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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

As their dads climb the coaching ranks, the kids – all with ties to Gonzaga – stay connected through a notorious group chat

It began as a convenient way to organize poolside gatherings and game-room hangouts. More than anything, it was a spur-of-the-moment idea, hatched five years ago when Snapchat was decidedly the most efficient, modern way to round up a bunch of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old boys. Its origins? The Westin Hotel in Phoenix, otherwise known as Gonzaga’s home base during the 2017 Final Four.

One by one, names were added to a Snapchat group message that’s only expanded in the half-decade since its inception. AJ Few. Max Rice. Will Turgeon. Liam Lloyd. MicGuire Monson. Will Graves. Five years later, it’s unclear who the original architect was, but it’s abundantly clear what the chat has represented for more than a dozen like-minded individuals who’ve grown up in a world few others know.

“There’s a select few of us and it’s very cool to have that,” Monson said. “It’s like a support group in a way. We all make fun of each other, we all make jokes about each other but it’s a support group and it’s really nice to have.”

If you recognize the last names, you’ll identify the trend. Gonzaga’s coaching tree has many branches and continues to grow, but at a point in time when both basketball programs in Spokane were still trying to build a winning culture, they often found themselves circling back to a common word.

Family.

“I’m a big believer in that,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who’s harped on it for 22 years since he was hired to take over a promising mid-major program in 1999. “As hard as we work the families are still our No. 1 priority and I think that gets lost a lot of times in a profession like ours.”

When it comes to the group chat, approximately the size of GU’s basketball roster, the family is both immediate and extended. Some have direct ties to Gonzaga including Few’s oldest sons – AJ and Joe – two of ex-Gonzaga assistant and current Boise State coach Leon Rice’s three sons – Max and Kade – as well as the sons of ex-Gonzaga and eighth-year Oregon women’s coach Kelly Graves – Max, Jackson and Will. Liam Lloyd, the son of longtime Zag assistant-turned-Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd also takes part in the chat, as do MicGuire and Maddox Monson, whose father Dan preceded Few at Gonzaga and now coaches at Long Beach State.

Mark Few’s friendships within the profession have also cultivated friendships between his sons and those of other Division I coaches. Will Turgeon, the son of former Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, is a longtime group chat member. Paxson and Denham Wojcik, sons of current Michigan State assistant, former Gonzaga aid and longtime Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik, are active participants along with their cousin Jake Wojcik, the son of former San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik. Few is close with 12th-year Colorado coach Tad Boyle, whose sons Jack and Pete are part of the group. Former Gonzaga manager Mac Graff, a cousin of the Monsons, and Gehrig Van Tol, a cousin of the Fews, round out the 17-man roster.

“We’re taking applications for coaches’ sons across the country in the chat,” Max Rice laughed. “Tell (Tom) Izzo’s son he’s welcome to join. Nah, we’ll take anyone, we’ll take anyone.”

Love and pain

Both born while their fathers were laying the initial bricks of Gonzaga’s now-robust, nationally-prominent hoops program, AJ Few and Max Rice lay claim to the group’s longest friendship. During an interview last December at the Davenport Grand while Max – a junior guard at Boise State – and Leon were in town for the Broncos’ game against Washington State, the longtime friends referenced a two-page Sports Illustrated fold from 2000 where both were photographed as babies, held high above the Kennel crowd by their moms wearing onesies that spelled “Zags.”

“(AJ) said his first word to me, fun fact,” Max Rice joked.

Maybe not his first word, but perhaps the second.

Both eventually got to know Liam Lloyd when Tommy accepted a job on Few’s staff in 2001. The Lloyds moved into a home down the street from the Rices and frontyard basketball games often lost their innocence whenever Liam, or “Sally” (“Because he looks like a salamander,” Monson explained) was involved.

“We’d always play 3-on-3 out in the front and it’d always end up in fistfights and him chasing me,” Max Rice said. “I was stronger, but he was scary.”

“He used to have rage problems,” AJ Few added.

Childhood savagery manifested itself in other ways, such as a game called “pain or gain” where the objective was to meet a certain pain threshold in order to reach the next level.

“You had to get shot with an air soft gun,” AJ Few explained.

Elaborating, Max Rice said “my older brother … he kicked a soccer ball at AJ’s back and it started bleeding and left an imprint of a soccer ball.”

