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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ralph Walter: Magic of ‘What if’ keeps SuperSonics in Seattle, gives Gonzaga a football team

“What if?”

When it comes to sports, it’s hard to find two words as compelling.

Or as immediate. What if Cleveland’s J.R. Smith realizes in the closing seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night that his Cavs and the Golden State Warriors are actually tied, and rather than dribbling out the clock, goes back up for a shot after snagging George Hill’s missed free throw?

It’s precisely what I love about sports – how one moment can change history.

And it’s the inspiration behind an occasional new series that we’ll kick off this Sunday called “The Great ‘What If.’ ” Just as it sounds, the series will explore alternate endings to real-life sports stories and events.

We’ll start with Jess Walter’s look at the Seattle SuperSonics, who a decade ago departed the Emerald City for the browner pastures of Oklahoma City. (You may know Jess Walter from his best-selling novels, or his short stories, or the fact that he’s the sports editor’s brother.)

We’ll follow a week later with John Blanchette’s glimpse into minor league baseball and the myriad possibilities for Spokane had the Indians remained Triple A.

Later this summer, we’ll check in with new topics – from the Seahawks to Evel Knievel – unless, of course, I’m no longer sports editor (what if I win the lottery?).

Ah, the lottery. A guy can dream, right?

How else can you explain the motivation behind a series like this? Or our recent Dream 18 golf section (what if you could play the area’s best 18 holes in one round?). Or the imaginary basketball tournament we devised four years ago that matched Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s first 16 NCAA tourney squads (what if Adam Morrison’s 2005-06 team squared off against the 2014-15 Zags led by Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell?).

Or an entire baseball season – appropriately named “Field of Dreams” – conceived while I was sports editor at my college newspaper more than a quarter-century ago.

That’s probably when my affinity for fantasy sports began. In a desperate attempt to fill the pages of the Easterner after EWU dropped its baseball program a year earlier, I turned to two anonymous writers who went by the names of Seth Gorvan and Lance Manion to help produce a fictional team led by 43-year-old catcher Butch Merril – a fifth-year sophomore who had served two tours in Vietnam and another 18 months in the Joliet Correctional Facility – and colorful designated hitter Lou “The Hammer” Heimbigner, once quoted in the locker room after practice, saying “Get the hell out of here. Can’t you see we’re naked?”

There were plenty of highs (Shortstop Eli “Pepper” Kelp broke the NCAA hit-by-pitch record, and at one point saw his jaw actually removed from his face after stepping into a high, hard fastball), and lows (a bench-clearing brawl against Glen Dow Academy of Hair Design left first baseman Spaz Dithers with a black eye and a perm.)

In the end, the valiant Eagles overcame a midseason NCAA investigation as well as a half-dozen accidental deaths; among them Garth Peterman’s, a relief pitcher who put his lips over a pitching machine on a bet and choked on a fastball. Yet EWU still managed to make it to the final game of the College World Series before falling 5-4 to Texas in overly dramatic fashion.

“Field of Dreams” wrapped up with Merril climbing on a Harley (“Hey that’s my motorcycle,” observes pitcher Shemp “Pogo” Grimes as Merril rides off), and announcing to the two writers that he was off to play football at Gonzaga in the fall.

Utter nonsense, I’ll admit.

But it does make you wonder … what if Gonzaga still had football?