LAS VEGAS – Ranging from tall to towering to Chet Holmgren, a dozen professional basketball players filed out of a private dining room at Bavette’s Steakhouse & Bar on July 8.
As restaurant-goers gawked at the group , one customer decided to gather more information.
“When we were walking out,” Holmgren said, “somebody actually asked if we were one of the teams playing down here.”
Holmgren, who became Gonzaga’s latest gift to the NBA when he was selected No. 2 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder, couldn’t help but smirk as he shared the story last Tuesday from a practice gym on UNLV’s campus.
“I wish I could’ve said yes because that would’ve been a (great) squad,” Holmgren said.
The Las Vegas Summer League extravaganza is as much a summit for established NBA players as it is a showcase for up-and-coming ones trying to plant their names on 15-man rosters. As Mark Few’s program in Spokane continues to pour players into the NBA – 10 of Gonzaga’s 29 draft picks have come in the past six years – the Vegas event has transformed into a Zags summit of sorts, too.
In 2015, the now-annual Vegas dinner sponsored by Jared Hertz, Gonzaga’s senior associate athletic director for major gifts, was a modest affair consisting of only him, athletic benefactors Pat and Sandy Volkar, and ex-Bulldogs guard Kevin Pangos, then playing for Dallas’ summer league team. Seven years later, it’s transformed into a high-profile gala, featuring NBA All-Stars, millionaires and global basketball icons – all tied through their experience at the small Catholic school in Spokane.
“Last year, we had six guys and then this year it just blew up,” said Hertz, who books a private room to fend off autograph-seekers and photo-hunters. “So they can be themselves and let their hair down.”
Gonzaga students camp outside in frosty conditions to secure tickets for home basketball games, so imagine the lengths they’d go to get on a guest list that includes Holmgren, Andrew Nembhard, Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrusev, Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Domantas Sabonis, Zach Collins and Kelly Olynyk.
Among Gonzaga’s active NBA players, Brandon Clarke was the only one not in attendance on July 8. Former Bulldogs guard Jeremy Jones, walk-on guard Rem Bakamus and assistant coach Roger Powell were also extended invites. Ex-Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins popped in at one point.
“It’s great catching up with the guys and being together,” Sabonis said. “Just catching up on old times. It used to be me Kelly, Zach, Rui. Now it’s a whole bunch of guys, so it’s pretty cool.”
A group photo shared later that night by Powell depicting 10 of the 11 NBA Zags in attendance – all but Nembhard, who left early due to summer league obligations with the Pacers – made the rounds on Twitter, gathering 235 retweets and more than 1,700 likes. The image, featuring seven first-round draft picks, five All-Americans, three of the past four West Coast Conference players of the year and three of the past five WCC Tournament MVPs, not only underscores Gonzaga’s culture but also what the Bulldogs have done from a player development standpoint through a gradual ascent to the mountaintop of college basketball. Perhaps the photo helps Few’s staff swing a recruiting battle down the road.
“It just goes to show how strong the culture is, and you’re sitting there hanging out with them, those guys are sharing stories about Coach Few and stories about just being in Spokane,” Powell said on July 9 prior to watching Holmgren’s Vegas summer league debut at the Thomas & Mack Center. “It’s cool and it’s unique because coach has been there so long. It’s years of guys and years of history of guys.”
Few, the conductor of the Gonzaga dynasty for more than two decades, wasn’t in attendance, but he’s often at the center of conversation.
“A lot of hoops stuff for sure, a lot of stories, a lot of Coach Few and Tommy (Lloyd) stories and things like that,” Bakamus said. “All those little things that make Gonzaga great. So yeah, we all just share kind of our own little stories.”
The players tend to practice an old Vegas proverb when it comes to the stories shared, and state secrets passed along, at the annual gathering. What happens there stays there.
“Not everything is PG-13,” Ayayi assured.
“I don’t know if there’s any (stories) that are suitable that we shared last night,” Bakamus added.
In some ways, though, dinner conversations have evolved as those holding them begin to enter full-fledged adulthood. Olynyk, 31 years old and the de facto grandfather of active NBA Zags, is getting married on Sunday in Hayden Lake. Sabonis shared photos of his 5-month-old son, born nearly one month after a blockbuster NBA move sent the All-Star big man to Sacramento. Ayayi and his wife have a baby on the way this summer.
“It’s dope. We really appreciate everyone coming together,” Ayayi said. “Every time somebody walks in the room, everyone just starts smiling. It’s a lot of greetings. That’s what it’s all about, Gonzaga culture at its finest right now.”