Will Turgeon’s introduction to the group came at 6 years old when the Turgeons, Fews, Lloyds, Rices and Van Tols vacationed to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Turgeon, living in Texas at the time, shaped his initial views of the West Coast around interactions with Brock Rice, allegedly “a big bully at the time.”

“That was my first impression of the West Coast was these mean kids,” Turgeon laughed, admitting the boys grew on him with time. “… We always talked about a Final Four with Colorado, Boise State, Maryland, Gonzaga. Like how awesome would that be?”

As one can imagine, Spokane Hoopfest was a highly-anticipated event every summer – no, a national holiday – for a clan of basketball-crazed kids who used the annual 3-on-3 tournament to satisfy their competitive drive and indulge in their snow cone addiction. A team featuring Paxson Wojcik, Jake Wojcik, Max Rice, AJ Few, and occasionally Turgeon, were a force to be reckoned with in the older division while a younger group including Kade Rice, Joe Few, Denham Wojcik and Liam Lloyd won a 2012 Hoopfest crown as the KDLJ (Kade, Denham, Liam, Joe) Durantulas.

“We won a couple times. We had some heartbreak losses, too. A bunch of tears,” Paxson Wojcik said. “It was fun because the dads would coach sometimes, too.”

An unfair advantage, no?

“Yeah, yeah I guess you could say that,” Wojcik said. “But at the end of the day they’re also our dads.”

Speaking of unfair advantages, somewhere stuffed in an old box at home in Eugene is a photo of the Little League baseball team Kelly Graves coached, featuring Will Graves, AJ Few, Max Rice and another Spokane slugger.

“Heck, we had (former Gonzaga Prep, California and Arizona Cardinal football player) Evan Weaver on that team,” Kelly said. “We were freaking loaded, man. That was a great team. So the dads, Leon and Mark, they were at the games and we all got to hang out. … It was a who’s who.”

McCarthey Playground

With their dads cooped up in McCarthey coaching offices or leading practices on the court, the kids usually had free, unsupervised reign of Gonzaga’s 6,000-seat venue – often for hours on end.

“We used this place as our playground,” said Joe Few, or “Dodie.” (“Because he looks like a dodo bird,” Monson explained.)

A story that’s still legend involves a Dippin’ Dots machine on the upper McCarthey concourse. At some point, AJ Few and Max Rice learned they could pick the lock of the machine and infiltrate the stash of ice cream morsels.

“We picked the lock with, what was it like a bobby pin?” Max Rice asked.

On second thought, “It was a toenail clipper thing,” AJ Few corrected.

Preoccupied with coaching duties, the dads had no knowledge of what was happening but Leon Rice recalls, “they’d disappear for hours and come back with Dippin’ Dots all over their face.” Security cameras eventually captured footage of the young ice cream thieves, prompting arena workers to kindly ask the parents if their kids could stay away from the concession stands.

“You find out they knew where the chips stash was, too. They were getting into that,” said Marcy Few, Mark’s wife. “They took the chairs from the offices that had wheels and they were having races on those down the hallways and they got in trouble for that. I’m sure the people that run that just said, oh my gosh these guys are out of control. At what point do we talk to coach Few?”

“AJ got the speech, ‘If you don’t respect this place, you won’t come back here,’” Joe said.

Shenanigans included hide-and-seek, tag and “Get to the base,” which young Julia Few described as a hide-and-seek/tag hybrid. There was also a barbaric real-life Mario Kart game where kids rode scooters through the McCarthey concourse trying to dodge massive trash cans hurled by their friends.

“You’d never think it would be fun now, but back then it was the world to us,” said Will Graves, a senior walk-on at GU.

“It got nuts sometimes,” Joe added. “It legit was scary looking back at it, but it was so much fun.”

‘You live basketball’

It can be a sweet life, one most of them wouldn’t trade for anything else, but also something that comes with occasional drawbacks.

Being a coach’s kid means free admission to games, but it doesn’t help when your dad’s ejected before halftime. That’s a story unique to Max Graves, an eighth-grader at Saint Aloysius in Spokane when the Gonzaga women hosted him and his classmates for “Saint Al’s Night.”

Coming from his own basketball practice, Max showed up late – around the 12-minute mark of the first half – and immediately noticed something peculiar about Gonzaga’s bench. Dad was missing.

“I’m like, ‘Mom, what’s going on?’” he recalled. “She’s like, ‘Oh, dad got two technicals already. He already got tossed out of the game.’ The game just started. … I’m like, ‘Dad, all my friends are here. You get tossed in front of all them?’ Like, come on.”

