Sports fans are some of my favorite people in the world.
Just in case you didn’t know, fan is short for fanatic. All of that passion and stress and hope and heartbreak mixed into one obsessed ball of emotion mostly makes for an entertaining person.
But short sports fanatics are my very favorite. By that, I mean kids.
What’s fun is finding out a grade-schooler’s favorite player. They pick the coolest players for the coolest reasons … totally different criteria than adults use.
Of course, we all remember Gonzaga’s Final Four team. Which player on that team was the choice in elementary schools across Spokane? That’s easy.
That’s Przemek Karnowski for those of you scoring at home.
You know, that mountain of man with a beard that makes Santa jealous? The player whose name has way more consonants than vowels and was easier to pronounce than gun-ZAWG-uh for most national sports broadcasters.
I know what you’re thinking. A guy so darn big he must create his own weather seems like an unlikely choice for kids. Wouldn’t they be afraid of him?
We’ve all seen those kids at the mall this month who experienced pure moments of terror the second they were told to sit on Jolly Old St. Nicholas’ lap. It’s unexplainable, but the same kids who were horrified by the guy who brings toys absolutely loved Shem.
One of the coolest pictures that ran in this newspaper during that magical March of 2017 was 2-year-old Emmalynn Stokes’ happiness in being in the presence of her favorite Zag. She wasn’t alone.
Whether you were at the Kennel or on the playground, the preference for the tiniest fans was the tallest Zag with a great smile and an even better laugh. They couldn’t tell you why; they just knew what they liked.
There’s no science to this.
Just like there’s no science in determining which current Bulldog rules this particular demographic, though you could easily make a case for Rui Hachimura. A good rule of thumb is that prepubescent fans almost always rally for players whose names rhyme with whoo-ee or Ka-ploe-ee.
But you’d be wrong.
It’s totally Josh Perkins. No one else is even close.
It’s hard to find logical reasons for these sorts of things. Maybe it’s that he’s been at Gonzaga forever … at least in comparison to college basketball’s other elite teams that have no idea what it’s like to have a senior player who’s played his entire career at the same school.
Maybe it’s the way Josh talks to kids. He listens to them and would never think about talking down to them. He takes selfies with them. He fist-bumps them. He acts more like the cool babysitter than the field general for one of the nation’s top-ranked teams.
All good theories.
But there’s probably another reason that makes the Zags’ youngest fans gravitate to him.
A few weeks ago, Perkins was in a fifth-grade classroom at Holmes Elementary fielding questions. Why he was there is totally a great story, but before that can be explained, we first need to get to the opening line of questioning from the mostly 10-year-old group.
Why is your hair like that?
This is the sort of question that if, say, our newspaper’s Gonzaga reporter Jim Meehan asked, it might not go so well. But when your mom still picks out your clothes for you, it’s an acceptable question.
“I went to my barber and asked him to help me out. He even shaved a Christmas tree in the back,” Perkins told the class as he turned around to reveal what really did look like a Christmas tree. Only upside down.
As if the kids in this classroom needed another reason to love this guy.
What did he think of the new “Wreck-It Ralph” movie?
He loved it. Then he started talking about his favorite scene. Again, approval ratings continued to soar.
What’s your nickname?
“JP or Perk. Mostly Perk. Our trainer’s name is Josh and he’s the important Josh.”
And now all of the teachers in the room just swung over to Josh’s camp.
What’s your favorite season?
No. Not that kind of season.
“Ohhhhh! Winter because I can dress up and show my schwag. But summer is great because I get to hang out with my friends. Spring is beautiful. And fall is great because of Halloween and I love to wear costumes on Halloween. I even wear my costume to class.”
If anyone has ever answered both more honestly and more appropriately for a particular audience, I’d never seen it. There’s no way he can top this, right?
Who did you dress up as?
“Michelangelo. He’s by far the best Turtle.”
Everyone in the room nodded in agreement. They clearly weren’t talking about the Italian artist, but the fun-loving, hard-shelled Ninja reptile.
Have you ever airballed during a big game on television?
“Definitely,” he said with a big laugh. “I’ve also tripped on the lines painted on the court and even fell into the crowd before.”
They loved this. This was totally one of the funniest things they’d ever heard.
Who is your favorite NFL team?
This brought boos from the class. Then he explained that he grew up in Colorado and the Broncos were his local team just like the Seahawks was their local team. Most understood, but few were buying it.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter as the conversation quickly shifted to if he’d ever played basketball on a playground.
So, why was Perkins even in this class, facing much cooler questions than the ones Dick Vitale might ask him?
Because of their classmate, Gabriel DelaCruz. Gabriel is one of the writers for the school’s newspaper, the West Central Express.
The West Central Express is a project between Spark Central and Holmes Elementary’s newspaper club. The newspaper’s volunteer advisers include all sorts of former (and notable) local journalists, and even includes former Spokesman-Review editor Gary Graham and current columnist Shawn Vestal.
Most professional newspapers would love to have a group like that leading it. At Holmes, it’s just the after-school program for cool kids.
In planning for the upcoming issue – as in a printed newspaper, not just a website – Gabriel said he’d like to interview and write about Perkins.
I’m not sure how many other local elementary schools, let alone local high schools, still have an actual printed newspaper, but if a local fifth-grade journalist needs a little help scoring an interview with a star basketball player, we’re going to do everything we can to help.
Once the folks at Gonzaga found out, they were more than willing to help, as well. And you can probably guess by now what Josh thought about the idea.
But before Gabriel got his one-on-one interview later that morning, Perkins first talked with the entire class.
Not all of the questions and answers were just about things like, “Is there any fruit you hate?” Bananas, by the way. He doesn’t like bananas.
One student asked about his goals and what he does when things aren’t going well.
What do you do when you can’t get along with other people?
“I’ve found that if you always try to help your team and never worry about yourself, things will eventually turn around,” he said. “Even when it’s hard, you have to try to stay positive. Even when it’s hard, staying positive and believing in each other is the best and easiest way to get things to work. You have to take good care of your friends.”
It was just about time for Josh to return to campus. All of the students lined up next to him to get a picture.
“You’re my favorite player,” the first student said to him. A fist-bump followed.
Then the next student told Perkins the exact same thing. Then the next. Then the next. Well, you get the idea. Also, a lot more fist-bumps.
I told you kids pick the coolest favorite players.