The journey began exactly a year ago, in Houston.
Gonzaga had just beaten UCLA in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament when Keith Sims turned to his wife and daughter and made an outrageous promise: He would travel with his beloved Bulldogs to every game the following season, from November to March, from Provo to Paradise Island.
“I just kind of blurted it out,” said Sims, a 42-year-old contractor from Cataldo, Idaho. “They were like, great, … sure.”
Perhaps seized by the moment, Sims seized it right back.
“I’m sure some people make open-ended comments like that, but not me,” said Sims, who began to plan after the Zags bowed out of the 2015 tournament in the Elite Eight.
The fun began in November. In the past four months, Sims has witnessed thrillers and heartbreakers, seen a former U.S. president in high-tops and spent the shortest 11-hour plane ride in history while talking fly-fishing with “Fewie” – otherwise known as GU coach Mark Few.
The circle is almost complete: Sims and his wife will fly out Thursday morning for Chicago to watch the Zags play the next day against Syracuse. If Sims is right – and he’s had an uncanny ability to pick GU games this year – this could be the Sweetest 16 yet.
“The way they’re playing … I don’t see anything holding them back,” said Sims, an unlikely Zags fan who didn’t attend the school and didn’t catch a game until almost 20 years ago.
Sims grew up in Coeur d’Alene, where he played high school football and baseball, but not hoops. “I was a rec league guy,” said Sims, who then recalled the shoulder surgeries that cut short his playing career. These days, basketball means a game of horse with nieces and nephews.
After studying diesel mechanics at North Idaho College, he started his own excavation company before he turned 30. Now it’s called Kasco of Idaho, a Rathrum-based company whose 35 employees provide power generation, blasting and cellphone tower installation.
All that hard work gave him the means to enjoy life and grow close to the Zags. His status as a high-level donor has given him a close look at the GU program, and he’s impressed.
“I’ve watched that program grow even though they can’t recruit to the level of Kentucky or Duke, but they take kids that are good and make them great,” said Sims, who’s seen it even clearer this year.
For that he credits Few, with whom he also shares a fly-fishing spot that will remain as secret as the game plan against Syracuse.
“I kind of feel bad for Mark becase he’s so recognized and it’s hard for him to do anything in public,” Sims said.
A true fan, Sims knows the players’ grade-point averages as well as their shooting averages. “I’m amazed at the level of academics even more than the sports,” said Sims, who earmarks his donations to the school’s Center for Academic Excellence.
Sims’ odyssey began four months ago in Okinawa, where the game against Pitt was halted at halftime by a slippery court. “My cellphone blew up” with condolence calls, said Sims, who said the pricey airfare was paid back tenfold after he heard the national anthem alongside 3,000 Marines.
“That alone was worth it – it sent chills up my spine,” Sims said.
The road trips were full of memories. After the Bulldogs pulled out a close win at the University of San Francisco, rival fans gave Sims a high-five. At Southern Methodist, he witnessed former President George W. Bush – who wore black Nike high-tops – exchanging “W” signs with GU players from across the court.
At one point, after the loss of center Przemek Karnowski and a mid-season slump, Sims began to doubt himself.
“There have been times, when I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the common denominator,’” Sims said.
As it turned out, Sims found a reflection of himself in the overachieving Zags, who didn’t clinch a spot in the NCAAs until they won the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
“They’re more coachable than they were in November,” Sims said. “They’re not just going through the motions, but they’re buying into it.”
Then again, so is Sims. And the reward is worth it.
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