But the perks include round-the-clock basketball, access to the most exclusive facility in town and built-in relationships with Gonzaga players who are worshiped by most others in the region.

“You live basketball. You eat, sleep basketball. That’s all you do, so it’s fun,” said Lloyd, a sophomore guard at Grand Canyon. “You get to learn a lot and you get to do a lot of stuff that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do and you get to see and learn from the best coaches in the country, so it’s really cool.”

Second Team All-American forward Kyle Wiltjer was a personal chauffeur and babysitter for Joe Few during his short stint at Gonzaga from 2014-16. While the 2014 Zags were playing in the New York-based NIT Season Tip-Off, guard Eric McLellan took the Graves family up on an offer to join them for Thanksgiving dinner in Spokane while he sat out due to transfer rules.

“He was a big influence for me, for sure,” Will Graves said.

Former Gonzaga guard Jeremy Pargo has a highly-classified secret with Kade Rice and Joe Few that’s been successfully kept under wraps for more than 15 years – “we still don’t know what the secret is,” Max Rice professed – and Max Graves texts weekly with Triana Allen, a standout guard who played for the GU women from 2001-03.

Kelly Graves insists the time his sons spent around Gonzaga and Oregon women’s players gave them a greater appreciation for female athletes and the hardships they go through in comparison to their male peers. That subject that took center stage last March when one of Graves’ Oregon players, Sedona Prince, posted photos showing the disparity between men’s and women’s weight facilities at the NCAA Tournament bubbles in Indiana and Texas.

“They’ve been exposed to it,” Graves said. “I think they’ve grown up with a respect, a healthy respect, not just for women but for female athletes. They know how good they really are and there’s a lot of people that still kind poo poo that.”

The bad, the ugly…

What about the other, more hideous side of the lifestyle?

“Your family is extremely public and the performance of your parents’ job is extremely public,” Max Graves said. “If your dad’s a lawyer and he’s not winning many cases, nobody knows.”

Will Turgeon became more familiar with that part of the gig in early December when his father stepped down after more than a decade as Maryland’s coach, triggering vile reactions from a portion of the Terrapins’ fan base. A season ticket-holder who’s worn a “Fire Turgeon” T-shirt to Maryland games while hoisting a sign with the same message has tweeted at Will Turgeon since he was 17 years old and tagged the now-Catholic University basketball player in a post when his father stepped down three months ago.

“That’s the great thing about having that group chat is there’s a group of people that know what you go through,” Will said. They know what it’s like to be a coach’s kid and obviously I don’t think anyone’s ever experienced something like that, their dad stepping down midseason. They were really cool about it. Just like, if you ever need anything, let me know. Your dad’s the best, blah, blah, blah.”

The kids tend to ride the emotions of their fathers, which are usually dictated by the highs and lows of the job. Winning a big game, or reeling in a big recruit, can lift the mood of the household, but kids are subjected to the other side that equation as well.

“If it’s a conference loss or later (in the year), it’s usually microwave or frozen pizza, home-cooked foods,” Will Turgeon said. “But if it’s a win, we’re going to Chipotle out here.”

Leon Rice distinctly remembers an interaction with a fan while he and his family were enjoying a bike ride not long after he took the job at Boise State. The Broncos were in a good position with the win/loss column, so the conversation was positive, but something instantly clicked for the coach’s middle son.

“I remember Max saying, just a light bulb went off and this is probably six or seven years ago,” Leon said. “‘This would be terrible if we were losing.’ It just all the sudden hit him. This could happen. If you weren’t winning, they’d be killing you.”

MicGuire Monson met that reality when his dad left Gonzaga for Minnesota, tasked with protecting the winning culture Clem Haskins had built with the Golden Gophers. Monson left Minnesota with a winning percentage of .527, but he also stomached a few losing seasons.

“I did get bullied and stuff when I was in kindergarten, just getting said stuff that was unnecessary,” MicGuire said. “But it was the only Division I school in the state of Minnesota, which means you’re going to get an incredible amount of media attention – good, bad and the ugly.”

How would they describe being a coach’s kid, especially to someone unfamiliar with the lifestyle?

“That’s a deep question,” Max Rice said. “Definitely a lot of stress. When you’re winning it’s great, when you’re not it’s terrible.”

“We can all relate,” Joe Few said. “If you win it’s the players, if you lose it’s the coaches.”

