What defines the ‘Ultimate Zag?’ Some may point to the blue collar work ethic that characterized many of Gonzaga’s teams during the Cinderella era. Perhaps it’s a distinct physical feature (looking at you Adam Morrison, Przemek Karnowski and Drew Timme). Others might say someone who elevated the Bulldogs’ program to previously unforeseen heights as a result of their individual brilliance.
There’s not necessarily a correct answer, or a wrong one, when presenting the debate to those who’ve been intimately close to Gonzaga basketball the last three decades.
We posed a form of that question – ‘Who’s the ultimate Zag?’ ‘Who’s your favorite Zag?’ or ‘Who’s the player that best personifies Zag culture?’ – to a panel of former players, local celebrities, media personalities, authors and others.
And the survey says …
“Adam Morrison. David Pendergraft. The fight and the grit Pendo has was unbelievable and he never got much credit for it. Adam, the fight and grit he had, he got a bunch of credit for. But the pride that he played with to be at Gonzaga was unmatched.” – Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga guard from 2005-09
“Blake Stepp. Can’t think of anyone put in a worse position than he was as a true freshman when (Dan) Dickau broke a bone in his hand and Stepp stepped in at the point. To make it even worse was the weird, painful knee problem he was having. Dickau told me later he couldn’t imagine himself, or anyone else, being able to do the things Stepp did while dealing with the pain. Plus, he called me up from the back of long, long Southwest boarding line at the Oakland airport one trip and let me in ahead of him so I could board early with the team.” – Steve Bergum, former Gonzaga beat writer for The Spokesman-Review
“I have lots of favorites … Blake Stepp, Matt Santangelo, Casey Calvary, but the one that I still remain in contact with is Jordan Mathews. He was an exceptional student in my class at Gonzaga, and a wonderful human being. I even got the chance to meet his family when we covered the championship game in Phoenix. Wonderful young man who just got engaged!” – Stephanie Vigil, KHQ news anchor
“Sadly I can’t choose one, so I will choose three: Mike Nilson, whose hustle and defense symbolize the backbone of the program; David Pendergraft, whose heart is always the Warrior’s heart, ready for any war, the heart of courage; and JP Batista, what we called out whenever he was playing was, ‘He’s hungry, feed the beast.’ And then it was buckets. One of the toughest players I’ve ever been around and incredibly also one of the kindest men. All three of them really, graceful, powerful men who show the character of the program. (And) I’d add Ronny Turiaf, the soul of the program.” – Shann Ferch, author/poet and Hoopfest legend
“Really tough call. I’ll go with Micah Downs over Pendo and (Derek) Raivio. Micah transferred from Kansas and I just think he looked comfortable as a Zag, like he felt at home here. He was honest and open, he seemed to appreciate everything that came with being a Gonzaga player. He might have had the most bounce of any player in team history.” – Keith Osso, former KXLY sports director
“Jeff Brown is the Ultimate Zag. He made transferring fashionable 30 years prior to the transfer portal. He helped create the culture that became instrumental in getting the Zags where they are today.” – Oliver Pierce, former longtime sports information director at Gonzaga
“When David Pendergraft came out of Brewster High, he was highly thought of but not as highly recruited as others in the Northwest. And yet, he became an integral part of Gonzaga’s success story due to his willingness to do whatever was needed to win. Rebound? Check. Be physical? Certainly. Score? If needed. Though his stats were never at the level of others, nor was his national recognition, his contributions on the court, in the lockerroom and in the community were exceptional.” – Vince Grippi, Spokesman-Review columnist
“Favorite Zag for me would’ve been John (Stockton). I grew up figuring I was going to be about the same size and used him as a guide for if he could make it, I’m going to be similar size, give it my all, I’ll see if I can make it. Growing up in high school and then at UW, I was No. 12 because of John. Then when I decided to transfer (to Gonzaga) I knew I wasn’t going to get it, I knew it wasn’t retired, so I just flipped the number around to be 21.” – Dan Dickau, Gonzaga guard from 1999-2002
“I couldn’t choose between Mike Nilson and David Pendergraft because when I played pickup ball with them, neither one passed it to me enough (now that I think about it, no one ever has …) So, I’m going with Stephen Gray, because, besides being a super-smooth-shooting wing, he acted on stage in Gonzaga’s productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Take Me Out.” People always talk about athletes showing grit and determination, but I’m most impressed by the courage it takes to step outside the game and do something artistic.” – Jess Walter, best-selling author and ultimate streak shooter
“Adam Morrison is the Ultimate Zag. Anybody who collapses to the floor in tears after an NCAA tournament loss has the proper perspective on Gonzaga basketball. He will never be forgotten.” – Nicholas K. Geranios, longtime Associated Press reporter
