There are so many examples of Gonzaga’s game-changing moments that many folks can rattle them off with almost no thought.
There’s Casey Calvary’s tip-in against Florida in 1999 that launched one of the longest continuous NCAA Tournament streaks in all of college basketball. It almost seems like yesterday, except no current Zags player had been born when Calvary was shattering backboards on national TV.
Of course, few around here can forget the program’s first No. 1 ranking back in 2013. And many still have the shirt to prove it. That also was the year of Gonzaga’s first top seed in the Big Dance, which feels a little less memorable, even if its significance was immeasurable.
And the biggie was the team’s first Final Four, eventually playing North Carolina for all of the marbles in 2017.
All of that hoops history sets the scene for what’s going down tonight.
North Carolina – ye of basketball lore and tarry heels – has traveled all the way from Tobacco Road to the Lilac City to face the Zags in The Kennel. Not a neutral-court game at some tournament in a beachy location. Not in the Dean Dome.
It’s at The Kennel. Here in Spokane.
It’s almost surreal.
If you were to tell anyone anywhere around town 25 years ago that Gonzaga hoops would one day be big enough that one of basketball’s original blue bloods would travel to Spokane to play the Zags during a regular-season game, you likely would have been giggled right out of Riverfront Park.
This isn’t just another big game at The Kennel that will be broadcast nationally by people in love with the Davenport Hotel’s delicious peanut brittle.
This is the biggest basketball game played in Spokane. Nuances can be argued. People can make points. And they’d all be wrong. There has never been a game with this sort of precedent-setting significance played in our hometown.
One of the most important programs in all of college basketball has just told the world Gonzaga is more than just a team unpronounceable by most local broadcasters east of the Mississippi. It’s also gained the sort of elite status only vindicated by another elite program saying it doesn’t mind crossing several time zones to play a little hoops in a gym located along the banks of the Spokane River.
Sure, there could be others. If you squint, it’s not hard to see a future home-and-home series with a Kansas or a Kentucky or a Duke. But none of those games would represent the first true blue blood to come calling on the Zags’ home court.
That’s North Carolina. And it’s tonight.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all heard the same thing. This year’s Tar Heels aren’t as good as expected. They’re not in the Top 25 for the first time since the Old Testament was written. Don’t believe any of it for a second.
That really will be Roy Williams and his team loaded with more McDonald’s All-Americans than a Quarter Pounder and one of those little “cherry pies” filled with that red substance hotter than liquid lava. Scalding your tongue reminds you of just how good it really is.
Don’t have tickets? That’s OK. Neither do I. We’re both in the majority on this one. Talk about a tough ticket. And if you can afford game tickets on the secondary market like StubHub, then you can easily afford a year of tuition at Gonzaga, which is roughly comparable in cost.
That’s why you should just watch the game with us. You’ve probably seen the ads. We’ve run more full-page ads in our newspaper than Santa Clara University after a Mark Few news conference. Or maybe you’ve heard about it on TV or all over the radio. Our buddies at Hooptown USA, along with literally the city of Spokane, are hosting a huge party at the fancy, and extremely colorful, U.S. Pavilion – right smack in the middle of the park.
It’s free, which is closer to what most of us can afford after all of that Christmas shopping.
There will be huge video boards with the game on it, a beer garden, food trucks, all sorts of hot drinks and heaters. Even members of the 2007 Gonzaga team, the last group of Bulldogs to beat North Carolina, will be there. Heck, we even printed full-size posters of that 2006-07 team photo so everyone could get autographs.
The party starts at 4 p.m. and the game begins on the biggest of big screens at 6.
People have asked why we’re doing this at the Pavilion instead of at the Arena or maybe some theater – likely because it’s December.
That’s an easy answer.
Ten years from now, will you remember watching a game in a theater or will you remember that time when you got together with a few thousand of your neighbors to watch one of the most important games in Gonzaga history in one of the most iconic places in all of Washington? This is one of those things they’ll be talking about decades from now.
And you’ll be there. Besides, watching a basketball game outdoors on TV during football weather is exactly the sort of thing that makes Spokane what it is.
But there’s an even bigger reason why you should be there.
Oftentimes, we don’t recognize the biggest moments in our lives, the moments we talk about later in life and can’t help but smile about what they meant to us. What if you could have one of those moments, only instead of realizing how important it was to you and to our community decades after it actually happened, you instead lived in that moment? You celebrated it and cherished it as it happened?
Your mother was right.
There’s only one first time.
And no one wants to miss out on that. Especially since it’s about to get added to that impressive list of the most pivotal moments in your favorite team’s history.