INDIANAPOLIS – Kelly and Will Graves were supposed to spend last summer comparing the diamonds plastered on their national championship rings.
At least, that was the vision the Graves family sketched out before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. The Oregon women’s team coached by Kelly, and led by superstar guard Sabrina Ionescu, was favored to win the national championship. Will and the Gonzaga men would’ve entered the Big Dance with a 31-2 record and No. 1 seed, with a chance to emerge with the program’s first NCAA title.
In sports, you’re expected to move on to the next game. Sometimes, it’s easier said than done.
“Well, last year is still fresh in my mind,” Kelly said Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, ahead of Gonzaga’s Final Four matchup with UCLA. “We would’ve won the national championship. I don’t care really what anyone else says. It was ours to win, so that will never leave, that will always leave a hole in my heart. I think Gonzaga could’ve won it last year, too. We could’ve brought home two in our family.
“But (Gonzaga’s) got the team poised and ready to get it done this year, for sure.”
Before every Zags game, it’s habitual for Kelly to send his son the same text: “Go get ’em.”
Will, a junior walk-on for the Bulldogs, keeps his response identical: “You too.”
Now that Will’s Zags are the last team standing in the Graves family, Kelly anticipated a different text back before GU’s Final Four matchup with UCLA Saturday in Indianapolis.
“There’s no, ‘You too,’ now,” Kelly said. “It’s just going to be, ‘Thanks.’ But he’s been really locked in and quite frankly I haven’t wanted to busy him with everything.”
Graves, who’s been Oregon’s coach for seven seasons after a 14-year stint with the Gonzaga women, arrived in Indianapolis Monday morning – about a week too soon for his liking. The sixth-seeded Ducks bowed out of the women’s NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 with a 60-43 loss to Louisville.
Graves was on a jet to Indianapolis by the next morning, processing an Oregon season that could’ve ended a few games later, but on the other hand anticipating the opportunity to watch his son’s Gonzaga team in the Elite Eight.
“Well, bittersweet obviously,” Graves said. “I wanted to play longer and we were capable of doing that, but didn’t. So you’re upset about that and disappointed, but the fact I get to now be a dad and a parent and experience a championship run with my son I think is even more powerful – when you’re doing it as a dad than even as a coach.”
At the outset of the women’s tournament, one of Graves’ players, forward Sedona Prince, posted a social media video depicting the scant weight room set up for players in San Antonio compared to the fully furnished workout facility for men’s players in Indianapolis.
The video was shared 215,000 times on Twitter, triggered a larger national discussion about inequality in college athletics and helped prompt the NCAA to outfit the weight room with more strength and fitness equipment.
“I’m really proud she felt strongly enough about it and strongly enough in herself to put that out there. I think the way she did it is what made it effective,” Graves said. “If she would’ve just complained and not actually shown something and just said this was wrong, I don’t think it would’ve had the same effect. But she had a little bit of humor, but obviously there was the stark contrast and that made I think all the difference, quite frankly.
“But I’m really proud of her and I think it’s a powerful lesson to all of them. They can make change. If you see something you don’t like, hey it’s OK to say something about it and NCAA stepped up.”
Because of strict rules inside the NCAA bubbles, communication between Graves and his son has been limited to text messages and the occasional phone call. Graves’ middle son Jackson, an assistant basketball coach at Lane Community College in Eugene, hasn’t seen his younger brother, but they’ve had the opportunity to connect through the video game Fortnite.
“The guys love Fortnite, Call of Duty, everything,” Jackson said.
Earlier in the week, family members of players were invited to the minor league baseball field adjacent to their Indianapolis hotel. In-person contact was prevented, but parents were able to communicate with players through a fence.
“They gave us one opportunity to say hi to them,” Kelly said. “… It almost felt like you were looking at zoo animals.”
Kelly hadn’t watched the Bulldogs in person before Tuesday’s Elite Eight clash with USC. He’s thought highly of Mark Few’s team all year, but said the live experience gave him a newfound appreciation of Gonzaga’s talent and depth.
“It’s as good of a team as I’ve ever seen,” Kelly said. “Both ends of the floor they play, they have so many weapons. They play the way the game’s supposed to be played. It’s a lot of fun.”
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