My husband was the first one to say it: The Zags saved our marriage.
Along with much of Spokane, we first started paying attention to Gonzaga basketball during their run in 1998-99, when Dan Monson took the Richie Frahm/Casey Calvary/Matt Santangelo team all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Like many others, we vaguely knew there was a basketball team at Gonzaga; in those days, you could waltz into the Kennel and get a ticket for that night’s game. In the early 1980s, at his gas station up the street, my brother worked on the school’s dilapidated vans, which was how they hauled the team around. Dan Fitzgerald, I remember, would come and pick them up himself, sometimes being ferried over by a tall student folded into a cramped little car.
When my husband and I were dating, we’d have lunch and drink beer at the Bulldog Tavern – not because of the basketball, but because of the good hamburgers and cold beer.
Besides, we were never much in the way of sports fans. With just one child, a daughter who lettered in music, we spent most of her school years attending concerts and recitals, clapping politely and beaming with pride over her violin playing.
Rarely did we come up off the bleachers shouting “Call the foul!” Well, almost that one time when she didn’t get first chair in the orchestra (and clearly deserved it).
And it was about the same time the “Cinderella” Zags team started growing in success and notoriety, with almost all of Spokane paying attention, that our little musician flew off to her life adventures and our nest emptied.
We were a little bereft – of concerts, of what to focus on, of who to applaud for. I mean, musician or athlete, you know for 18 years that your child is going to grow up and go off somewhere, yet it catches you by total surprise. So we flopped around a bit. There was some sobbing (I won’t say who). Work didn’t satisfy, home didn’t satisfy – we lost focus a little.
So we found ourselves paying attention to Gonzaga basketball that year, and the following year, regardless of the fact that we didn’t have cable television. Trying not to miss any of the games, my husband and I started having date nights – for dinner, in a sports bar – arriving early enough to score the perfect view of the best screen.
We put in some late nights, learning to be fans. The next day, we’d talk about the game and who did what well and what could’ve happened. We looked forward to the next game, learned all the team names in the WCC, bought a copy of “Basketball for Dummies.”
We started wearing Zags gear.
Once, while we were running errands before we headed out to the chosen location for the evening (wherever we could find ESPN), my husband reached across the seat of the car and grabbed my hand. “Are you excited about tonight?” he asked. And I smiled and nodded, and likely said something about the upcoming game.
And he said, “Who would have thought the Zags would save our marriage?”
Fast forward 16-plus years, and as another season gets underway we look forward to seeing the student athletes return to school and gear up for their season, as we gear up for ours. We talk about how certain players have improved their game, or bulked up over the summer, worked on their free throws. We scramble to learn all the new names and numbers; we take note of other players on the bench, redshirting until their time to play.
Quiz us on where each player is from and how many local or regional hometowns are represented on the team; we’d know.
On some important games, we’ve bought unused tickets from season ticket holders, so we could enjoy all that is the McCarthey Athletic Center and the Kennel experience. We faithfully traveled to each Battle in Seattle, eventually turning it into a special weekend with our daughter and her husband.
Our late-night forays into sports bars had to come to an end, and we now watch every game at home. Our lack of cable is long gone, replaced with technology to record and pause a game while it is being played. We put out a schedule every year of Zags gatherings, with friends, in our old barn that we use for entertaining.
To us, Gonzaga basketball is just all about Spokane and another reason why many of us enjoy our lives here. We revel in the fact that a pivotal game with a high-ranking opponent is taking place just on the other side of town from us. That you can watch the players excel during a game on the national stage, then stand in line behind them at a local fast food restaurant.
We love that the local announcer gets so dang excited about the games, he can’t get his words out. We love that one of the members of that 1998-99 team, Matt Santangelo, is now on the radio announcing the game. That other players have found their careers in Spokane, even at Gonzaga University itself.
We love that in the closing moments of a game, when our lead is strong enough, Mark Few gives all the players some minutes on the floor and clears the bench. We love that it’s the coaches’ kids that are handing out towels during the game.
Sure, when we follow a player from his freshman year to the final game of his senior year, we know he’ll be flying the coop as well, moving on just like our little musician did all those years ago. But we’re getting way better at dealing with that.
Following Gonzaga basketball gets us through winter. It gives us something to look forward to.
Penny Simonson is a Spokane native and mostly retired. She writes and blogs intermittently, cares for a high-maintenance garden, and watches Gonzaga basketball.
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