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Rob Curley: It’s OK to be sentimental about this Gonzaga basketball team

Spokesman-Review photo illustration (Spokesman-Review photo illustration)
Spokesman-Review photo illustration (Spokesman-Review photo illustration)

I’m a crier.

Books. Movies. A beautiful column by my favorite writer. All of them can bring me to Tammy Faye levels of public weeping. You don’t even want to know what a Hallmark Christmas card commercial can do to me.

I’ve even cried at a Motley Crue concert. (It’s all about the soundtrack of your teenage years being performed in front of you. Except really loud. With lots of fireworks. And super salty language.)

But sports is what really tugs at my heartstrings. It’s the romance of the game that gets me every single time. Especially when there is such a good story to be told before tipoff or first pitch.

That’s why a movie like “Hoosiers” can turn me into a sobbing gob of goo. You mix sports, plot and emotion together and I’m done. Put a fork in me.

This is what makes this year’s Gonzaga tale – you know, the ultimate connection between a community and its hometown team – one that makes you feel warm all over. Then the next thing you know, you’re grabbing a box of Kleenex and telling everyone around you how much you love them.

Especially if you’re a longtime Zags fan from Spokane. Or a graduate from decades ago.

Or even someone who just now realizes the amazing unifying experience a basketball team made up of equal parts United Nations, Andre the Giant, class valedictorians and the boys next door can bring to a bunch of people who didn’t fully realize until this exact moment they were connected by more than just similar ZIP codes and a deep communal confusion for how this city plows its roads after it snows.

Sure, the accomplishments by Mark Few and his Bulldogs on the court have been jaw-dropping.

The preseason Top 20 ranking. The last undefeated team in the nation. A No. 1 ranking for several weeks. The university’s first trip to the Final Four. Przemek Karnowski’s unbelievable comeback from back surgery. National coach of the year in Mark Few. One of the top players in the country in Nigel Williams-Goss.

It’s just that those aren’t the things that make this team the legendary stuff of a million tears. I’m talking about the sorts of things that make you say stuff like, “No, of course, I’m not crying. It’s just a little dust flew in my eye, that’s all. Dadgum allergies.”

There’s the story of Gonzaga’s longtime athletic director, Mike Roth, who can remember when there were more people on the team benches than there were in the bleachers. A man who walks the concourses of the Kennel before games, saying “Hi” and “Thank you for coming” to everyone, then paces the arena’s tunnels during the actual game because … well, he’s as nervous as we all are.

There’s the story of how the Bulldogs were about to play their biggest foe in their biggest game of the year, and didn’t want to do it without the rest of the students there with them.

So with a bunch of behind-the-scenes work by those at the university who have nothing to do with the athletic department, the dorms were opened early during Christmas break, the students returned, the Kennel was as loud as it has ever been, and the Bulldogs beat the No. 21-ranked team in the nation by 23 points on national TV.

There’s the story about how a team that lost four starters from the previous season, including two future NBA players, now had a whole bunch of transfers and first-year freshmen. So they all went on a campout together in North Idaho. In some ways, it was to basically figure out who the heck was now on the team.

The most highly prized recruit in Gonzaga history, Zach Collins, came away from it all saying he was totally willing to disregard his “own well-being for the well-being of my teammates, family members and friends.”

Chemistry, camaraderie and character would become the team’s calling card.

There’s the story of how incredibly intelligent this team is. Gonzaga has four players enrolled in graduate school. Three of them are starters.

Last week, Williams-Goss received the Elite 90 award for having the highest cumulative grade-point average of anyone in the Final Four. The guy is deadly behind the 3-point line, but don’t forget he has a 3.84 GPA. Jordan Mathews earned a 4.0 while enrolled in Gonzaga’s Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program in the fall of 2016.

The Zags’ APR – which stands for academic progress rate – ranks as one of the highest APRs of any team to be a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. And was absolutely the highest of any of this year’s top seeds.

There’s the story of how a big British newspaper wrote a column that was less than glowing about Spokane. In fact, it was kinda mean. And the Bulldog players and coaches were some of the first to speak loudly and eloquently in defense of Gonzaga’s hometown.

Then there’s the story from last week of how a little girl from Spokane, not even 2 years old, waited with her mom to see the team off as they headed to Phoenix for the Final Four. The photo of the tiny toddler decked out in her Bulldog best, while being held next to her favorite player, Przemek Karnowski, showed the bond that has developed between this team and our community.

And even with her limited vocabulary, the 22-month-old already can pronounce Przemek better than the CBS announcers.

A great sports story teaches you about humanity. It’s why the best sports movies make you feel every possible emotion.

You remember that scene near the end of “Hoosiers,” the one where the small-town team first walks into the biggest building any of them has ever been in before, where they’re about to play the biggest basketball game of their lives?

And they’re facing a team rich with legacy and tradition. A team that’s been there before. Many times.

The underdog team’s coach, played by Gene Hackman, has them walk out on the court. They all look around. They’re not even sure what to think. Or where to look.

He hands two of the players a tape measure to see the distance from the backboard to the free-throw line.

It’s 15 feet.

Then he has one of the players get on the shoulders of another. They measure the floor to the rim.

It’s 10 feet.

“I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Spokane,” he says, and they all look at each other and smile because they know they belong there.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Oh man, it’s happening again, every darn time I experience a great sports story like this.

So, please excuse me. Some dust or something must’ve blown in my eyes again.