“I think that could be the core of our chat, honestly,” Will Graves said. “Our happiness might just be altered by your dad’s team’s performance.”

“If my dad lost a recruit or something and then he was in a bad mood or upset about that, I would be upset,” Paxson Wojcik said.

“I remember every NCAA Tournament, if we’d lose in like the Sweet 16 there’d just be a row of kids just distraught,” Max Rive recalled, “and a GU fan would come up and be like, ‘We’ll get them next year guys.’”

Hoop-minded

In some ways, the texts in the group chat are on par for a group of college-aged kids entering adulthood but still clinging to the last stages of adolescence. But in other ways, the chat is anything but ordinary – a space where basketball theories, playbook excerpts and film observations fly back and forth via Snapchat messages, photos or videos.

“I think this group chat is the next coming of coaches on the come up,” Max Rice said, “because I think every one of us wants to coach when we’re older, with the exception of maybe a couple.”

Paxson Wojcik was engrossed in basketball analytics as a second grader, fondly remembering the times he’d sprint home from school, drop his backpack and log on to the family to see if the Golden Hurricanes were appearing in bracketology projections, or where they sat in KenPom ratings. It’s no joke. A second-grader. On KenPom.

“You hear your dad talking about it and I was just such a hoops junkie,” Wojcik said.

Postgame at the Monson home looked the same almost every night. The 15th-year Long Beach State coach made sure to carve out family time, but it was family time with a small twist.

“Me, my brother and my dad will watch pretty much every one of my dad’s games after the game,” MicGuire said. “We’ll just come home, he’ll have a beer and we’d sit there and watch it. My mom will be doing something, my sisters will be in and out.”

The group chat is a space for basketball junkies who like to riff on and analyze games they watch – often games involving obscure, underachieving low-major schools.

“These guys are watching random games, like that are in the ASUN,” said Max Graves, who now lives and works in Baltimore and is more removed from college basketball in relation to others in the chat. “Like, ‘I love Lipscomb.’ Like, ‘Really? You love Lipscomb?’ They watch a ton of basketball and they’ll send stuff out.”

Recently Joe Few was “coaching” his older brother’s intramural team at Gonzaga. Joe’s noticed AJ, a student manager for the Zags who hopes to follow in his dad’s footsteps, starting to watch games with more of a coach’s eye.

“Yeah get this, I was the coach of his intramural game yesterday and he made me ice the ball screens,” Joe said. “That’s how sweaty it got yesterday.”

MicGuire Monson is a senior student manager for Rice at Boise State and plans to enter the coaching world next year, possibly as a graduate assistant for his dad at LBSU. Jackson Graves is an assistant coach for NWAC champion Lane Community College and pending acceptance into his desired graduate program, Will Turgeon has already taken up Boyle on an offer to join Colorado’s staff as a grad assistant next year.

Turgeon’s accustomed to watching his dad from the stands of the Big Ten Tournament, but last weekend Mark had a different vantage point, watching from the couch flanked by his oldest son. The former Maryland coach is still recovering from kidney stones endured not long after he left the Terps, but felt good enough to quiz Will on various coaching decisions throughout the Big Ten games.

“He’s like, ‘Will, what would you do right here?’” Will said. “I’m like, ‘Well, I would switch everything.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I would bring in blah, blah, blah.’”

Leon Rice sees a pathway for many of the kids to enter the coaching world.

“Yeah, what else could they do?” He laughed. “They’re derelicts.”

To which Max responds, “What’s a derelict?”

The chat will March on

Last Tuesday with each of their teams in Las Vegas for various conference tournaments, Mark Few, Tommy Lloyd, Dan Monson and Leon Rice carved out a hole in their busy postseason schedules to meet for drinks. Like they’ve been for the kids, reunions for the coaches can be rare, especially midseason.

“I think if you knew our families, we’re colleagues but we’re genuine friends first and our families are literally intertwined. Our kids are like cousins and nieces and nephews,” Tommy Lloyd said. “That’s what the relationship is amongst those families and Tuesday night we all got together after Gonzaga won. Leon was in town and Mons was in town and we all got together and just shared a moment. It was us four and it was really special.”

Three of those four are in the NCAA Tournament field, with Gonzaga, Arizona and Boise State each winning conference tournaments and appearing in Monday’s final edition of the AP Top 25. Long Beach, the Big West’s regular-season champion, narrowly missed out losing to Cal State Fullerton in the conference title game.

