third on the school’s all-time assists list, but he dishes much of the credit to his mom. The family lived in close quarters in a Chicago apartment complex.
“To be honest, we lived in a basement for a long time and Grandma was upstairs,” said Pargo, whose older brother, Jannero, played in the NBA and is currently playing overseas. “She’s a very strong woman. One of the things my mom believes in is doing things the right way. She’s the kind that if she saw someone drop a million dollars, she’d pick it up and give it back to them. When I was a kid, I never understood that. When you’re a kid, you want to keep the money.
“She’s a hell of a woman and I love her with all my heart. She’s strong – coming from my grandma she had no choice but to be strong.”
Pargo’s mettle has been tested this season. The Cousy Award finalist started out playing the best basketball of his career, but his performance slipped at midseason after he committed a couple of costly turnovers in Gonzaga’s loss to Connecticut.
“When you play in a high-profile program like this and you’re kind of the lightning rod, you’re probably going to get more criticism than strokes,” Few said. “He’s certainly had that. He had a tough part where he was questioning his confidence and himself, but he’s worked his way through it and played well down the stretch.”
Heytvelt, too, is thriving as his Zags career winds down. His first three years were anything but smooth. He’s dealt with foot and ankle injuries. He was suspended after his highly publicized arrest on drug possession charges in February 2007.
Reinstated to the team prior to last season, he averaged 10.3 points and 4.9 rebounds, despite playing much of the season on an ailing foot that didn’t heal properly from pre-season surgery. Finally healthy this year, he’s averaging a team-high 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds.
“I’d say I’ve made a 180-degree (change),” Heytvelt said. “I try to speak my mind a lot more than I used to. I’m more outgoing.
“It’s opened up a lot of opportunities that I might not have had if I was the way I used to be. It gave me a lot more room to gain respect, and it’s really helped in the long run with the team and coaches.”
Heytvelt was recently named to the WCC All-Academic team after earning a 3.5 grade-point average as a graduate student in organizational leadership.
“He’s arguably the MVP of the conference down the stretch,” Few said. “Just to have the courage and character to come back from something like that and deal with everything thrown at him on the road, it’s a great story. It’s probably one of the best things that has happened to me as a coach.”
Downs, a McDonald’s All-American, began his collegiate career at Kansas before transferring to GU at semester break of his freshman year.
“What he was really looking for was a family atmosphere and a group of guys and a staff he could get close to,” Few said. “And he’s found that.”
Downs has averaged just over eight points as a Zag.
“He came in probably as the most-hyped kid,” said San Diego coach Bill Grier, the former long-time Gonzaga assistant. “He’s had to grow up a lot and in talking with the staff that’s the one thing they’ve been amazed with is his maturity this year. The thing I’ve noticed watching him on film and in the two games we’ve played against them, he’s really done a good job accepting his role, whether he’s a starter or coming off the bench.”
Downs’ grandmother, girlfriend and a conditioning coach from high school will be on hand Tuesday.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to play Division I basketball and have a successful career,” he said. “I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here.”
Brown and Sorenson have become fan favorites. The buzz in the Kennel picks up when Brown checks into games. Brown, a former minor league pitcher who returned to basketball at age 22 at Phoenix College, has a penchant for acrobatic dunks.
“The crowd gives me energy and I try to give them something back in return,” said Brown, now 26.
Sorenson is a former Kennel Club member turned walk-on who was rewarded with a scholarship earlier this season. He didn’t play a second as a freshman and then logged 61 minutes over the next two years. He’s played in 14 games this season, making 7 of 12 3-pointers.
“Whether I start or not, I’m just excited for the night,” Sorenson said. “It’s going to be one of those things I’m never going to forget.”
Asked to describe the changes he’s seen in his classmates, Downs said: “Josh has turned into a good man. He’s had mistakes he went through and he’s had to deal with injury, as have I somewhat. Pargo has turned into an awesome leader and he’s going to make a great point guard for some team in the NBA. ‘Earthworm’ (Sorenson) is an incredible person. He’s going to make a great family man, husband, worker, no matter what he does.
“And Ira, it’s only his second year, but he’s a good leader on this team, being as old as he is, 46 or something.”
Brown, listening in from the adjacent cubicle in the locker room, smiled: “Don’t quote him on that.”
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