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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Winning defines McCarthey, but there’s so much more

Truth be told, Adam Morrison liked the old Kennel, now remaindered to volleyball just a few feet to the west.

“Loved it,” he said. “It was so loud, and you had the general admission part that kind of amped things up – and the Kennel Club wasn’t university sponsored then, so you know what they were up to beforehand.”

It was hot, it was humble, maybe a little rough-and-tumble. It was a gym, not all that much different from the one where basketball was born. Like Morrison’s game, it was both old school and edgy – maybe even a little dangerous.

“Then when we moved into the building, you could see the program taking the next step,” the one-time NCAA scoring champ said, “and that was exciting in a whole different way.”

Now it’s 10 years after – and going home has never meant quite so much to the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

In November 2004, Gonzaga University opened a building befitting its newfound basketball notoriety, and the Zags have never looked back. How much of that precisely is the doing of playing games in the McCarthey Athletic Center and not the snug old Kennel cannot be quantified, but it’s impossible to imagine the momentum being quite so irresistible without it. In the 205 weeks of poll voting since their move next door, the Zags have been in the Top 25 for 144.

In their first decade of residence, the Bulldogs won 135 of 143 games in McCarthey, a percentage of 94.4 – second only during that span to Kansas’ 94.9 in Allen Fieldhouse. Four of those losses came against Top 25 teams; Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara account for the only debits in a 74-2 mark against West Coast Conference opponents.

On the nights when the men are out of town, the women are only somewhat less dominant: 133-17 over the first 10 years.

Now, it was in an earlier visit to McCarthey and not the arena-record 52-point drubbing he endured this year that St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli cast some necessary light on those numbers.

“You understand that the toughest part about playing here,” he said, “are the guys in the other uniforms.”

Meaning it’s not the noise from the obligatory sellout crowd, the Kennel Club’s bon mots, the championship banners or the legacy. It’s the players, duh.

And yet you can hardly discount the comfort level.

“This is easily the best place I’ve ever played in,” said forward Byron Wesley, the Zags’ graduate transfer from USC.

“The crowd is phenomenal. Every game – regardless of who the opponent is – they come, and they come ready. It’s a real home-court advantage and that’s something I’m not used to, and I can only imagine how tough it is for opposing teams to come in here and have to deal with that crowd all night.”

Those testimonials have been a constant through the two or three recruiting generations that have cycled through McCarthey during its existence, and the historical details of its rising are well known.

Like how former GU president the Rev. Robert Spitzer thought he was paying a call on alums Phil and Tom McCarthey to pitch major support for the athletic endowment when coach Mark Few pressed for a new arena. How Spitzer had to go back to the McCartheys for another $2.3 million to get the project go-ahead. How it was alums and neighborhood guys who bid and built the place, and how the project coordinator for Garco Construction was a former Kennel Club president. How they drove designers crazy trying to replicate the toes-on-the-court feeling for spectators that made the Kennel, the Kennel. How they settled on 6,000 seats because tacking on another 2,000 would grow the $25 million price tag closer to $40 million, and how GU decided to be the rare university to live within its athletic means. And, yes, how they quickly peddled all of those seats in advance rather than keeping a few treasures available for game-night sale.

Those last two issues still raise the occasional squawk that surely Gonzaga could have done something else.

“Yeah,” joked Greg Heister, who handles television play-by-play for the Zags’ locally produced broadcasts. “Build it earlier so Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp could have played there. We laugh at Dickau all the time that it’s kind of ‘the House That Dan Built.’ “

On women’s game nights, it’s the House that Courtney Filled – but having a one-of-a-kind talent like Courtney Vandersloot wasn’t all that produced a second Zags basketball phenomenon. In fact, give the building an assist on this.

With his building sold out for men’s games, athletic director Mike Roth sicced his marketing people “almost solely on women’s basketball.” A different audience responded to both the team’s success and its attachment to the players.

And while it’s a Top 20 program in attendance, the average audience of 5,600 “isn’t spread around a 12-18,000-seat building,” Roth noted, “and that makes the atmosphere one of the best in the country. The size of McCarthey works great for women’s basketball.”

Amazingly enough, it also works great even as the arms race that pushed college football into abominable excess begins to do the same to hoops.

You’re not a big-time basketball power now without a practice palace to go with the glitzy warehouse they open up on game night. Except at Gonzaga, they’re one and the same – well-appointed, but lacking pretense, with 24-hour access to any player who wants to come in and work on his shot.

If any aspect of the beloved old mom-and-pop store that used to be Zags basketball has survived, this is it – the gym key John Stockton passed down.

Tommy Lloyd is one of the GU assistants who has to recruit to it, and doesn’t consider it a handicap in the least.

“What I’m explaining to kids is environment and atmosphere – and we have that,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s much more fun to play in than an NBA arena that’s less than half full with a crowd sitting on its hands. Not many arenas are electric night in and night out. Here, it’s every night.

“And I prefer to have our guys coming in here for practice or shooting at night on the rims they’re shooting at in a game, rather than a side gym.”

And here’s another recruiting bonus: a better schedule.

Consider that in 1999, when this mad run of success officially began, Gonzaga’s out-of-conference home schedule looked like this: St. Martin’s, Chicago State, Idaho.

That was it.

In the last few years, the Zags have entertained Michigan State and Illinois of the Big Ten, Virginia and Wake Forest of the ACC and the Big 12’s Oklahoma State and Baylor. Notre Dame’s been here, and Stanford for GameDay. Next year, Arizona and UCLA visit. The women have seen Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer bring in Tennessee and Stanford.    

“They were never going to come into the old building,” Roth said. “And while we don’t lose a lot here, we’re not a loss that hurts you. It’s not going to knock out out of the polls or the tournament.”

Not that some visitors don’t second guess themselves.

“I remember Tom Izzo walking out and going, ‘Wow,’ “ Zags radio voice Tom Hudson said. “Now, c’mon, what hasn’t Tom Izzo seen. I also remember him saying, ‘I’m crazy bringing my team into this.’ But he did.”

Meanwhile, there are still assistants on other teams who come out of the tunnel before tipoff and try to sneak some cellphone video of the whole scene.

That scene has produced wild moments. Morrison standing atop the broadcast table after Loyola Marymount’s Chris Ayer doinked a layup that would have beaten the Zags in the 2006 WCC championship game. Kevin Pangos introducing himself to the nation with nine 3-pointers against Washington State.

Poignant moments, too – as when J.P. Batista’s brother, who hadn’t seen the Brazilian giant in four years, surprised him on Senior Night, or a week later when Batista channeled Willis Reed and limped out of the training room after halftime to score 21 points on San Diego and carry the Zags out of the WCC semis.

After 10 years in McCarthey, the question isn’t, “What’s not to like about the place?” It’s, “What do you like best?”

“The best thing?” said Lloyd. “Oh, man – winning.”