‘Growing up I can say I fell victim to being a Gonzaga fan.’ Saint Mary’s guard Logan Johnson knows both sides of the Zags-Gaels rivalry
Feb. 24, 2023 Updated Fri., Feb. 24, 2023 at 9:31 p.m.
Eighteen years ago, it would’ve been easy for Logan Johnson to envision himself playing in a high-stakes college basketball game between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, similar to the one the fifth-year guard is preparing for Saturday when the Gaels visit the Bulldogs in a nationally televised, top-15 matchup.
There’s just one aspect of that picture that may have been troubling for a 5-year-old Johnson: the name of the school on the jersey that’ll hang from the guard’s locker on Saturday night.
“Growing up I can say I fell victim to being a Gonzaga fan,” Johnson said. “That’s where I was from and that’s what I knew, so my family growing up was Gonzaga fans. … I grew up going to their camps.”
It may not have been safe to disclose that information four years ago when Johnson transferred from Cincinnati to Saint Mary’s, but the guard has logged enough miles in a Gaels uniform at this point, scoring his 1,000th point for Randy Bennett’s team last week at San Diego in his 90th win at the school.
Those credentials should be enough to give Johnson a place in the pantheon of great Saint Mary’s guards, but he could climb a few more rungs on the ladder if he’s able to help the 15th-ranked Gaels take down the 12th-ranked Bulldogs to capture an outright WCC regular season title.
The scriptwriters have already chosen an appropriate backdrop for that moment, should it happen: Johnson’s birth city of Spokane.
“It would mean the world, for sure,” he said. “I mean, we got one done at home, so I think it would be the right way to leave … and get that one done. I do look forward to going up there and playing one last time.”
By now he’s a Gael to his core, but many of Johnson’s first role models in the basketball world wore Gonzaga uniforms. Dreams and aspirations involving the game were formed watching the Bulldogs become a national brand in the mid-2000s.
Johnson and four other basketball-crazed siblings – three of whom have played some level of college hoops, one of them reaching the NBA – huddled around a television watching Gonzaga games whenever they could.
“He’s so obsessed with basketball and that was the local hype,” Logan’s mother Jennifer said by phone Thursday. “It was just so big.”
Jennifer Johnson served 31 years in the Air Force and raised all five kids as a single mother, spending nearly a decade stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. Logan, born in 1999, was exposed to the game while residing in Spokane for the first two years of his life and took his first shots on a Fisher Price hoop with older siblings Brandon, Tyler and Lauren.
Saint Mary’s fans see Johnson’s fearless disposition on a nightly basis in the WCC, but Jennifer noticed it almost as soon as her son could walk. No challenge was too big, or too old, for the ambitious toddler.
“I remember he would approach men in my squadron and little kids at 1½ are not really supposed to be talking that much, but he’d be dribbling the basketball going, ‘I take you on, I take you on,’ ” Jennifer said. “He was like right in front of them dribbling a ball back and forth, so it was pretty fun memories. I still can clearly remember that he was all about ready to beat somebody at a year and a half.”
As he grew older, Logan, an All-WCC guard in the making, started to idolize many of the players who came through Mark Few’s program, revealing his favorite all-time Zag during a media session in Las Vegas last fall.
“(Jeremy) Pargo, for sure. I’m a huge Pargo fan,” he said. “That was probably my favorite player. Besides that, I liked, over the years, obviously, they’ve had a whole bunch of NBA talent and a lot of people look up to that, so I admire what they do over there.”
Johnson accompanied older sister Lauren, a former Chico State player, when she attended Gonzaga’s girls camps. After moving to Northern California in 2001, the family returned to Spokane on a semi-regular basis to visit relatives and take part in Spokane Hoopfest.
It never materialized for Logan to play in the popular 3-on-3 tournament – “he was so mad at me,” Jennifer laughed – but Brandon, Tyler and Lauren all competed, occasionally playing on teams with the children of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.
One year, Logan spotted former Gonzaga guard Dan Dickau strolling through the streets at Hoopfest.
“He was just awestruck,” Jennifer said.
Last week, Dickau was ESPN2’s color analyst when Saint Mary’s beat BYU in Moraga, California. Johnson scored 27 points in the 71-65 victory.
“It’s just such a full circle in life and fun to see people who you idolize at a young age,” Jennifer said, “and now as you grow up, people watch you.”
Johnson’s allegiances shifted when he transferred to Saint Mary’s – and perhaps even earlier than that. Before signing at Cincinnati, the Spokane-born guard took an unofficial visit to Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs didn’t offer the three-star prospect from Saint Francis High School
“Gonzaga had their chance,” Jennifer said.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin took the job at UCLA after Johnson’s freshman season, so he starting exploring other options.
Saint Mary’s had recruited older brother Tyler, who wound up going to Fresno State before playing eight seasons with five teams in the NBA, and the Bay Area meant Logan would be in close proximity to his family.
The move also enabled Logan to look after his younger brother Gabe, who’s playing at Diablo (California) Valley College, while Jennifer was taking care of her sick father.
“Logan was Gabe’s only constant his whole life,” Jennifer said.
Logan is down to his last handful of college basketball games in a career that’s felt at times like it would never end. The final game of the regular season could be exhausting for the veteran guard on a few levels. He scored 29 points in Thursday’s 83-52 win over Pacific and may have to carry a similar burden for Saint Mary’s on Saturday if the Gaels hope to clinch their first outright WCC title since 2016.
Fortunately, he’s in the midst of the best scoring stretch of his career. Since fouling out of the Gaels’ 78-70 overtime win against Gonzaga on Feb. 4, Johnson has averaged 24.8 points over the past five games.
“He’s just really aggressive and playing like a senior with some desperation it looks like, it feels like,” Few said. “Just driving it hard and just shooting it good enough for 3 that you have to guard him out there. And yet, almost always guards the best perimeter (player) on the other team.”
ESPN college basketball personality Jay Bilas, a co-host of the College GameDay show that’ll air live from GU’s campus Saturday morning, paid the Saint Mary’s guard a compliment on Friday.
“He’s had some big games,” Bilas said. “He’s just such a good driver and he’s a man out there.”
Johnson’s mother has spent much of the week wrangling tickets for Spokane-based family members and friends who hope to attend Saturday’s game.
“It’s terrible,” she laughed. “It’s really terrible.”
That’s just one of Jennifer’s duties this week.
During the family’s trips back to Spokane, Logan developed an affinity for the Mustard Seed restaurant at the NorthTown Mall, specifically the Chicken Osaka bowl. Jennifer will have an order ready for Logan before he gets on a plane back to school and she’s budgeting her time for a stop at Twisted Sugar on the South Hill to buy a box of cookies for the Gaels – as has become tradition during their visits to Spokane.
Jennifer still returns to Spokane a handful of times every year, bravely wearing Saint Mary’s apparel in public areas that are normally crawling with Gonzaga fans.
“I can’t not wear it,” she said, “but it’s so weird because people just look at you crazy.”
There’s still one piece of Gonzaga memorabilia tucked away in Jennifer’s home. At one of the Bulldogs’ youth camps, she correctly answered a question about Shaquille O’Neal and won a Gonzaga-branded basketball. It hasn’t seen the light of day since Logan signed at Saint Mary’s.
“It’s been buried up in a closet,” Jennifer said. “I’m like, I can’t take this down because it’s bad juju right now.”
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