“My favorite all-time Zag is impossible to pick but if you put a gun to my head (please don’t) it would be Mike Nilson. He is everything Gonzaga is about and willed himself from walk-on to the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. He played so hard and always got better and was also my first comedy partner. Me being able to follow my dream wouldn’t have happened without Mike and also Richie Frahm for showing dreams can come true with belief and insane levels of perseverance. Go Zags!” – Eric Edelstein, actor & comedian/Gonzaga graduate
“Maybe it’s recency bias, but Drew Timme has been the best player on Zag teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll the last two seasons. Scorer, leader, All-American, sure, but it’s more with Timme. He’s been the heartbeat of the team, taking over in the go-to moments, shouldering the load. And when he could have gone, he decided to stay and give Gonzaga even more. Optimus Zagus.” – Dave Boling, Spokesman-Review columnist
“My favorite Zags are the walk-on guys from the old era. Mike Nilson, Ryan Floyd, guys that were part of those teams that had no guarantee, came here, worked their butts off to get a job. … I know the Floyd family, I covered his older brother in high school so I got to know them even before he was here. One of my favorite stories of when I was doing games, we were at UCLA and he’s going through the warmup line pregame and all the sudden out of the middle of nowhere he takes off running, off the court, over into the stands. Well John Wooden had just walked in, and Ryan Floyd is a historian and he ran over there in his uniform to shake his hand. Well Ryan goes off for 17 points, he had five 3-pointers. I had him in the postgame show and all he could talk about was shaking John Wooden’s hand, that helped him hit five 3-pointers, and he said he was never going to wash his hands again.” – Dennis Patchin, SWX sports director
“At least for the spirit of the game was Adam Morrison. When he would get hot it was so much fun to watch. Shooting from everywhere, and anywhere! That was such a fun run that year. I loved Ronny Turiaf’s spirit. He was one of my all-time favorites, as well. Loved his enthusiasm! So many great ones to mention: Dan Dickau in the early days of the run. Richie Frahm was a tremendous athlete, and fun to watch, too! And, even though we only had him for one year – Jalen Suggs was spectacular! I loved him from the first day!” – Dave Sposito, KZZU radio personality
“When you consider Drew Timme’s career, some of the statistics and records are almost unfathomable: 90 wins and only seven losses, 32 weeks spent at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 (of 58 possible) and 204 points in the NCAA Tournament – 55 more than Gonzaga’s previous record-holder, Adam Morrison. I still remember a groggy Timme showing up to an afternoon media availability last season with bed head and a sandwich in hand. Two days later he put on a low-post clinic against No. 5 Texas, scoring 37 points in an 86-74 win at the Kennel. Timme’s mastered the college game while simultaneously becoming the face – or rather, facial hair – of the sport.” – Theo Lawson, Gonzaga beat writer at The Spokesman-Review
“Loved everything about Przemek Karnowski. Mountain of a man but a heart of gold. Maybe the greatest comeback story in program history. Returns from a potentially career ending back injury and wins the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award. GU doesn’t make the championship game without him. Best true center in program history in my view.” – Richard Fox, Gonzaga center from 2002-04
“Zach Norvell Jr. I didn’t grow up a Zags fan, so my fandom is much more abbreviated than most. But Snacks’ passion, charisma and knack for torrid shooting explosions made him a delightful player. He operated with a level of candidness and transparency that were easy qualities for which to root.” – Jackson Frank, freelance NBA writer/Gonzaga alum
“A few key traits of being ‘The Ultimate Zag’ are selflessness and grit. BMike (assistant coach Brian Michaelson) continues to showcase these characteristics again and again. From giving up multiple scholarships to walk-on at GU to quitting a very successful career to start as a volunteer assistant, his impact on this program has and will continue to span across multiple generations.” – David Pendergraft, Gonzaga forward from 2004-08
“Golden Circle: John Stockton: Saw him beat Eastern (Washington) at Reese Court in 1983. We all said, ‘Let’s go see this guy.’ He carved his way (through) everyone. Richie Frahm: Always had a fondness for those ’99 overachievers. Pure shooter and could run the floor. Dan Dickau: (Two) years of greatness. Final memories of the old Kennel and transition to McCarthy. Casey Calvary: Most opportunistic player. Always at the right place, right time. He had an extra level when needed. So many others!” – Ken Hopkins, KZZU radio personality and a dominant force in the old Hoopfest media division
“My friend Matt Santangelo (as Ultimate a Zag as you’ll find) refused to pick, saying it’s an impossible choice. He told me, ‘I’m not very good with All-Zags teams, Ultimate Zags, etc.’ That’s when I realized I’m not either, because you could pick just about anyone, from Santangelo, to Pendergraft, to Jalen Suggs (whose one year was as Zaggy as you can get) and not be wrong. So I’ll go with former men’s coach Dan Fitzgerald, the guy who started the Zag way and would treat me to an occasional beer and hours – upon hours – of entertainment, and Courtney Vandersloot, who dominated the women’s game in a way we may never see again.” – Ralph Walter, Spokesman-Review sports editor
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