LAS VEGAS – Escaping to Las Vegas for the West Coast Conference Tournament has become an annual ritual for Jay Jenkins, who started taking interest in Gonzaga basketball 16 years ago when the Bulldogs signed a talented 6-foot-11 forward from his hometown of Clarkston.
Josh Heytvelt is 12 years removed from his last game in a GU uniform, but Jenkins’ support for the Bulldogs has only grown more fervent and passionate. He’s followed them to various NCAA Tournament sites, the Bahamas and Hawaii. In seasons that aren’t interrupted by COVID-19, Jenkins routinely makes the 100-mile drive from Clarkston to Spokane to see the Bulldogs at the Kennel.
During last year’s WCC retreat, Jenkins even vowed to his then-girlfriend, Brenda: “If we still like each other next year at the Gonzaga tournament, we’ll get married.”
The next thing he knew, “It’s been a year.”
So, this trip – Jenkins’ 13th since the WCC moved its tournament to Vegas in 2009 – has been unique from the rest and not only because COVID-19 restrictions have prevented him from watching the top-ranked Bulldogs in person. Gonzaga basketball games are usually what dictate Jenkins’ itinerary in Vegas, but this year there was another item on the agenda.
About three weeks ago, Jenkins pulled out a ring on a fishing boat in the Clarkston area. On Sunday night, the couple eloped in Las Vegas, making their marriage official at the Lucky Little Wedding Chapel, some 24 hours before Gonzaga’s WCC semifinal matchup against Saint Mary’s at nearby Orleans Arena.
Creating the perfect intersection of love and basketball, Jay and Brenda showed up to the full-service wedding chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard dressed in apparel that would’ve made Mark Few proud. Jay wore a navy Gonzaga polo shirt with an accompanying Bulldogs ball cap while Brenda dressed in a white shirt with thin navy stripes and blue earrings printed with a Zags logo.
“We were packing and he was like, ‘What do I need to wear? Do I need to wear a tie?’” Brenda said. “I’m like, ‘No, just grab your best Gonzaga shirt. We’re good.’ He’s like, ‘Are you serious?’”
The couple withheld the news from family and friends until after a ceremony at the Vegas chapel. Lewiston’s Mark and Diane Swanson, longtime friends of the Jenkinses and GU diehards, had been in Las Vegas since Wednesday and weren’t aware of the engagement until Sunday night when Brenda shared a wedding photo on Facebook.
“She put that photo up there and Mark said, ‘I didn’t know that and I’m in Vegas,’” Jay Jenkins said. “We didn’t tell nobody, so we got him. She didn’t tell her folks, she did good.”
Brenda confessed, “I did tell my insurance guy like three days ago.”
The Jenkinses don’t have immediate honeymoon plans, but it’s likely they’ll take a celebratory trip at some point this year or next, and it’s also likely that excursion will somehow involve the Gonzaga basketball team. They’re hoping to make a return trip to Vegas in November for GU’s nonconference matchup with Duke at T-Mobile Arena and have also considered traveling cross-country for the 2021 Empire Classic in New York, which will feature the Bulldogs, Oklahoma State, Louisville and Providence.
This year’s trip to Vegas was planned well in advance, and the Jenkinses were holding out hope looser COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada would prompt the WCC to allow some level of fan attendance. The Western Athletic Conference Tournament, which will take place in the same building later this week, is permitting a limited number of family members and friends to attend its event.
“We thought by March, they’re going to let people in,” Jay said. “The 15th of February we knew there was going to be a big release that the state was allowing people to come, because they were legally supposed to have 35% capacity.”
Barring they don’t book last-minute flights to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament, the Jenkinses will have to stomach not seeing freshman sensation Jalen Suggs or the unbeaten Zags in person. They were envious of the Swansons when their friends had a chance to attend season-opening games against No. 6 Kansas and Auburn at the Fort Meyers (Fla.) Tip-Off.
Jay and Brenda Jenkins planned to accompany them, but backed out when the Orlando Invitational, GU’s original tournament, was canceled due to COVID-19. The Swansons were unable to collect a refund on the condo they’d be renting for the week, so they figured they’d still make the most of a trip to sunny Florida, even if Gonzaga basketball wasn’t included.
But the Fort Meyers tournament surfaced and the Swansons were able to scour two of the 300 tickets made available to the general public. They kept the condo in Orlando and made the 320-mile round-trip drive to Fort Meyers to watch the Zags beat the Jayhawks and Tigers – the earliest memories of a 25-game win streak that continued on Monday in Vegas.
“It was great, it was great,” Diane said. “The chance to watch them and all the people that were there that were Zag fans. It was amazing to see everybody down there and I was surprised we got tickets.”
The Orleans Hotel usually doubles as the primary hub for Gonzaga fans during the WCC Tournament, with pregame tailgate parties taking place in hotel ballrooms and parking lots hours before tipoff. Without navy and red shirts huddling around the slot machines, congregating in the restaurants and packing the basketball arena, the Jenkinses and Swansons represented a significantly smaller group of Zag fans on the casino floor at the Orleans on Monday.
Dianne Swanson noted the line at the coffee shop located near the hotel’s main entrance. A line that usually runs 20 to 30 people – or Gonzaga fans – deep was virtually nonexistent on Monday. Clear plexiglass walls separate players at every blackjack table and employees are stationed at every hotel entrance to ensure guests and gamblers are masked upon entry.
The altered experience and lack of live basketball didn’t deter David and Gail Elliott, GU fans who live in Mullan, Idaho, from making their annual trip to Vegas. The Elliotts run a family company, Don’s Towing, in the small Idaho town and left a thick blanket of snow for the warmer desert breezes of southern Nevada.
“We could’ve stayed home, but we still have two feet of snow in our yard,” Gail said. “It’s a nice getaway to come down here and be in 70-degree weather instead of 30 degrees.”
The Jenkinses planned to move locations and watch Monday’s semifinal with the Swansons on the bigger screens at the brand new Circa Resort & Casino. Brenda became a Gonzaga basketball junkie only after meeting her now-husband of less than 48 hours, but the Bulldogs are now required viewing from the months of November to March. Brenda’s other hobby, riding horses and team penning, usually takes a backseat when there’s a conflicting Gonzaga basketball game.
“I will stay home and watch basketball instead of going to that kind of stuff,” she said.
Brenda and Jay celebrated their engagement at Hugo’s Steakhouse at the Four Queens Hotel in Vegas, then spent the rest of their night meandering the strip and fielding texts/calls from surprised friends and family members. By Monday, they’d shifted their attention to the Zags.
“It’s neat to watch (Gonzaga) and everything,” Brenda said. “They play so well together and you don’t have one player doing everything. They share the ball and it’s just neat to watch.”
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