There was Ocean’s Eleven, and then there’s Spokane’s Eleven: A look at the 11 ties between Las Vegas and the Lilac City.
March 23, 2023 Updated Thu., March 23, 2023 at 9:11 a.m.
LAS VEGAS – It’s only been two weeks, but the Zags are back.
In some ways, they never left – such are the ties between Las Vegas and Gonzaga University’s hometown of Spokane.
The bonds are especially strong in March, and never more than this year. How else to explain that, as of Wednesday afternoon, the cheapest tickets for Thursday’s NCAA regionals at T-Mobile Arena were going for $220 each?
Sure, a few folks are coming from UCLA, Connecticut and Arkansas, but the biggest share will be wearing Bulldog blue – the same ones who filled the Orleans Arena earlier this month at the West Coast Conference Tournament.
But the relationship between Spokane and Vegas is also about people. Some planned futures in one place and thrived in the other.
It’s about a U.S. senator who grew up in southern Nevada but got her law degree at GU; and about another Vegas kid who found his passion for sports management in Spokane and now produces UFC fights.
The cities have a history. Las Vegas took Spokane’s Triple-A baseball team but gave us Zach Collins, Nigel Williams-Goss and Julian Strawther. The local Jesuit school has returned the favor , with years of charitable work in some of Vegas’ poorest neighborhoods .
On the court, there have been bad beats and outrageous fortune, but mostly a lot of winning – and who can’t relate to that?
The Zags’ happy place
Fifteen years ago, the West Coast Conference was still playing its postseason tournament at campus sites. But thanks to the leadership of former Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth, the Orleans Arena has become the Zags’ second home.
Since 2009, Gonzaga fans have traveled by the thousands to fill most of the 7,471 seats at the Orleans Arena for tournament games.
GU’s men are 30-3, including 11-3 in title games, since the tournament moved to Las Vegas in 2009. The GU women have captured nine titles at the Orleans.
Go north, young man
Winning is its own reward, but those successes surely caught the eyes of Las Vegas high school stars Collins and Williams-Goss.
Collins signed with the Zags in March 2015 as part of the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history. Williams-Goss took a longer route, playing two years at Washington before playing one season at GU.
And what a year it was, as Collins and Williams-Goss helped the Zags reach the 2017 NCAA title game.
Shining moments and bad beatdowns
The Zags have made the most of their opportunities in Las Vegas. Most have come in the WCC Tournament, and none more timely than the 2016 title game.
Gonzaga came into the tournament on the NCAA bubble after two losses to Saint Mary’s but beat the Gaels by 10 to reach March Madness for the 17th straight year.
Last year at T-Mobile Arena, they thrashed UCLA – the same program they will face Thursday night.
But the Zags aren’t perfect. In 2019, Saint Mary’s flipped the script and routed GU 60-47 for the WCC championship.
Strawther: “Waiting to … prove myself”
The latest star in the Vegas-Spokane constellation is Strawther, now a junior forward at Gonzaga. A native of nearby Henderson, Nevada, Strawther also plays for the Puerto Rican national team.
Struggling in last year’s NCAA Tournament, Strawther was a standout in last week’s opener against Grand Canyon with 28 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots.
“I feel like last year in March Madness, I struggled really bad,” Strawther said after the game. “So I’ve been waiting to get back to March Madness and to be able play on this platform and just prove myself.”
History-making senator from Gonzaga
The 2018 Gonzaga University School of Law commencement was held on a brilliant Saturday morning at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The speaker was U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who grew up in Nevada but got her degree at GU in 1990.
Cortez Masto is the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate. She is the first in her family to earn a law degree and was just the 50th woman elected to the Senate.
“You know, it’s one thing to make history being the first, but it also means that I now have a seat at the table to be a voice for those who are underrepresented (and) to ensure that the door I walked through to get here is open even wider for others to follow,” she said.
An unlikely return for Nick Brown
Ten years ago, Nick Brown was a senior at Gonzaga, chasing a degree in sports management with a minor in broadcasting.
What do you do with that? You go back home to Las Vegas and work your way up the ladder in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts juggernaut that is the face of the fastest-growing sport in the world.
Brown did that with his brain, not his fists. Now, he’s in charge of producing all video content for the UFC’s different social media channels.
They took our baseball team …
Minor league baseball in Spokane dates to 1892, and the city had fielded teams almost every year since then.
The game reached its height when the Spokane Indians fielded a Triple-A team. From 1958 to 1971, the Indians were the top minor league team for the Dodgers until the club left for Albuquerque. AAA baseball returned in Spokane in 1973, but that team fled after the 1982 season to Las Vegas. Now known as the Aviators, the franchise plays in a 10,000-seat stadium, while Spokane plays at the High-A level.
That’s hardly a surprise: Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country, and Spokane is feeding that growth.
According to Stacker.com, more than 330 people moved from the Spokane area to southern Nevada from 2015 to 2019. Only 96 moved in the other direction.
… but we beat them at their own game
In one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, Julianna Peña of Spokane won the world bantamweight championship, dethroning Amanda Nunes on Dec. 11, 2021, in Las Vegas.
Peña overpowered Nunes with a flurry of blows in the second round before she climbed on the bantamweight champion’s back and forced an end to the bout via rear-naked choke.
“I definitely expected a win, and I’m just so grateful,” Peña had said at the time . “The world is my oyster, and you have the ability to do anything you want in this life, and I proved that tonight.”
Some are torn between the two
She has a nice office in one of the most beautiful resorts in Las Vegas, but Deanna Pettit-Irestone still gets a little homesick for Spokane.
A Gonzaga Prep grad, Pettit-Irestone is the executive director of public relations for Wynn Resorts. That ensures she’s going to get a healthy dose of home each spring when huge swaths of fans head to her new hometown to watch Gonzaga play in the WCC Tournament.
“It’s all so heartwarming to see,” Pettit-Irestone said before last year’s tournament. “When you see how much pride and pure joy that Gonzaga basketball brings to so many people, and the intense loyalty they have for that team, it reminds you that those are the traits Spokane has always had.”
Success at GU is in the cards
Blake Stepp was an outstanding player at Gonzaga. During a four-year career, he averaged 13 points, five assists and was twice named WCC Player of the Year.
After some time in the pros, Stepp went to Vegas, took up poker and was good enough to be listed as a professional and make several appearances in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Adam Morrison also is known for his poker prowess, but neither can compete with former Zag Nathan Doudney, who competes in high-stakes events around the world, as well as the WSOP.
Zags give back
Nothing ties communities together like acts of kindness. For several years, Gonzaga alumni and friends painted and cleaned up houses in the Las Vegas area during the WCC Tournament.
At various times, the alumni partnered with Habitat for Humanity and Three Square Food Bank.
In recent years, Gonzaga has worked with Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada to conduct several service projects that help with tasks around their facilities and prepare backpacks, hygiene kits and other items for community members.
Gonzaga volunteers also spent time writing letters of encouragement to residents.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on March 23, 2023 to correct information surrounding the Spokane Indians’ time as a AAA franchise.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.