A Gonzaga basketball game was more than just a pastime for longtime scoreboard operator John Oakley, it was a family gathering.
“He use to call (the players) ‘his boys’ and ‘his girls,’ ” Oakley’s oldest son Adam said. “He loved these nights and being around this area.”
Oakley died Thursday in his sleep after suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 59. ALS is known to affect voluntary movement to a point where those diagnosed with the disorder can ultimately lose the ability to initiate or control most muscle movement.
Oakley was a longtime Gonzaga basketball fan and served as the scoreboard operator for the men’s and women’s Gonzaga basketball teams for 18 years.
Gonzaga honored Oakley before last Saturday’s exhibition 122-76 win over West Georgia with a basketball signed by the team. Oakley held up the basketball from his wheelchair in the center of the court at McCarthy Athletic Center as fans cheered and applauded in appreciation.
“With ALS, everything is taken from you. Your ability to eat and your ability to brush your teeth,” Adam said Friday. “Everything was taken, you know. His job was taken, his ability to coach was taken … So for them to give him that honor on Saturday was pretty special.”
After Oakley was diagnosed with ALS in January 2015, Adam said his father made a bucket list of what Adam called his dad’s final milestones. Visiting every major league baseball stadium in the country was one of Oakley’s top milestones.
Adam said his family went to countless baseball parks when he was a child, but his dad still had a few more on the list to see. Oakley visited five more stadiums on the east coast last summer and got to finally see Wrigley Field, home of the 2016 World Series champions Chicago Cubs, this year.
“We planned (that) trip to go visit more baseball stadiums … so he had something to look forward to,” Adam said. “Deep down, I think he’d hoped to see the boys play again (last) Saturday. He got to see the guys play, and that was one more milestone. Wednesday he talked about, ‘I don’t have any more milestones to look forward too.’ I think he was ready.”
Gonzaga University athletic director Mike Roth joined Oakley and Oakley’s wife, Debbie, center stage before the Zags’ exhibition game. Roth said Oakley’s death was unexpected and came shocked the university.
“When he was here … he ran his own chair, he was able to still talk, he waved to the crowd, he held the ball up, and then a couple days later he passes away,” Roth said. “It just went way fast.”
Jeff Dufresne, who has kept score alongside Oakley for 14 years, worked the scoreboard for Friday night’s season opener against the Utah Valley Wolverines.
Roth said the school decided not to announced Oakley’s death Friday night because “a lot of people know about it already. We don’t need to change that image that they just had last week.”
“I don’t think he’d want a moment of silence. As a coach and as a fan he’d look at that and say, ‘No! They need to be pumped up before the game. Not quiet thinking about someone who died,’ ” Adam said.
The Zags were definitely pumped up for this game. They rolled past the Wolverines 92-69.
“I put on Facebook today, this is going to be an easy win because there’s an extra angel up there watching this one,” Adam said.