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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

After ‘long run,’ Gonzaga players, coaches, parents alike are embracing holiday break

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 23, 2021

Last year, Dominick Harris enjoyed many of the ordinary Christmas traditions in a less-than-traditional manner.

Holed up in a Texas hotel room as Gonzaga prepared for a nonconference game against Virginia in Fort Worth, Harris had time to squeeze a family Zoom call between team meetings, meals, practices and obligatory COVID-19 tests that replaced early-morning lifts as the least favorite aspect of the daily routine for most college athletes.

“We did it on Zoom last year and it was good, but it’s going to be great this year,” Harris’ mother, Neki, said last week before Gonzaga’s game against Texas Tech in Phoenix. “We all opened presents together, absolutely. It was fun, different, but we’re looking forward to him being home.”

Gonzaga’s 2020-21 season was played in a glorified bubble, meaning players had limited exposure to family members, friends, classmates and nearly anyone who wasn’t part of the Bulldogs’ basketball program in some capacity.

Even with COVID-19 cases spiking around the country the past few weeks, restrictions have loosened this year. Gonzaga’s schedule is amenable for players looking to get home for a holiday break that may not be as long as they wish, but still a major improvement from last year. The Bulldogs were cleared to travel home after the team’s 95-49 win over Northern Arizona Monday night and have the option to spend four or five full days with family, provided they’re back in Spokane for GU’s next practice, on Sunday.

“It’s great. Look, I’m a huge Christmas guy. Everything from Christmas music, just the prep and the anticipation and all that,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Monday. “Obviously, the kids have gotten older, but it’s still a lot of fun at our place. Heck, I grew up the son of a minister, so it was a real special part of your life. So yeah, it’s something we always look forward to and it’s great that we don’t have to hurry up and get through it.

“We’re all looking forward to it. It’s been a long run.”

That’s true of the past two months, but also the past two years. Gonzaga players didn’t get a holiday respite last year, with five games between Dec. 21-29. Surging COVID-19 cases coupled with restrictions regarding fan attendance didn’t give families much incentive to visit GU players on the road, let alone travel to Spokane.

That’s why Drew Timme’s parents, Megan and Matt, considered last year’s situation a Christmas miracle. It was also a scheduling miracle. The Zags flew into the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex on Christmas Eve, so the Timmes of nearby Richardson, Texas, booked rooms at the Omni Hotel in Fort Worth and were given a green light by Few to have dinner with Drew on Christmas day.

“We’ve been pretty lucky, we haven’t had to miss a holiday yet,” Megan said. “We realize we got lucky last year with that.”

Megan and Matt have already followed the Bulldogs to Spokane, Las Vegas, Seattle and Phoenix, but Gonzaga games make up just a third of the athletic events on the Timme calendar. Younger brother Walker is playing basketball at Link Year Prep, an academy based in Brandon, Missouri, and sister Kendall is a volleyball standout at Drew’s former high school, Richardson Pearce.

“Between her volleyball, (Walker’s) basketball, Drew’s basketball, I’m pretty sure we haven’t been home very many weekends,” Megan said Saturday from the Footprint Center in Phoenix while pulling off an impressive multitask job, simultaneously talking with a reporter, watching the Zags warm up and following Kendall’s volleyball match through a video stream on her phone.

All three siblings are home in Texas this week. The oldest didn’t waste any time crafting a grocery list to make sure the Timme household was stocked with his favorite items by the time he arrived from Spokane on Tuesday.

“Drew likes all of it,” Megan said. “He sent me a list, so he loves a good buffalo chicken dip. He loves anything spicy. He has a whole list of things.”

Careful to make sure Drew wouldn’t learn of his presents in a newspaper article prior to Christmas morning, Megan was willing to reveal a few of the gifts off the record, and provided this teaser: “We have some things he probably needs and some things he probably wants.”

Harris, a sophomore guard who’s entering the home stretch of rehabilitation from an offseason foot injury, is bound to enjoy the spoils of being home in Murrieta, California, this week.

“We’re not really doing too much of a traditional Christmas this year,” Neki Harris said. “He loves meat, so I’m doing ribs. Collard greens, black eyed peas. Good desserts, pecan pie and some banana pudding, all that kind of good stuff. So we’ve got a whole menu planned out and it’s going to be really, really nice. It’s going to be very special.”

Some players will use the four- or five-day break as a chance to take their mind off the game, but basketball conversations will be unavoidable in the Nembhard household. Speaking of scheduling miracles, two Division I calendars had to line up to guarantee that Andrew Nembhard, Gonzaga’s senior point guard and younger brother Ryan, a freshman point guard at Creighton, would both be back in Aurora, Ontario, for the holiday season.

Before the 2021-22 season started, Andrew indicated there would be trash-talking with both brothers home at the same time. Conversations may revolve around individual stats – Andrew’s averaging 8.8 points, 4.8 assists and 3.0 rebounds at Gonzaga while Ryan averages 12.7 points, an identical 4.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds for Creighton – or perhaps which team carries the best win at this point of the season.

Andrew and Gonzaga routed then-No. 4 UCLA in a game that saw the point guard score a season-high 24 points, but Ryan is fresh off scoring 14 points to help Creighton stun No. 9 Villanova 79-59.

“It’ll be all fun and games, really,” Andrew said. “Just enjoying our time being home together. We don’t get to see each other that much since we’ve been off to school, but it’ll be nice to kick it, relax and not really focus on basketball too much.”

Zags hail from eight states and two countries (excluding the U.S.), so travel arrangements look different for each player. Nembhard’s trip home requires at least two flights and potentially an extended layover. On the other hand, junior forward Anton Watson may need only a thimble full of gas to make it from Gonzaga’s campus to his parents’ home in Spokane.

“Just good eats all around and waking up Christmas morning and being with your family, I think that’s the best part,” Watson said. “So it’s going to be fun.”

Other GU players spoke about their holiday plans.

Said guard Rasir Bolton, a Virginia native: “Just get home, see all my friends and family, that’s good enough for me. … Other than that, me and my homies usually go and hoop. So we’ll probably find a gym and go hoop somewhere. It’s usually what we do.”

Julian Strawther already got to spend one major holiday with family while the Zags were in his hometown of Las Vegas over Thanksgiving to play Central Michigan, UCLA and Duke.

Strawther is home until Christmas day this week. The sophomore wing gets a third trip in less than five months’ time when the Zags return to Vegas this spring for the West Coast Conference Tournament.

“Nothing too crazy, it’s just family all getting together,” Strawther said. “Seeing my friends while I’m down there and just making the most of those couple days I have, for sure.”

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