Dinner was open menu at the Chicago-style steakhouse located at the Park MGM hotel. The appetizers were supposedly a big hit, but other than the Frenchmen, Ayayi and Tillie, nobody had the courage to sample the pâté. To Hertz’s delight, the oysters went largely untouched. “So I just cleaned that up,” he said.
For a group of 17, appetizers and main courses alone can easily run the bill to four figures, but Hertz was fortunate to get an assist on the wine this year. Multiple accounts confirm the biggest hit of this particular Zags dinner was Hachimura’s still-unreleased signature wine, a cabernet sauvignon blend out of Napa Valley under the Japanese star’s “Black Samurai” label.
Sabonis offered the first endorsement: “Oh, it’s awesome, it’s awesome. He did a good job. I have to give him credit. It’s pretty good. Make sure you guys buy it.”
“I’ll let (Hachimura) elaborate about that, but he’s got something good coming,” Ayayi said. “Everybody else at the table was really happy with it.”
“(It) was probably the highlight of the meal,” Bakamus added.
“Had a little glass,” Nembhard said. “It was good. Excellent, elegance, for sure.”
“Rui was so excited to share his wine and it was adorable. It was actually really good,” Hertz said. “He spared no expense. It was really good and it hasn’t been released yet, so this was his opportunity to share that with his teammates and he was really jacked about it.”
Since leaving Gonzaga after his sophomore season, Petrusev hasn’t spent much time on U.S. soil, moving on to Mega Soccerbet in Serbia before being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, who stashed the ex-Bulldogs big man overseas last season with the Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Super League. He’s kept in contact with former college teammates, but face-to-face interactions have been few and far between since Petrusev left Spokane.
“It was really cool. I keep in touch with a lot of those guys, but it was also good to see guys from years ago like Domas, Kelly,” Petrusev said. “All those guys I haven’t played with. Just to see them, talk to them. It was pretty cool.”
Another dinner photo depicted Holmgren, yet to log an official minute in the NBA, seated next to Olynyk, 13,408 minutes into his own career, at the far end of the table. A lottery-pick big from Gonzaga who’s expected to carve out a long, successful career in the NBA collecting tips from another one who’s acutely aware of what something like that takes.
“You can kind of see them already starting to have some interesting conversations with Chet,” Powell said. “It was special to just take it all in.”
Nembhard finished a team dinner with the Pacers, who’d played earlier that night, before buzzing over to the Park MGM to snack on bread and spend time with former college teammates and other ex-Zags he’d met through their shared connection to the Spokane school.
“A lot of old heads who’ve kind of given me a lot of advice growing up,” Nembhard said. “So it was just fun kind of seeing those guys, getting together, having fun that night.”
The dinner is designed for NBA Zags, but as that contingent continues to balloon by the year, Hertz figures it may transform into a full-blown Gonzaga reunion. Jones, who just won a league championship playing professionally in Japan, was in town to reconnect with old friends and teammates. Bakamus, now the director of player development for ex-GU assistant Lloyd at Arizona, attended his first summer league to catch a glimpse of former Baylor and Arizona players he’s coached.
“Rem’s crafty,” Hertz said, “and he’s the great connector, just like with Jeremy. They were great teammates, so they’re great connectors.
“So a guy like Domas that hasn’t been here before, he may not know Chet and he may not know Killian, but he knows Rem. So Rem says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to dinner,’ Domas doesn’t second-guess it.”
It just goes to show the great job the coaching staff does there and the development with all the past players as well,” Suggs said. “You know, that helped recruit me there and I helped recruit Chet. That all goes with the culture that Gonzaga comes with.”
Gonzaga’s NBA contingent may outgrow the private back room at Bavette’s. A way-too-early NBA mock draft published by The Athletic includes three players on Gonzaga’s 2022-23 roster – Julian Strawther, Drew Timme and Malachi Smith – and it’s possible one or two more nab summer league invites. By 2030, Hertz could be renting out full ballrooms.
“We’re going to continue,” Powell said. “We’ve got some young guys that are coming up and we’re going to continue to develop guys and hopefully we can keep that bond going. And those dudes do it organically. It’s not forced. Just like coach (Few). It’s pretty cool.”
With stomachs full, Black Samurai bottles empty and dozens of Few stories spilled, the group left the private dining room at the Vegas steakhouse sometime after 9 p.m.
With three to four summer league games still to play, Holmgren, Nembhard, Ayayi and Petrusev retreated to team hotels, but a larger group of NBA Zags moved on to the next stop, and possibly a few others after that.
“Some of the other guys extended the evening,” Hertz said. “That’s never happened before because usually they’re all business because they’re all playing.
“So there’s probably some good stories that happened long after the other guys left.”
Confidential stories, of course. Perhaps a good icebreaker for next year’s dinner.
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