“My mental health has been so improved because all of our friends and all my family have been doing well this year,” MicGuire Monson said. “It’s crazy what winning can do for all of us.”

For those who’ve grown up within the Gonzaga tree, winning has basically become a rite of passage – an expectation more than an objective. And apparently contagious, as Lloyd’s success in Tucson, Rice’s in Boise and Monson’s in Long Beach have demonstrated.

“Growing up, all we knew was winning,” Liam Lloyd said. “I haven’t missed an NCAA Tournament yet. Knock on wood, but that’s all I’ve known all my life so it’s been a lot of fun.”

The chat gets busy in March and the traffic doesn’t ease up until the second week of April. On March 1, the night Boise State won its first-ever Mountain West regular-season championship, the group chat was renamed “Kings of the West,” with a crown emoji. Before that the name consisted of a single popcorn emoji. Joe Few explains “it was a movie … all this stuff that we were saying, it was so entertaining.”

Nobody will reveal the initial name of the group chat, even under the condition that it wouldn’t be printed in this story.

Reunions are seldom and it’s possible none will match the legendary Phoenix meet-up in 2017. With the exception of the Wojciks, who suffered from “FOMO” (fear of missing out) all weekend, every other member of the group chat was able to attend.

“We were on the same floor (as Gonzaga) and of course they were in the Final Four so they had this gaming room. I walk in and Rui Hachimura’s there,” Will Turgeon said. “I had no idea who he is yet because he was just a redshirt that year getting his haircut. There’s two barber chairs, two X-Boxes, a ping pong table, fridge. It was a kid’s dreamland.”

The result of the national championship game – North Carolina 71, Gonzaga 65 – dampened the weekend, but provided some annual fodder for the group chat.

“(North Carolina’s) Kennedy Meeks was out of bounds, that’s what we say all the time in the group chat,” Turgeon said. “Joe sends the picture about once a month of (Meeks) fully out of bounds … that just always takes off into us bashing referees.”

The group chat invaded the Indianapolis bubble in 2021. Both Fews, all three Graves brothers and Graff were there with Gonzaga. The Boyles made the trip to see Colorado. Turgeon and Maryland were there, Lloyd and Wojcik went as players, representing Grand Canyon and Loyola Chicago, and Doug Wojcik was there with Michigan State.

“Just seeing coach Few in passing and him and Tommy coming up to me and giving me a huge hug,” Paxson Wojcik said. “I’ve got guys on my team looking at me like, ‘Why the hell did Mark Few just hug you like that? How do you know him?’”

There’s no doubt the chat will be buzzing this week, especially with the possibility of a Few vs. Rice matchup in the Round of 32 in Portland, provided Gonzaga gets past Georgia State and Boise State beats Memphis. It lit up last year within seconds of Jalen Suggs’ 40-footer to beat UCLA in the Final Four and messages started to pile up rapidly when Long Beach State clipped UC Santa Barbara on a thrilling buzzer-beater last week in the Big West Tournament.

“If someone loses but Gonzaga got a huge win, it makes you feel a lot better being happy for your friends and for their dads and their success as well,” Paxson Wojcik said.

“I sent a text three days ago into the group chat, ‘Big day, let’s go Buffs, Cats, (Long Beach) State,’ and they all won,” Turgeon said. “I think it was Thursday. Grand Canyon, Long Beach, Arizona, Colorado and that’s just awesome. That’s what we’ve done for so long.”

The parents are normally kept out of the loop regarding what goes on in the chat, as if they’d want to know anyway.

“I think they like to keep that out of my ears,” Marcy Few said. “I know there’s a lot of trash talk, though.”

“I haven’t seen any of the texts, but they laugh when one of us loses a big game or a bad game or whatever,” Kelly Graves said. “They’ll basically rip on their dads, which is kind of funny.”

“Sometimes they tell me the funny things,” Leon Rice said, “sometimes I don’t want to know.”

More than anything, the group chat is a vessel for their friendships, some of which date back to when they were babies. The friendships aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so don’t expect the chat to.

“I think as far as 10 years from now, if Will (Graves) and AJ are coaches and they’re playing against each other, that’s something a lot of us will want to go to,” Max Graves said. “We would go to that Sweet 16 game if they’re both an assistant coach somewhere and going against each other, or same thing with Max (Rice), I think that’s something down the line when we’re trying to get together and our dads are all retired and they’re old and stuff, that’s the way I think we’re going to keep in contact.”

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